Friday, November 11, 2005


I have been thinking a lot about the Zhuang writing system lately mainly because it was new on Omniglot last month. Here is the paragraph which interests me.

A method of writing Zhuang based on the Wuming dialect and using a mixture of Latin and Cyrillic letters and a number of IPA symbols was devised in 1955. A reform in 1986 removed the non-Latin letters and replaced them with individual Latin letters or combinations of Latin letters.

Simon shows the difference between the earlier set of letters and the current set. The main difference is that now they are all Latin letters and easier to keyboard.

The earlier Zhuang system which mixes letters from several alphabets represents the same design model as the All India alphabet and comes from the same era. There must have been a sense that either, one could just create typewriters with this mix of symbols, or more likely, create text from a printing process in which letter sets could easily be mixed. Then the computer came along!

This qalam post by Andrew West adds further details.

Actually, the unwieldy Zhuang phonetic alphabet devised in 1955 that uses a mixture of Latin, Cyrillic and IPA letters together with the special tone letters ... is no longer in official use, but since 1981 has been replaced by a new phonetic alphabet using ordinary Latin letters only.

There was indeed a tradition of writing Zhuang using a mixture of existing Chinese ideographs (to represent either the pronunciation or meaning of a Zhuang word) and specially devised ideographs that represent the meaning and/or the pronunciation of a Zhuang word in the same manner as the Vietnamese nom script. These Zhuang-usage ideographs are known as "saw ndip" in Zhuang or "fangkuaiZhuangzi" in Chinese.

However this seems to have been a rather ad hoc system, which varied considerably from manuscript to manuscript, and was never formalised as a systematic script. Educated Zhuang tended to use Chinese for written communication, and the Zhuang-usage ideographs were mainly used for writing down folk songs and such like.

I've not yet met anyone of the Zhuang nationality who is familiar with this form of writing. A dictionary of Zhuang-usage ideographs _Gu Zhuangzi Zidian_ was published by Guangxi Minzu Chubanshe in 1989, ...

"The Zhuang, with a population of about 18 million, are the largest ethnic group group in China. Most of the Zhuang people live in compact communities in the Zhuang Autonomous Region in Guangxi, with the rest scattered throughout Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou and Hunan provinces."

Pinyin News has some interesting comments on Zhuang population statistics and official attitudes towards minorities.

Abstracts from the Workshop on Zhuang Language Department of Linguistics The University of Hong Kong 12 May 2005 give this information.

Some Zhuang speakers would prefer to write Zhuang with the old Zhuang script which is a combination of Chinese characters, Chinese-like characters, and other symbols. Dating from the Tang Dynasty, this written form of Zhuang has recorded folktales, myths, songs, play scripts, medical prescriptions, family genealogies, contracts, communist revolutionary propaganda, etc. One of the most astonishing features of the old Zhuang script is the large number of allographs (or variant graphs) — as many as a dozen or even more — that may be associated with one morphosyllable.

As for written Cantonese, only in Hong Kong is it widely used in newspapers, magazines, comic books, personal correspondence, play scripts, etc.; the Cantonese writing mixes together standard Chinese characters with nonstandard or dialect characters and letters of the English alphabet. For various reasons neither the old Zhuang script nor the written form of Cantonese has undergone the formal process of standardization; the lack of standardization has created the phenomenon of allography in both writing systems.

This is altogether a fascinating discussion of non-standard Chinese characters. Way too much information here for a blog post but this article is too good not to mention.

I hope nobody tries to read this unless they are very interested in either the Zhuang *or* the thousands of non-standard Chinese characters ... because, um, this blog post is a little long-winded. Thanks to Gary for mentionning non-standard Cantonese characters recently and giving this link.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's only tangentially related, but I've heard of an Afghan language that mixes Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek letters. The name escapes me at the moment.


9:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll look out for it. I wonder what computer programmers do with that.

5:49 PM  

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