Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Ideographic Myth

I have Visible Speech, DeFrancis, 1989, the hard copy book, from the library and I have to return it soon so ... I need to record a few more DeFranics quotes for myself.

Here is a page from Visible Speech, 1989, which does not appear on the Pinyin Info website but which adds to the argument which DeFrancis makes in The Ideographic Myth, the sample chapter from The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, 1984, posted on Pinyin Info. I am providing it as both an introduction and a supplement to this chapter. It is not a summary of the chapter, but a taste ...

"Writers who refer to Chinese characters as "ideographs" can be divided into several groups. One consists of those who are essentially innocent of any knowledge of Chinese and really believe that the characters represent ideas and not sounds. Another group consists chiefly of specialists in Chinese who recognize in varying degrees that Chinese characters represent sounds but consider this to be immaterial on the grounds that they can directly convey meaning to the eye. ... Another representative is the French scholar Georges Margoulies, author of La Langue et l'ecriture (1957), a work that was written for a popular audience.

Still another group includes many people who use the term ideographic because it is the most popular designation for the characters, just as sweetbread is used as the common designation for an item of food that is neither sweet nor bread. To my intense chagrin, I used to belong to the third group, on the rather unthinking grounds that I should go along with whatever was common usage. It was only on reading Margoulies that I was awakened to the error of my ways.

Margoulies presents an extended essay extolling the superiority of Chinese "ideographs" as symbols which convey thought directly to the mind without having to rely on the phonetic information they contain, and do so so well that they could function as a universal system of writing. I was much annoyed by the book. ...

To counter the nonsense purveyed by writers like Margoulies, and to expiate my own sin in this area, I have dealt at length with the issues involved in various works. One chapter of The Chinese Language: Fact and Fanatasy deals specifically with the ideographic myth. The present work extends to writing in general the refutation of the widely held notion of ideographic writing. The concept of logographic writing is also rejected both here and there." p. 222

I consider this to be a good introduction to The Ideographic Myth. But it also brings my thinking back to the desire in Renaissance Europe for a universal system of writing. Europeans wanted Chinese to be ideographic as proof that there could be a universal system of writing that would bypass particular forms of spoken language and communicate thought directly to the mind.

Understanding the nature of the ideographic myth helps me to understand what people were looking for from an ideal writing system in Renaissance Europe.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In his early refutation of the ideographic myth, Peter S. DuPonceau (cited by Defrancis) writes some about this desire for a universal system of writing. It's a shame people didn't pay more attention.

12:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess you could call me a conscienscious objector to this idea. :-)

7:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Mark,

I just read DuPonceaus's letter this morning - . I am so glad that you have provided all this online. This is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of writing system theory .

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

I have responded to you on your blog - if others want to follow the trail over there.

10:48 AM  
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1:13 AM  

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