English spelling vs Hanzi

Each of Masha Bell’s entries at her spelling-reform oriented site, English Spelling, reads a bit like this:

… he covered himself with his buckler, couched his lance, charged at Rozinante’s full gallop and rammed the first mill in his way. He ran his lance into the sail, but the wind twisted it with such violence that it shivered the spear to pieces, dragging him and his horse after it and rolling him over and over on the ground, sorely damaged.

I love a good tilt at the windmill, and part of me believes in the righteousness of the fight, so I keep reading, even though I’m pretty sure I know how it ends. The blog is also fun because nearly every entry could be written practically identically for Hanzi. In fact, just for kicks, here’s her latest entry with a few substitutions:

It is not only teachers of English Mandarin who have to help students to learn to spell write characters. Spelling inconsistencies add Character writing adds to the work load of all teachers. Teachers of all subjects tend to feel obliged to correct spelling errors character mistakes. Doing so is often school policy. Spelling Character uncertainties regularly disrupt the concentration of students when writing essays or answering questions. The spelling mistakes they commit do the same for teachers. Having to keep stopping to correct spelling errors makes it harder to concentrate on what students have written, in English Mandarin as much as in other subjects.

I hesitate to call the correction of spelling mistakes ‘a waste of time’. For as long as current spelling conventions hanzi remain the accepted norm, schools have to teach them. Parents and employers expect them to do so. What is utterly beyond doubt however is that the vast majority of English spelling Mandarin errors are caused by spelling irregularities*: bed, fed, led – said, head; end, bend, lend – friend; fun, run, sun – one, son, and so on for nearly 4000 words.

Apart from causing spelling errors and adding to teachers’ marking loads, English spelling hanzi inconsistencies also make teaching children to read and write less rewarding. In most other subjects, one of the great joys of teaching is to help children understand something – seeing a light switch on in a child’s brains. Having to force them to learn facts which make no logical sense is more difficult, more frustrating and less rewarding, for pupils and teachers alike. It constantly offers opportunities for failure rather than success.

* I agree, the Mandarin parallel kind of falls apart here. You’d have to change the examples and terminology. Since it’s on my mind today, I nominate 练 vs 炼 for membership to the Unnecessary Distinction in Hanzi category. Both say liàn and both mean, roughly “exercise” — as in 训练,锻炼.

See Randy Alexander’s Yǔwén blog for more details on script-learning by native Mandarin speakers.

12 responses to “English spelling vs Hanzi”

  1. Thanks. This is an interesting incite into the native Chinese learner’s mind.

  2. Zev Handel says:

    I love English spelling. A bit of a hassle to learn, but dialect-neutral (if you’re gonna spell “phonetically”, whose English pronunciation do you use as the standard?) and so efficient for reading. Imagine the extra effort in reading if “to”, “too”, and “two” were all spelled the same — and so on for dozens and dozens of sets of homophones. The more words have distinctive shapes, the quicker we recognize them.

  3. Syz says:

    Zev, you and my co-blogger Sima should get together. He was making strained arguments similar to yours the other day as he and I duked it out over English spelling reform. :)

    Per your “extra effort to read to-two-too” comment, two points:
    1. I’m not convinced: there are loads of words that are incredibly polysemous AND spelled the same under today’s spelling conventions. We process them so easily that you never even think about it.
    2. Even if you can show that it does take more processing power, there’s no reason a reformed system needs to have one and only one spelling for each phoneme. You could have two, maybe three max. You just don’t need to have 17.

  4. Zev Handel says:

    “Strained” is a value judgment. Certainly your claim of 17 representations for one phoneme is an exaggeration.

    At any rate, some of the issues we are cavalierly making claims about (like reading efficiency) are in fact largely quantifiable, and psycholinguists and cognitive scientists have done studies related to them. (I’m not very familiar with that literature, though.) A serious argument about these issues would need to take those finding into account.

    To add to my admittedly subjective line of argumentation, though, two more issues to consider:

    1) Whose phonemes? The fact that word pairs “knotty”-“naughty”, “tot”-“taught”, “Don”-“Dawn” are spelled differently is good for me, because I pronounce each member of that pair distinctly. In my dialect, the vowels are different. Most Americans have only one vowel in all these words. Is your spelling reform going to take away a handy written representation of my vowel distinction?

    2) I like the fact that “photography” is spelled just like “photograph” plus a “y” — even though every vowel in the two words is different. Wouldn’t a spelling reform make these two words look very dissimilar? Along the same lines, I prefer “electric” and “electricity” to “elektrik” and “elektrisity”, because both contain “electric”.

    I would also add that logic should not be the highest priority in designing a spelling system. People have been (ignorantly, in my opinion) ranting about the unnecessary complexity of the Japanese writing system for some time. Japanese writing is a marvel, though — it works extremely well for the native speaker reader.

    I guess I would summarize this by saying the issue is much more complex than most people realize; that the perceived irregularity or cumbersomeness in writing systems has advantages as well as disadvantages; and that one therefore cannot rush to judgment on these questions.

  5. Syz says:

    “Value judgment” — yes, yes. The smiley was meant to indicate that “strained argument” was just having fun.

    I agree it would behoove us to quantify things.

    I also agree that the issue has lots of complexities.

    But I don’t see anyone rushing to judgement (which, you’ll note, I like with a extra e in our present-day spelling system — hey, we all have our likes and dislikes).

    Quite contrary to your “rush to judgment”, I see a number of anti-reform types stalling in hopes that the plaintiffs will go broke, the witnesses will die off, and the prosecutorial team will move on to tomorrow’s pet issue.

    That doesn’t strike me as a worthy position.

    In my mind, the central question of whether English script reform (I’ll let alone Hanzi for now) would be a net benefit to society is an open and interesting one. I admit I start with the bias that it probably would be a net benefit, but I’m willing to be persuaded I’m wrong.

    What we need, is a good framework.

    Maybe I’ll dig up some literature and/or some experts to guest-post and we can get started. Of course, we’d probably have to start a new blog. The name here is all wrong. Or maybe at the end of each post we could just say “and Chinese has similar issues.” 😀

  6. Zev, your processing power argument is a little shaky. In fact there are two words spelled “to” and two words spelled “too”: I go to school to study too much, too. I don’t think sentences like that are slowing anyone down.

    I’m in full agreement that English spelling reform is basically a lost cause. It might be nice to standardize a few things, and make small changes, but that’s an extremely complex issue.

  7. Kellen says:

    I agree it’s a lost cause. I also think it’s an highly unnecessary cause. Spelling reform as an organised endeavour isn’t really worthwhile because spelling reform is going to happen anyway, though not in the way everyone would like.

    I very much doubt that people would be happy were it to happen anyway. Even with Esperanto there are debates over spelling.

  8. Zev Handel says:

    Randy, you may not be conscious of it, but scientific studies can measure the delay in reading homophonous words that are spelled the same. See for example http://www.springerlink.com/content/u172q5037557q763/ .

    Even though moving to a “phonetic” spelling for English would slow down reading speeds a bit, I’m not actually suggesting that that should be the main reason not to revise spelling. We wouldn’t much notice the difference.

    The really big problem that I see with revising English spelling is that there is no standard English–the spelling system we have today is marvelously pan-dialectal. Would you suggest that we create significantly different spelling standards for British English, American English, Australian English, and New Zealand English? For American English, would we use Chicago pronunciation? Boston? Washington DC? Seattle? AAVE?

    Most people in American don’t pronounce “whine” and “wine” differently. But many people do. Should the words be spelled differently? I pronounce “Mary”, “marry”, and “merry” with three distinct vowels, thanks to my New England roots. Most American don’t. Should these three words be spelled the same? Should “pen” and “pin” be spelled differently, even though many midwesterners and southerners don’t pronounce them distinctly?

    Should British speakers spell “car” as “ka” to reflect the fact that there is no “r” pronounced, but then spell it “car” when writing “car is”, because the “r” sound is pronounced before another vowel?

    Should we write “bother” and “father” with the same vowel, even though the Brits pronounce them distinctly?

    Should we write “cats” and “dogz”, to reflect actual pronunciation, and lose the visual consistency of spelling our plural ending as “s” in all cases? (It turns out that English-speaking readers derive a lot of useful morphological information from orthography — when you start spelling allomorphs differently, you make reading harder.)

    Then suppose we did reform spelling, and suppose we do it based on educated Chicago pronunciation. Do we have to change the spelling every 50 years to reflect ongoing changes in Chicago pronunciation? Reissue all dictionaries and books in print? Have each generation of Americans spelling differently?

    These ideas are so impractical that they can’t really be taken seriously. My impression is that most people who advocate English spelling reform haven’t really thought through all of the complexities and disadvantages.

    An aside: there’s a reason that British English dictionaries and French dictionaries use IPA to indicate pronunciation, while American dictionaries don’t. There is a standard pronunciation in those countries: RP in England, Parisian French in Paris. So there is an actual pronunciation to indicate with IPA. But American English has no one standard pronunciation. The pronunciation notation in American dictionaries has symbols defined not in absolute terms, but in terms of sounds in particular words. That way, no matter what your dialect of English, the pronunciation guide will give you a correct pronunciation _in your dialect_. To a large extent English spelling works on the same principle.

  9. 很有区别 says:

    “membership to the Unnecessary Distinction in Hanzi category”?

    反复学习,多次操作使自身的水平/等级提高的过程 。像是英文中的 Train。




    “炼”的意思多指物质/事物本质发生巨大变化的结果 像是英文中的:Refine ,Smelt

    1,从花里提炼出了香料 (提炼 多用于化学方面 , 花 —— 香料)
    2,把铁矿石冶炼成了钢材 (指锻造或冶炼 , 铁矿石 —— 钢材)

    3,锻炼身体 / 锻炼出了钢铁般的意志 (把人的身体或者精神比喻作其他物质/材料 加以改造 )

    练 和 炼 因为读音相同口头上听不出来


  10. Zev Handel says:

    It’s a great example — at what point does one morpheme or word become two? When a word develops an extended or metaphorical meaning, how different does that have to be before it is considered two words instead of one word with two related meanings?

    In English, mostly only lexicographers care about this, because it affects the way they right the dictionary entries. But the spelling of the word won’t change.

    In a logographic script, perception that two words have developed will lead to pressure to use separate characters for them, to maintain the perceived one-to-one relationship between graphs and meanings.

    A good rule of thumb might be that if Chinese speakers themselves can’t remember which graph to use, then we can conclude we may not really have distinct words, just shades of meaning for one word.

  11. Syz says:

    @很有区别: great comment. Now you’ve got your own followup post!

    @Zev: nice rule of thumb. Much more script-conservative than the one I propose in the followup post. In practice, using Pinyin IMEs, it’s becoming easier and easier for Chinese speakers to “remember” (i.e. have the IME remember) which is the right character, so I’m not sure how that would work in.

  12. 慈逢流 says:

    “scientific studies can measure the delay in reading homophonous words”—hehe they’re more-or-less scientific studies to prove just about anything. i mean i just read about a study which got advertised as showing that coffee with sugar may help you think. turns out what they found was that they could ‘see something’ on their brain scanners when they intoxicated people with coffee plus 25 times the sweetness of your average coffee, administered in the form of dextrose, and concluded that ‘maybe this shows the brain processes data a little more efficiently’ under the circumstances given.

    in another study that got discussed here: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2799 the writers make a claim that computer games are bad for learning. turns out he made 11 boys learn vocabulary, then either sit in front of the tv or in front of the computer or do nothing, and then count the words they recalled. the statistical part of it is thinner than ice in late spring and mainly relies on the convention that ‘statistically significant’ should mean ‘less than 5% chance of error’. which, given the number of tested persons and the overall methodology, is a big laugh. i mean even in double blind studies (where neither the subjects nor the people who administer drugs know who gets the real thing and who a placebo) as much as 80% (eight out of ten!) probands can correctly guess what they swallowed.

    generally i am very critical of disciplines that derive all of their findings by measuring minuscule delays in the performances of test persons, most of them measured under very artificial circumstances.

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