Saturday, October 01, 2005

An Irregular Syllabary

From Ed Vajda's Linguistics 201 Syllabus. View the original image here.

These comments are taken from Ed Vajda's class notes posted in 2001. Dr. Vajda is a linguistics professor at Western Washington University, Bellingham, Wa.

"Common misconceptions about Chinese characters
-not concept writing, denote sound
-not logographic; only 40% denote monosyllabic words
-not really morphosyllabic, 11% of Chinese morphemes are polysyllabic: hudian (butterfly), putao (grape)" From Alternatives to the Western Alphabet

He further explains the use of the term 'irregular syllabary' here.

"Syllabaries ... may be highly irregular, with the meaning of words and morphemes being taken into account in the writing of the sound of each syllable: this is the case with Japanese Kanji and modern Chinese characters, as it was with all the earliest syllabaries in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Mexico." From Study of Writing

So Dr. Vajda is saying that Chinese writing is not ideographic, not logographic, not even morphosyllabic, but syllabic. Otherwise put, Chinese writing is a heterographic syllabary and its characters are heterographic syllabographs.

Which is why I have been so taken by the simple word 字 zi. If Unicode were being constructed today, I hope that I would be able to enter U+5B57 : CJK UNIFIED 字-5B57 : zì instead of U+5B57 : CJK UNIFIED IDEOGRAPH-5B57 : zì . However, we live with the legacies of yesteryear and ideograph is a legacy term.

PS. Thanks for all the feedback on font issues.


Blogger Jimmy Ho said...

Hi Suzanne, I am catching up with my Abecedaria reading. Many fascinating things, as always.
I wanted to point out a few pinyin errors in Dr. Vajda's notes: "butterfly" should be hudie 蝴蝶 and Dickens' name has been transcribed as "Digengsi" and Chaikovsky's as "Chaihuofusiji" (xuo is actually impossible in "Mandarin").
Of course, those are only class notes and they have probably been corrected in the paper version, but it is not useless to limitate the effect of such mistakes.

You may have seen this in your readings, but the first meaning (and not uncommon in Classical Chinese) of zi 字 (a child under a roof/cover) is "to be pregnant"/"bear children", and further "to give birth", and even "raise". One would have to verify this, but I seem to recall that the meaning as "character" comes from the tale of the invention of writing by Cang Jie.

6:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jimmy,

Dr. Vajda is a specialist in Slavic lgs I believe. However, the great thing about the internet is being open to correction. I always appreciate the details.

About 字 zi, I recognized the child under the roof, and have heard of Cang Jie but I will have to look for the story - thanks for mentioning it.

7:47 PM  

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