Friday, June 24, 2005

Yuen Ren Chao

Tonight I am rereading parts of Language and Symbolic Systems, 1968, by Yuen Ren Chao. There was a lively discussion about YRC and Gwoyeu Romatzyh as well as his Alice translation on Language Hat last fall and in an article on Pinyin Info. So no need to recap that.

Chao lead the work on Romanization and advocated the use of the alphabet as a parallel system for Chinese.

Here are some of his thoughts on reading Chinese.

"Of the three sizes of units of writing: morphemic, syllabic, and alphabetic, the first involves an enormous number of symbols to learn, the second a lesser number and the third only a handful, which can be learned in a few hours. But it is one thing to teach or learn a system and another thing to use it.

As we have noted, reading is not by letters or by words but by much larger units. From this point of view a morphemic or a word-sign system of writing can be taken in faster than a system based on smaller units. One does to be sure take in English by words and sentences in one glance too, but since there is less individuality in the shapes of the letters, the words do not stand out so prominently as in a text of Chinese characters. In looking for something in a page of English you have to look for it, but in doing the same in a page of characters the thing looked for, if it is on the page, will stare you in the face.

In the language of communication theory each symbol in a character text, being one out of several thousand, carries more "information" than one in a small class of items. The simplest kind of system of writing consists of two words: 0 and 1 and all text consists of nothing but a succession of zeros and ones. Such a language will suit a computer but not the brain of a speaking and reading person. " p. 111-112

Chao advocates the use of the alphabet as a parallel system.

"On a comparable scale of invested interest, the very difficult system of Chinese writing, which will rate very low on most of the requirements – except that of elegance (in a sense) and except that of operational efficiency in terms of information per chunk – has not only served well the Chinese speaking people, but also several of the countries of Eastern Asia speaking various non-Chinese languages. It not only extends widely over space, but also over more than two millennia in time without substantial structural change. It was therefore not without some intellectual and emotional hesitancy that for a number of years I have advocated the use of the Latin alphabet for writing the Chinese language, which will probably be the future form in which the language will be written. However, I felt safe to advocate an alphabetic form of writing Chinese and have actually contributed toward designing and promoting a version of it, for I think that there is little danger of the characters being abolished too soon and that the characters will remain in use for decades, if not indefinitely, as a parallel form of writing." p. 226

Chao defends the operational efficiency of Chinese writing on the basis of information per chunk, as well as the practical need for an alphabetic system. He also theorizes here about an ideal writing system.

"If vested interest could be discounted in favour of end efficiency, my guess for an ideal system of visual and auditory symbols for general purposes of speech and thought will involve neither the extreme paucity in elementary units nor the extreme luxury of thousands of them, but probably about 200 monosyllabic symbols, such that a string of “seven plus or minus two” can be easily grasped in one span of attention. A previous guess (p. 112) on a slightly different basis, came out as 170." p. 226

Although this may have no specific relevance to writing Chinese, for Chao the ideal and most efficient system of visual and auditory symbols is undoubtedly a syllabary. This may stand out as unique in the entire period from 1883, when Isaac Taylor wrote The Alphabet until recently. For Taylor and those who followed and wrote in the English language, it could be argued that the alphabet represented the ideal and most efficient system of writing.


Blogger language said...

Thanks for sending me back to that LH thread, which was a really interesting one! I've added a link to your post.

10:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to add that Yuen Ren Chao is also be known as Zhao Yuanren.


1:01 PM  

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