Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Along the Digraphic Path

When I was making a bit of a mess with the Chinese IME and a Chinese dictionary the other day, Jimmy Ho made a few helpful corrections and then added an example of terminology that is very similar in Greek and Chinese.

"As far as Greek-Chinese analogies go, I am partial to dao 道 / méthodos."

Methodos is from 'μετα' after, along, with and 'οδος ' the way. Method is the English word derived from it. Οδος was an expression in Greek for the way, the path, the Christan life, etc.

Then on a totally different tack, I decided to read about digraphia in China and found two articles of interest. The first article , by Feng Zhiwei, is called The Digraphia problem in the Information Age in the Newsletter of the East Asia Forum on Terminology; and the second is
The Future of the Chinese Writing System with a section subtitled Along the Digraphic Path and was written by Apollo M. Wu.

Here are a few paragraphs from The Digraphia Problem which outlines in detail many historic and legal issues surrounding the "two-script system."

Liu Daosheng's report did not mention at all the universal pinyin approach raised by Mao Zedong, rather, it focused on enlarging Hanyu Pinyin's scope of application. This suggests that our government has abandoned the policy of "pinyin approach" of Mao Zedong and that Hanyu Pinyin will not be regarded as a writing system, but as an auxiliary tool to Hanzi, the Chinese character. Hanzi is the orthodox and legal writing script for Chinese, while Pinyin does not have such a legal status. Therefore, since the 1986 National Conference on Language Works, Pinyin and Hanzi no longer have equal status. ...

Although the current government policy on Pinyin is outlined as above, the Government has indicated that the issue is still open to discussion. Therefore, some of our country's scholars continue to publicly advocate digraphia. For example, Prof. Zhou Youguang advocates the implementation of the "two scripts system" (a dual tracks approach in language development). The Government does not discourage these scholars from expressing their points of view or carrying out freely scientific researches. ...

In practice, most viewers may opt for reading the computer output in conventional Chinese rather than such Pinyin codes, but Pinyin codes rather than Hanzi codes will used for efficient computer processing and data communications.

The following is from The Future of the Chinese Writing System.

Along the Digraphic Path

Korean language has largely phased out of the Chinese / Hangul digraphic mode. It entered the digraphic stage some 500 years ago when Hangul was created with imperial blessing to assist the use of the Chinese character system. Today in Korea, Chinese characters are used less than English and the Hangul text has even incorporated word separation. The Japanese has also largely evolved their writing system along a multi-graphic format using Chinese characters, kana and Roman alphabets. ...

As we progress, the comparative disadvantages in the Chinese writing system will increasingly be translated into unequal productivity and creativity, leading to a vital competitive disadvantage for the Chinese in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. The increased use of Hanyu Pinyin both in learning and information processing should progress along a digraphic path, similar to those followed by other Asian languages.

Both these articles promote a Chinese digraphia albeit with the contrasting images of path or problem.


Blogger Kevin Miller said...

It is important that the languages that moved away from using Chinese characters are not Chinese. Important because there are ways in which Chinese characters fit the Chinese language that don't carry over to Japanese or Korean. For example, each character is a syllable in Chinese. In Japanese (except for the "Chinese" pronunciation), it depends on what that word was in Japanese.

At a character level, Chinese is replete with homophones in a way that makes a character-based pinyin nearly useless for fluent reading. If you organized characters into words, it would be a different story, but that is not a simple thing to do in Chinese.

This was brought home to me clearly the first time I gave a talk in Chinese. I wrote out the talk, using software that would automatically generate pinyin above the characters. As a native speaker of English, reading alphabetic text is obligatory. The problem is that pinyin is not that useful as a route to Chinese, so that I'd end up being confused by it, which is never a good thing when you're giving a talk.

Although it's yet to happen, I predict that something like Tablet PCs will be very successful in Chinese-speaking societies, getting around the digraphia issue almost completely.

7:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the comparison with Korea and Japan was not to compare the writing systems themselves except to say that their writing system has a multi-graphic format.

YOur experience as an English speaker reading Chinese is interesting. Could you be more specific about the Tablet PC's? I always like to hear about keyboard input.


7:40 PM  
Blogger Suzanne E. McCarthy said...

Or did you mean handwriting input?

6:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are a lot of articles on this topic at http://www.pinyin.info/. Their argument is basically that it IS possible to decide where the word breaks are in Chinese, and context means that homophones aren't a problem (after all, people have spoken conversations all the time.) Not speaking the language, I have no idea which side is right; I do speak Japanese, though, and I find normal Japanese (kanji and all) much easier to read than all-kana Japanese or, worst of all, roman-character Japanese.

7:29 PM  
Blogger Suzanne E. McCarthy said...

Check out this article on Lexical parsing by Chinese Readers.


9:48 PM  
Anonymous Mark S. said...

I've just added an important article on digraphia to my site: "Pinyin-to-Chinese Character Computer Conversion Systems and the Realization of Digraphia in China," by Yin Binyong. Although the article was written in 1991, it remains highly relevant.

8:25 AM  

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