Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Do Chinese characters hold more meaning than Western phonetic alphabets?

Do Chinese characters hold more meaning than Western phonetic alphabets?

I just had an interesting argument about this with my friend (and roommate) Chris. Chris argued that, whereas Chinese characters indicate meaning, English words merely indicate pronunciation. Based mostly on having read The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, I said that this was a myth.

We ended up looking up two more-or-less random words to compare the two languages. For Chinese we used "福”, fú (pronounced "foo"), the second character of "幸福", happiness, which by itself means something like "fortunate". In English we used "assiduous", a word neither of us knew, taken from a list of SAT words.

A few Chinese characters

Here are my arguments for why the Chinese character is no more inherently meaningful than the English word:

*In both languages, the etymology of the word, and hence the meaning, is not obvious. "福" comes either from a pictographic compound of a jar 畐 of wine on the altar 礻, where each of the two pieces contributes to the meaning, or from a pictophonetic compound of 礻 (spirit) + 畐 fu, where one part contributes the meaning and the other part the sound. In either case, although one can see how the two parts 礻 and 畐 combine to make the full character, the meaning of the character is not something one could guess simply from looking at its parts - although there is some relation. Meanwhile, "assiduous", interestingly, comes ultimately from the Latin roots "ad" + "sedere". The former root means "to", while the latter means "sit" (as in "sedentary"); hence the word's root meaning is "to sit down", and thus to be continuously occupied at one's work. Just like in Chinese, the modern meaning is not something you would necessarily guess from the parts; but once you know the logic of its composition, the word's etymology makes a lot of sense!

*Chris, however, maintained that 福's meaning is more obvious, because it is based on a radical, 礻(shì, "sure"), which forms the left hand side of the character. However, I think the same can be said of "assiduous". It is a compound word composed of a prefix ad and a root sedere. It's true that this composition is not obvious to us in English, but neither is it so obvious in Chinese! It's only because Chris and I have been studying Chinese for so long1, and because we both have do so by learning the etymologies of characters, that it seems obvious to us. If I were to teach someone English from scratch, I might do so by starting with Latin and Greek roots, and hopefully get them to the point where the "ad" in "assiduous" would be equally obvious to them!

The lucky character is often seen on red squares like this one2
*Chis also argued that the basic components of a Chinese character, the 部首 or radicals (in this case, 礻, 一,口,and 田), have their own meaning, whereas in English the basic components are letters, which have no inherent meaning. But I think the better analogy is between letters and the strokes of a Chinese character. To look up or to write a character, you have to write each piece with a certain number of strokes, and then put the pieces together. Similarly, in English you have to write each part and then put the parts together. Just like one stroke of a Chinese character has no meaning, neither does one letter of an English word.

*But what about the switch from "ad" to "as"? Doesn't English obscure the nature of its roots? But in fact the same thing has happened with the Chinese character. The 礻radical is not written the same way as the full form, 示,and only after learning that the two are the same can one make the connection! Chinese, like English, requires study to understand word composition.

In sum, I think in both of these example cases the meaning of the word can be taken from the way it was written, but only with some research. I'm willing to grant Chris that deducing the meaning may be easier in Chinese, on the whole; but I would be interested to see how people who studied English with my etymologyical method would fare on English words. Regardless, my main point is that despite the strangeness of its appearance, the Chinese writing system may differ from that of other languages only in degree and not in kind. Which is not to say that those differences aren't mindblowingly fascinating or that they don't make Chinese the most intellectually exciting subject I've ever encountered!

1 Chris has actually only been studying for a year or so, which is really impressive.
2 Image credit: 阿德 on Flickr