Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Chinsese as a Morphemematic vs Ideogramatic Language

I read an outstanding article last night. The author, John DeFrancis, argues that Chinese writing is made up of characters that represent sounds instead of the misconception that Chinese writing is actually just small pictures that represent thoughts. English has letters that do not mean anything, nor are they recognizable as pictures. Chinese, on the other hand, features writing which, in some cases, looks like the thought that it conveys. For example 林 "lin" means "forest." This makes sense, the character actually looks like a couple of trees. The character also means "many."

Chinese may have begun as small pictures to represent objects, but it changed over time so that the pictures represented sounds that could be linked together to form words. The example that DeFrancis gives is what we call in English, a "rebus." A rebus is a series of pictures, which, when their names are spoken aloud, form a sentence with a meaning that would never be suggested just by looking at the pictures. Look at the rebus about halfway down the article. "EYE" "CAN" "SEA" "EWE" I can see you. With simple, easily recognizable pictures, an artist (and later a writer) could transmit complex thoughts. So it was with Chinese.

A fascinating article.