Wednesday, September 28, 2005


There are two particular glyphs that I have been thinking about for a long time.

(circumflex removed because it does not display)

U+5341 : CJK UNIFIED IDEOGRAPH-5341 : shí

In spite of appearances this has absolutely nothing to do with Unicode and display issues. The first is a character not an empty box; it is a Han character. These characters have the pronunciation of kou3 (meaning mouth) and shi2 (meaning ten). They are not soundless symbols representing ideas.

(In the preview window it becomes immediately apparent that 口kou3, above, is not an empty box since I have enlarged it by one size, but in my compose window it is still indistinguishable from an empty box. So that is a minor display issue with a happy ending.)

I hope that representing them to myself by sound, as well as meaning, will help me to think about these characters more efficiently. That is, I will be able to think of kou3, rather than about 'the character that means mouth' . Basically, I don't want to think about their meaning but about their shapes as glyphs. I would rather not refer to their meaning every time I mention them. But they have to have an associated sound or they can't be read and discussed. Period.

If I want to think about the letter 'a' I can do so, without thinking about an 'alligator'- if I am over five years old, of course. Well, the same for Chinese. This is about kou3 and shi2. That's it.

While I am building for myself a way of thinking about scripts, it seems worth reminding myself that Chinese characters can be called 漢字 Hanzi. 漢 Han for Han Chinese, I won't go further with that one, and 字 zi4 meaning letter/symbol/character/word.

I have just finished picking up a few ideas after reading some articles on reading in Chinese and I am testing out the notion that in reading, the first and strongest association is between graph and a unit of sound, (even if the sound is not immutable). Maybe this will help me remember these letter/symbol/character/word, these zi4. I am retraining my neural pathways.

I am not going to digress into reading theory; I will return to the shapes of these glyphs and how the notion of a square frame and a quadrant have influenced writing over the centuries, here and there. This is not some great theory of universals, just a collection of details, as I find them.

Addendum: I am getting some discrepancy between the posted display and the preview window. I will try not to be distracted by this.


Anonymous Suz said...

And once posted kou3 becomes an empty box again. Surprise, surpirse. Well, it is kou3 and anyone who pops it into BabelMap can see that. How did I ever live without BabelMap!

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting that you're trying to think of Chinese characters as mere glyphs like an alphabet, when in fact they're logograms or ideograms. It's hard to escape their meaning regardless of context.

As for their "names", I thought kuchi and juu the moment I saw them. :) But then I'm studying Japanese and only know a smattering of Mandarin.

Which leads to another point. You can't separate a character's name from the language context you're using it in. Just look at how differently English and French speakers refer to the letter Y, for example. If English-speaking linguists are to decide on names for each hanzi glyph, is it better to use the Mandarin pronunciation than the Japanese one? And why associate pronunciation with labels at all? Our letter H is never pronounced "aitch", that's merely its name.

If French linguists call a character "bouche", and the English linguists call it "mouth", you avoid that issue. Sort of. :)


3:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

circumflex removed because it does not display
The diacritic for third tone is called caron: ǒ

That is, I will be able to think of kou3, rather than about 'the character that means mouth'.
Doesn't work. There are too many homophones, that's the whole reason why we can't use Latin script for Chinese exclusively.

3:45 AM  
Anonymous Suz said...


I am trying to keep the characters attached to their language context. So I don't want to think mouth in English, but kou in Chinese. It makes more difference for zi. It is better to say zi with its own semantic range than word or character or symbol, etc. Any one of those in English doesn't mean 'zi'.

I am one of those awkward people who think that Chinese characters are 'morhphosyllabograms'. See DeFrancis chapter on

Here I am just trying to learn to pronounce the character and not have to use some other circumlocution for it. I am not intending to use Pinyin instead of the character. I am playing around a little with the ideas in some reading I have been doing and plan to post soon.


7:36 PM  
Anonymous Suz said...

Hi Anonymous,

Don't worry - I don't want to use the Latin script for Chinese. I just want to think about the Chinese script more efficiently.

Thanks for mentioning the caron. I have found a good reference for accents in Pinyin. I still don't know how to display them but I will keep trying.


7:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Suz — I guess what I'm getting at is that it might be helpful to have a way to refer to "kou3" that is not specific to Mandarin. After all, Japanese, Koreans, and Cantonese speakers will all have their own pronunciations for it.

That said, its laudable that you're learning the Mandarin pronunciation for these characters.


10:07 PM  
Anonymous Suz said...

Hi Paul,

What I am actually doing is learning the pronunciation as it appears in BabelMap so that must be part of the characters name in Unicode. I'm not stretching myself too much - just using an online Chinese dictionary and BabelMap. But it does help me to put a sound to the character.

7:33 PM  

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