Wut if ur kid’s skool thot this wuz fine spelling?

Then you might respond the same way folks did to the 1977 proposed-but-never-accepted “second round” character simplifications. I mentioned these a couple of posts ago in response to a hand-painted sign that used one of the rejected simplifications (仃 for 停).

Apparently the nu speling wasn’t well received.

Thanks to Zev Handel, who volunteered his scans in the comments, we now have a fuller picture of what was proposed. In the pics below, the simplifications are on the left and the original(s) on the right in brackets.

My guess is everyone’s going to find something to loath here. Even I, the grumbler about all things Hanzi, find myself getting a bit defensive when it comes to replacements like 旦 for 蛋. compare hotels The reaction is visceral and personal — but quite real.

On the other hand, I firmly agree with what Zev said in that same comment:

Had history taken a different turn, we’d be perfectly comfortable using them today.

People learn to live with the script they’ve got, with the social agreement they’ve inherited. If the country had switched to Pinyin back in 1953, today you’d have a new army of Script Defenders, ready to react against any newcomers who wanted to switch back to those reactionary, laobaixing-oppressing old characters.

As it is, feel free to analyze, categorize and react to 第二次汉字简化方案(草案)“Second Round Character Simplification Proposal (Draft)”





58 responses to “Wut if ur kid’s skool thot this wuz fine spelling?”

  1. If it has less strokes and is therefore more efficient and in the long run people wouldn’t have remembered the old method anyway, then I say they should have done it.

    Sometimes you don’t want to take the medicine, but you thank your mother later for forcing you.

  2. Max says:

    I think not only would round two (three, four, …) of the character simplification have been a good thing (instead of that half-assed stuff we have now), but I’d also really like a sane spelling for English! Wut b graid.

    • Syz says:

      Max, if you like spelling reform for English you might like this post. To borrow MandarinMnemonics’ metaphor, I think one could drum up the evidence to show that (despite the inherent complexities and on the balance) English users would be better off to 吃黄连, take a bitter pill.

  3. Max says:

    Don’t worry, I read all you guys’ posts 😉 The comments are very good on that one too. Anyways, I doubt there’ll be any real progress in our lifetimes (and if, I’d guess it’d be with hanzi, not English spelling), but even knowing that it feels good to rant a bit about it now and then.. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about :)

  4. Aaron says:

    Really interesting! Some of them make a lot of sense for consistency reasons: If 遼 becomes 辽, then why shouldn’t 僚 become 亻+了?

    Also I see they made a phonetic swap to go from 道 to 辺. That makes sense for Mandarin, but in Japanese 辺 already exists as the equivalent of 边. So I guess that’s one confusing collision avoided.

  5. Chris says:

    As a student of Classical Chinese i do find some irritation, be it purely on an esthetic level with the simplifications, the old characters are more beautiful.
    As a populist however it did give people a little more access to their own written language, it was meant to be much easier to retain the simplified forms. I don’t know if any scientific research actually exists to prove that though since this is not really my field, if anybody could direct me towards it Iwould be greatly obliged.

  6. Zev Handel says:

    I would just like to point out that it is a fallacy to think that characters are easier to learn or remember if they have fewer strokes. We remember characters as chunks of familiar components, not as a random series of strokes to be memorized. For example, the way you memorize 想 is not “horizontal stroke plus vertical stroke plus …. plus dot”; it’s “木 + 目 + 心”. The fact that simplifications haven’t been carried through consistently means that learning simplified characters is in some ways more difficult than learning the traditional characters. In other cases simplification may make writing a bit faster, but otherwise isn’t really that helpful in simplifying the writing system as a whole. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

    1) In traditional characters, the component 言 yán ‘speak’ occurs by itself as a character, and as a radical in such characters as 說 shuō ‘speak’ and 警 jǐng ‘warn’. A student of traditional characters learns a single component, 言. In simplified characters, there is a component 言 yán ‘speak’ that occurs by itself as a character, and as a radical in such characters as 警 jǐng ‘warn’. There is also a component ⻈that occurs in such characters as 说 shuō ‘speak’. A student of traditional characters must learn two distinct forms, and rules for when to use each. The same additional burden is found for 食/⻠ and 金/钅.

    2) Is 驫 harder to learn than 骉? Sure, the former has more strokes, but that’s not really relevant. In either traditional or simplified form, the character is just “3 horses”. Since it’s a given that you already know how to recognize and write mǎ ‘horse’, it’s no harder to learn and remember the traditional form than the simplified form.

    I think it’s very hard to make the argument that the simplified character script is easier to learn or use than the traditional. Literacy rates in Hong Kong and Taiwan are higher than in mainland China. Schooling time for literacy is, so far as I know, roughly the same. I think the whole simplified character experiment is largely a misguided waste of time. But I can’t prove that assertion.

  7. Brendan says:

    This is fantastic — am saving these scans to my HD as we speak. Many thanks to Zev for sending these in, and to syz for posting them.

    I haven’t seen anything convincing about the relative ease of learning simplified versus traditional, and tend to think that the real problem is in the concept — i.e., characters — rather than the execution — i.e., simplified/traditional. Just comparing literacy rates for Taiwan and HK to mainland literacy rates is misleading, since it doesn’t take into account economic factors or any of the other things that affect education.

  8. I gotta say, I love 面 without the middle. But then, I’m a big fan of the 靣 variant.

    䒙 for 藏 kinda makes me nauseous though. Not for any reason other than it offends my sense of aesthetics.

  9. Zev Handel says:

    Kellen, that’s funny, I’m sure that 让 for 讓 produced the exact same reaction in many people when it was first proposed.

    By the way, the 1977 proposal would have been the third, not the second, set of simplifications. The first set of simplified characters was issued in 1956; there were 515 of them. The 1964 revision had 2,238 simplified characters. It can be a bit disconcerting to read mainland publications from the period 1956-1964. The impression is that they are written in traditional characters, with a few simplified forms scattered here and there.

    There were also a few further changes made in 1986. For example, prior to then traditional 像 and 象 were both written as simplified 象. After 1986 they were again distinguished.

  10. André says:

    I have theory that the old 主席 just went with simplification so that he could continue to ignore the real problem: education.

    The characters were never really the problem, the educational system was.

  11. Think about how much more time it takes one person to learn 3,000 or more characters than to learn a simple alphabet.

    Then multiply that amount of time by 1 billion.

    You now have how much time is collectively wasted in China through the continued use of characters.

    From an efficiency standpoint, characters are a train wreck.

  12. jdmartinsen says:

    It’s somewhat ironic that page scans of the little-used Second Round scheme are fairly easy to find on the net, while the plan from 1956 doesn’t seem to be available except in print form.

    The 1986 reinstatement obviously learned from the example of Coke Classic the previous year – reintroduce the “original” and hope that no one notices that it’s actually been changed in certain subtle ways.

  13. André says:

    I will have to repeat myself:

    Remember that one character is not equal to one word, so learning 3000 characters is not that same learning how to write 3000 words.

    I don’t know how it’s done in the English speaking world, but I guess it’s pretty similar to other languages:

    You need to spend a lot of time learning how to write. By learning one word, you will be able to write others. By learning one character component, you will be able to write other characters.

    All because there’s a difference between written and spoken language. That goes of Chinese, and it certainly goes for English!

  14. Zev Handel says:

    @Street-smart language learning: It doesn’t seem to me that Chinese people are being held back by their writing system. Have you heard a single Chinese person complain that because of all the time they’ve wasted learning characters, they just can’t compete with American scientists? That Chinese businessmen are at a competitive disadvantage? That literacy is a hopeless pipe dream for most Chinese?

    Have you heard political scientists around the world arguing that the 21st century won’t see the rise of China after all, because no country with such a writing system could possibly amount to anything?

    I don’t see a train wreck. I see a writing system that, like all writing systems in the world, has its inefficiencies, inconsistencies, and illogical elements, but that is highly functional — it’s working for literally hundreds of millions of people.

    Sure, it takes Chinese people years of schooling to be fully literate. But it’s the same with French speakers or English speakers. Or Japanese speakers. You have to study until you’re 18 or so. That’s how it works in a literate society.

    Isn’t it telling that the only people crusading against characters are adult Chinese-language learners? Keep in mind that the writing system isn’t designed for us — it’s used by native speakers who are comfortable and familiar with it from an early age.

    I have yet to see any well-argued rationale for concrete harm done to the Chinese by their writing system.

    Just one last point worth mentioning: learning to write and read standard written English is not the same as learning the alphabet. A four-year old kid can recite the alphabet and recognize the letters and know their sound values. But that kid isn’t ready to go out and write a novel.

  15. Max says:

    Zev, you’re making some very good points, but I do find it somewhat telling, that my Chinese girlfriend is often writing mails to her Chinese friends using English, because “it’s faster”. And that is when typing – I can only imagine that hand writing would make it even harder (because you’d need an active memory of the respective less-frequent characters, and not just a passive pinyin+’oh-there-it-is’-knowledge).

  16. Chris says:

    @Max, then you are lucky with your girlfriend, and she is lucky that all of her friends understand english, most of my Chinese friends have an understanding of it, but if you want miscommunications or people having to use a dictionary to read your letters there you have it.

    Thank you for pointing that out. It are indeed only adult language learners who complain about characters. However that historically in the 1930’s there was a small Chinese movement who was in favour of eradicating characters.

    Another point that is made by Malcolm Gladwell in his book outliers is that it might be that Chinese children are better at mathematics because the chinese language is more transparent when it comes to counting, making it simpler to learn the basic math skills which will enable them to start learning mathematics sooner than western kids, enabling them more time to practice, hence getting better at it earlier on.

  17. Syz says:

    Let me give you one rationale for disliking the hanzi system. I have a daughter in second grade. She spends 5-10 hours a week purely on hanzi. I’m including class and homework time, but I’m talking purely about remembering how to write characters, not about vocabulary acquisition. Recognition is pretty easy, but writing correctly takes a LOT of time.

    I know her schedule intimately. There is no free time. I don’t mean no play time — I’m not a tyrant. But there is no free time that we could use more wisely to teach her other things. She doesn’t watch TV (we don’t own one), and there’s no computer time either. So every week we squeeze in a few hours of 古琴 practice. She likes the instrument. I enjoy working on it with her. But I can’t help imagining that — were there no hanzi — she would have an extra 5-10 hours a week that might transform her guqin from a pasttime into a real love.

    Or if it’s not guqin then it’s something else. The point is, there’s no denying the huge time suck of writing hanzi. It is time that learners of a reasonably phonemic writing system (Latvian, for example) simply don’t have to spend.

    “I have yet to see any well-argued rationale for concrete harm done”

    In my eyes, that character-writing time is harm and the only way to avoid that is to (circularly) say that it’s necessary to survive.

    I have yet to hear anyone put together a convincing (and not circular) rationale for what you get in return for all that time spent learning to write characters.

    I don’t follow the Gladwell argument (more transparent?!) but I’m pretty sure it’s baloney. I’ve watched my daughter go through now two years of Chinese math. It is challenging and intense. There is a lot of repetitive work, but there are also a lot of story problems that would make some US high school teachers sweat. The secret seems to be nothing more than high expectations.

  18. Chris says:

    Don’t think I don’t sympathize with Chinese kids learning their own language, it is gruelling, I have enough friends with kids in primary school to attest to that. I myself have spent hours and hours at university practicing my chinese writing. The thing is that ultimately there is no alternative, that is why written Chinese has been the language of the elite for so long. Until 1949 China had a literacy rate of only 10%, because only the elite had time to study writing.
    What you get for all that time studying is not measurable because it depends from person to person, it depends on what you do with it, it doesn’t mean because you can read English you will ever read an original Shakespeare let alone understand it. Like any language it creates an opportunity to gain access to a vast library of works, a culture and ideas, what you do with it depends entirely upon yourself.

  19. Syz says:

    @Chris: at this point let’s focus solely on the ability to handwrite. It has nothing (little? practically nothing? I’m not exaggerating much) to do with recognizing characters or being able to read. It amounts to hundreds of hours that could be spent doing something else. What is the value of it, aside from the circular argument that you have to be able to do it to get through school?

  20. Max says:

    Chris, I figured I’d go without saying that she only uses this with friends who have an equally good grasp of English. It doesn’t change a thing though – if two native speakers of the same language, which is using a different paradigm than pretty much any other language in the world, use a second language to communicate through writing because it’s easier that way… that should at least make you think!

  21. Chris says:

    Well ever since there is software and e-mail I can understand your argument, that it is not very practical to spend so many hours learning how to handwrite chinese characters, on the other hand
    1 We cannot be 100% sure that in the future the internet and computers will be around (even though I would also argue that the chances of them disappearing are very slim)
    However what are you with literate people who from one day to the next forgot how to write?
    2 There is of course a neurological component to spending that many hours writing, you will develop some sort of aesthetic awareness and you do develop some sort of visual memory, we westerners, do not need. A character you cannot literally see in front of your mind’s eye is just unwritable.

    I had a gf who did the same thing, her rationale was, to practice her english. In a way I can agree that it is faster simply for the use of the software requires pinyin and then a character selection, but when I use any IM in Chinese I find that most Chinese don’t seem to bothered by it, it goes just as fast as in English or any other language.

  22. DylanK says:

    “…if two native speakers of the same language, which is using a different paradigm than pretty much any other language in the world, use a second language to communicate through writing because it’s easier that way… that should at least make you think!”

    I’d very politely like to call bullshit on this. I think this is the by-product of the hyping up of English in Chinese elite circles, the privileging of it in universities, whatever, the positioning of English as a superior language to Chinese. How soon will it be until rich, urban kids in China stop learning Chinese after, say, the end of primary school?

    Just aside from the actual mechanics of typing Chinese vs. typing English (I don’t really buy that someone typing 字s is slower than typing English, especially as a second language, unless ur stripping ur Engl down 2 bare essents). If you’re comparing the time it takes to write a letter in English, regular old cursive writing, and the time it takes to write a letter conveying the same ideas in Chinese, regular old cursive writing, Chinese wins everytime. And maybe the most important thing isn’t simply the speed of writing or typing but the great economy of expression you get with Chinese.

    I hate hearing the myth that Chinese characters are somehow a crazy, absurd system that will fade into history, now that we’ve got a phonetic language. I don’t want to use this space to run through arguments for use of Chinese characters to write Chinese, because other people have done that better.

    I’m sympathetic to the kids grinding away on characters thing, but I wonder if part of the problem isn’t that, maybe, the philosophy of the Chinese educational system, in general, is pretty backwards and inefficient and messed up. Is there a better way to teach characters than the one that’s been used for… forever? These aren’t rhetorical questions or anything– I’d really like to know.

    Just my own experience… I’ve been learning Chinese for almost four years, seriously learning to write characters for almost two years. I write e-mails in Chinese, essays, etc. by typing, but I take notes in class, write rough drafts for essays, jot stuff down throughought the day by hand, in characters. My writing is hideously ugly and usually interrupted by obviously wrong characters that come to the hand quicker than the right ones, pinyin, and homemade simplifications that only I would get (as per the above second round simplifications, I’d usually jot 旦 for 蛋, stuff like that). It’s cool if you’re just absolutely not into it. But… I can’t imagine spending years learning Chinese (or any language) and not being able to write, by hand, half, three quarters, even, as well as the average high school graduate.

    And, regarding simplification, I started learning Mainland-style simplified characters. When I look at the second round simplifications, I just think, shit, great idea. But I think any system is easy, once you learn it. You’re learning the components, the rules, whatever, not straight up memorizing a trillion characters, so I don’t think there’s that much difference. I think this supersimplification would be cool if it was taught as an informal short hand method. But, man, I’m going to start using that 乙 over 心 for 意, and the empty 面.

  23. Max says:

    > “I’d very politely like to call bullshit on this. I think this is the by-product of the hyping up of English in Chinese elite circles, the privileging of it in universities, whatever, the positioning of English as a superior language to Chinese.”

    I see where you’re coming from, but I’m just telling how it is. I have my own opinion about characters (which you’d also politely call bullshit 😛 ) but it has nothing to do with that fact. My point is, my gf would never talk English with her friends, but she does write it, and I’ve seen other people do that too. You have your own theories why that is, and that’s fine, but so do I 😛

  24. @Zev Handel

    I’m not arguing that the Chinese people are ultimately being held back by their writing system. I’m simply say the system is terribly inefficient. If the goal of writing is to be able to reproduce from characters what can be said, would you rather have a system in which a 4-year-old can do that, or a system in which only an 18-year-old can do that? Selecting the latter would simply be foolish.

    I just can’t buy an argument that holds that just because an inefficient system is working, it should be maintained exactly as is, especially when improvements that could be made are obvious. For instance, if all that time spent learning characters is ultimately equivalent to an entire academic year, than the Chinese could maintain their current competitive level but get more people competing by shaving a year off of formal education. This would result pushing more people out of school and into economically productive roles, create jobs, etc. That seems like a pretty good rationale to me.

    To look at it another way, imagine that you’re the boss of a company. Your goal is to get your workers to be able to do task A, which can be done in one of two ways. The first way requires very little training, but the second way requires a lot. A complete no-brainer, right? I have yet to see any well-argued rationale as to why this doesn’t apply to writing systems.

    And it certainly would be telling if the only people crusading against characters were adult Chinese-language learners, but on that point you’re totally wrong. Both Vietnam and Korea wisely ditched inefficient Chinese characters for completely phonetic systems. In China itself, the idea comes from none other than the Chinese Communist Party. Character simplification was supposed to have been a gradual process eventually leading to using only pinyin, much like Vietnam did. Indeed, when I’ve mentioned this idea to Chinese people, I’ve been surprised that most of them agree with the efficiency rationale, even if they doubt that any change like that will ever happen.

    I’d further argue that the system wasn’t designed in any meaningful sense of the word, for the Chinese or for anyone else. It evolved happenstance from primitive pictorials of things around them. It is of course used by native speakers who are familiar with the oral language, but that hardly means it’s the best system for them to use.

    Finally, I’ll point out that I don’t limit this criticism to Chinese either; the exact same criticism can be levied against English spelling. My Spanish-speaking friend’s daughter was able to read books at age 3, because the Spanish phonetic system does a very good job of representing sounds in print. English fails at that goal, and Chinese fails even harder.

    That 3-year-old kid certainly isn’t going to be writing any novels in Spanish anytime soon, but she will be able to work on expanding her vocab and taking the other steps needed to write those novels, rather than toiling away for years to work out the intricacies of an inefficient writing system before she can even consider writing that novel.


    About the math point, it’s not about the use of characters but rather about their simpler numbering system. It seems to be conceptually easier to understand numbers when “13” is “ten three” and “152” is “one hundred, five tens, two”. If I recall the source I got this from correctly, this was based on a test that accounted for differences in teaching techniques, such as those Syz mentions above. If this holds, this would be a good rationale for English speakers to change our own numbering system.

    • Livonor says:

      Wow there’re a lot of good points in here, sadly this ain’t gonna change anything, languages are not governed by the rule of efficiency but by the rule of cool, all ya need to do is to make people go around saying ‘ugh, yu and ya kerakters ar wiird’ and all the changes you dream about will move on by themselves. But this also never gonna happen.

      Wouldn’t be interesting if English simply stop using standards and let people write in the way they want, English spelling is already pretty much arbitrary the way it is and there’s hundreds of English based accents and pronunciations around the world and people still manage to understand each other somehow. There’s evry single good damn reason to reform English spelling, but the rule of cool is just too strong, who doesn’t want to write things so papa and mama giv ya peat on the beak and say ‘字が上手だな’?

  25. Zev Handel says:

    @Street-Smart Language Learning,

    Your points are valid as far as they go. But I think we disagree about the feasibility of making a painless transition to an alphabet, and the overall utility that such a change would bring.

    Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that if native Mandarin speakers were learning an alphabetic writing system instead of the current system, that they would save on average a year’s-worth of schooling to become fully literate.

    (We’ll set aside whether that’s true or whether in the long run it makes much difference — it hardly seems like the US is losing ground to Spain because kids can start reading a few months earlier.)

    But the transition itself involves incredible societal cost. At the least:
    1) Several decades during which young and old people can’t communicate with each other comfortably in written form — in which parents can’t help children with homework, young adults can’t read their parents’ letters, bosses can’t write notes to their employees, students can’t use most books in the library, etc.

    2) Non-Mandarin speakers now have to master Mandarin pronunciation in order to become literate. (It’s been hard enough for Hong Kongers to have to learn Mandarin vocabulary and syntax in order to write and read Standard Chinese; now they have to learn how to pronounce it as well.) How much additional schooling time would that require?

    3) Billions of dollars spent to rewrite and republish everything — books, signs, business cards, instruction manuals, movie subtitles — that you want to be usable by the younger generations.

    4) Anything that isn’t in reasonably colloquial written Standard Mandarin may become partly unreadable in alphabetic form.

    Vietnam and Korea aren’t good parallels. When Vietnam switched to alphabetic writing, the percentage of the population that was literate was miniscule, and the shift was gradual, so the disruption was minimal. In Korea, the loss of characters has also been a gradual withering away, and this gradual change has been possible only because of the mixed alphabetic/character script system that has been in use for a long time. There’s no obvious way to make a gradual change in China.

    Japan, because of its mixed script, is in a much better position to eliminate Chinese characters, either gradually or suddenly, than China is. The disruption would be much less than it would be in China. Why do you suppose the Japanese haven’t done so? I think one likely reason — though I can’t prove it — is that Japanese writing is incredibly efficient. It’s just very easy to read. That might be worth some extra schooling time.

    Incidentally, I think the situation with English spelling is quite parallel to that with Chinese characters. The advantages of our current spelling system, combined with the high costs (both economic and societal) associated with making a change, outweigh the potential time savings (no more spelling tests!) if we were to change things.

  26. @Zev Handel

    There would certainly be fixed transition costs in switching from characters to pinyin, but there would eventually be a net gain by getting rid of the recurring costs of time wasted learning characters. Even if the transition cost is high in the short term, it will be miniscule when compared to the long-term savings made by getting ride of the recurring costs. We might debate how long it would take to get a net savings, but the fact that it would occur I don’t think can be reasonably denied.

    And then point by point…

    1. Since pinyin is such a simple system, I have little doubt that all the adults you mention would be able to master it quickly. Indeed, many of them would have used it themselves when they were young, and they’d surely be familiar with it from typing and from most dictionaries as well.

    2. People from Hong Kong have to learn the pronunciation anyway–it’s the meaning they’ll wouldn’t know from the written text. But this will effectively make it like the difference between Spanish and French: different, but once you figure out the patterns it’s not so hard. Even taking this inefficiency into consideration, I still think you’d have a net gain.

    On the other hand, ditching characters would open Chinese up to a lot of people who avoid it for just that reason. I think Chinese will have a much better chance at becoming a truly international language with pinyin rather than with characters.

    3. A one-time transition cost. See above.

    4. I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. Difficult texts? The fine print in English is already pretty unreadable, but I’m not sure that that has anything to do with simplifying the script. Poems, maybe? Poetry would certainly become difficult to understand without characters, but that doesn’t sway me.

    Vietnam and Korea certainly aren’t exact parallels, but the rationale remains the same. And I agree that Japan would be a much better candidate to take the leap, although I doubt that Japanese is any easier to read than any other language is for a native speaker. (As a tangential, I’ve always been confounded by the fact the right-wing in Japan people dislikes China but loves Chinese characters.)

    While one-time transition costs will certainly become miniscule versus the amount saved over the long term, the fact that the costs will be large in a short-term view will probably prevent any changes in either Chinese or English. So regardless of whether I can argue this idea right into the ground, I think we can both agree that the status quo in either language isn’t about to change.

  27. Zev Handel says:

    Thanks for the interesting discussion! I’m happy to end on a note of agreement.

  28. Nick says:

    Max, I also have trouble remembering how to spell some English words, so your girlfriend must have really excellent English if you think this is less of a problem for her than remembering uncommon characters 😉

    Regarding character input, I think that while pinyin + recognition might be useful with uncommon characters it is probably slowing her down on the more common ones. Any input system that doesn’t uniquely define each character will be relatively slow as it requires the user to make more decisions. A system like Cangjie where (almost all) characters have a unique code would be faster, but just like writing by hand it takes a little longer to learn.

    I believe Google have released an “intelligent” pinyin input system that can guess at which character is meant, it may be faster/easier but I don’t have personal experience. (I’m a Cantonese learner and I’m learning the “pronunciation neutral” Cangjie to escape poor Cantonese input methods).

    I think that many of my Chinese friends speak Chinese but type English to each other simply because they have had more practice with English typing (due to overseas study and employment).

  29. Max says:

    Nick, thank you for your constructive comment.
    Nearly all modern input systems (with the exception of the standard one from OS X. Thanks, Apple) use a database which by statistical analysis of a text corpus determines which characters are most likely to show up together. We use IMKQIM (OS X), for example, which is based on the sougou database/corpus, and which works very very well.
    That being said, it’s like an automatic spellchecker – it can only do so much for you. If you happen not to want the statistically most likely character combination, then it’s back to search&pick.
    As for canjie (Is that the same as wubi?), that’s very cool, but I’m very happy that at least SOMETHING about the written language is reinforcing the pronounciation of the characters 😉
    Also, you guys are making too much of a problem of English writing/spelling. It’s a PITA to get from written word to pronounciation, but once you know the pronounciation, and have seen the word a couple of times, it’s not that much of a feat to reproduce it…

  30. Regarding switching to a language not your own simply because it’s faster, I don’t buy it as a sign that one system is inherently easier/better/faster/whatever than the other. I’m a native English speaker and have on multiple occasions used Mandarin/hanzi to type emails and chats to other native speaker friends. Because it was faster. “今晚” is quicker to type than “this evening”. I don’t buy the argument that it’s faster to do English if the medium is digital.

    And I certaily don’t buy that faster = more efficient. Case in point: This morning one of my flatmates was talking to me about “ba ling hou”. It took me a minute to get what they were saying thanks to non-standard tones and a lack of context. It’s spelling. It’s equivalent to having read “ba ling hou”. Had I instead seen 八零後 it would have taken me a bit less time to catch on.

  31. Sima says:

    I’ve often wondered about the ease of using Chinese in certain situations. Within a couple of years of starting to learn Chinese, I caught myself sending sms/text messages to people I’d normally converse with in English.

    I think, for sms, Chinese wins hands down for ease of input and for cramming detailed information into a small space. This might also have something to do with the type of conversation one might have with sms – arranging a time and place to meet for dinner, for example.

  32. Max says:

    Definitely. I have the suspicion that Chinese is better suited for small pieces of information, and English for longer thoughts, upwards of a couple of paragraphs.

  33. Sima says:

    That’s certainly the way I feel about my own Chinese, but that could be because of my own shortcomings. I’m pretty comfortable composing a business letter or writing a short story in English, but whilst I do both those things in Chinese from time to time, there are all kinds of problems I run into that are nothing to do with input, fitting information into the available space or legibility. I imagine that most native Chinese speakers would feel happier writing longer things in Chinese.

  34. Zev Handel says:

    I feel pretty confident that our experiences with Chinese vs. English are in many cases due more to current media technologies than to inherent differences in the writing systems. That means they are transitory phenomena. I’m pretty sure texting/SMS won’t exist in its current form after another decade. And I’m confident that the keyboard, which is an idiotic way to get data into a computer, is going to be a distasteful memory in another two decades. (And how we’ll laugh and laugh watching movies from the 1990s and 2000’s with scenes of people typing — typing! — to get information into a computer.)

    It will be interesting to see if there are significant differences in efficiency in the writing of English and Chinese in the media platforms of the future. Regardless, both will remain very efficient ways to READ, thanks to the high degree of logography in both scripts.

  35. Max says:

    And I’m confident that the keyboard, which is an idiotic way to get data into a computer, is going to be a distasteful memory in another two decades. (And how we’ll laugh and laugh watching movies from the 1990s and 2000’s with scenes of people typing — typing! — to get information into a computer.)
    That remains me of the scene from the old Star Trek movie, where the crew is back in our time (to save the whales), and Scotty talks into the mouse 😀
    Anybody know what I'm talking about?

  36. Sima says:

    I wonder how people viewed the future of Chinese characters in the 1970s or, perhaps, a little earlier. Having survived the typewriter era, the looming prospect of widespread computer use must have looked like the end.

    Does anyone know at what point the first serious efforts were made to input or display Chinese or Japanese on computers? To what extent could efforts at script reform be seen as being driven, at least in part, by considerations of the need for something that could be handled by computers? Did early success in this field even begin to suggest that further script reforms were less of a priority?

  37. Max says:

    I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, but in the era of telegrams, characters were simply represented with 4 digit codes. So I’d guess people thought the worst they’d have to do would be to learn these codes to interact with computers in “written Chinese”..

  38. Zev Handel says:

    Even through the 1990s and early 2000s it was widely assumed that computerization was going to be the death knell of Chinese characters. Among the problems people cited were:

    1) the incredible difficulty getting fonts that could handle Chinese characters across different platforms — and most fonts couldn’t handle all characters;
    2) the difficulty with input systems;
    3) the difficulty reading characters on a screen;
    4) the difficulty reading characters on date-matrix printers

    As late as 1997, a book called “Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma” by William Hannas was published, rather gleefully predicting that computerization was finally going to be the end of Chinese characters. Students in my Chinese linguistics classes made similar predictions into the early 2000s. What nobody realized was that computer technology was improving so quickly that all of the problems listed above would be resolved before there was time to eliminate Chinese characters. Unicode, context-sensitive input systems, and incredibly high-resolution screens and printers have all come along. Now my young students consistently say that computerization has SAVED Chinese characters by making it easy to write Chinese without having to remember how to write the characters.

    I think it’s easy for us to fall into the same trap today — to assume that current technologies will stay with us and shape the future of writing systems.

  39. Sima says:

    Thank you, I’d not considered that at all. I guess it could be related to the system that the British embassy in China uses (used?) to record the names of Chinese visa applicants. As far as I recall, all family names, at least, had to be accompanied by a numeric code looked up in some kind of register.

    At some point, the prospect of interacting with a computer in that way would have looked pretty silly, I imagine.

    Great points as usual. I still hear arguments that Chinese characters will inevitably be ditched in the end. Of your four points, only number 2 – input difficulties – seems to be brought up now, as far as the needs of computer users goes.

    One proponent of writing reform did persuade me to read both “Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma” and another book by Hannas, “The Writing on the Wall.” I’m not sure that I can add much to your ‘review’. My memory of the former is even more sketchy than of the latter. I ought to go back and check it.

    I’m very much in agreement with your students on this; it does look like the computer saved Chinese characters. That such a turnaround should have taken place – from, I imagine, a pretty widespread belief that the computer would kill Chinese characters, to the realisation that it has probably done a great deal to save and even strengthen or promote them, I find quite fascinating.

  40. I don’t buy that keyboard will be gone in 20 years. Mostly because the exact same QWERTY layout from the typewriters exists on my iPhone. Change is scary. But then on the same device I pretty much only use the handwriting input when it comes to hanzi.

    I know saying this out loud would probably earn me the wrath of Dr. Mair were he ever hear it, not to mention that of our own Syz, but I’m pretty happy with characters these days. I just can’t imagine trying to make sense of 文言文 if pinyinised.

  41. Max says:

    I respect your opinion (even when I have a different one) but don’t mix things up;
    文言文 was explicitely written with characters in mind. Reading it in pinyin would be like reading a superbly crafted poem in a translation into another language. But just because I prefer to, say, read a poem by Goethe in German, doesn’t mean I’d want everybody to use German all the time.
    It’s not like people would be FORBIDDEN to read characters, were written Chinese to change to pinyin.

  42. Max: Agreed. My 文言 comment was more a reaction to the thought of doing away with characters entirely than anything else.

    One of the reasons cited regarding the discussion in congress last year on re-traditionalising some characters was that with computers it makes no difference now. It’s all pinyin-and-click now. Inputting 旦 or 蛋 is equally difficult (or easy).

    It’s not about being forbidden. It’s about people losing the ability to make sense of things. I recognise that that’s a little extreme, but I think not impossible.

  43. Max says:

    I see it like the transition from Latin as the written language in medieval Europe to written vernacular.
    Sure, a lot of the feeling got lost in the translations. Sure, people later couldn’t access the originals anymore, without learning a new language first. Sure, the transition was hard. But I’d still argue it was a change for the better..
    (And don’t forget that some people still choose to learn Latin, because they want to read the originals. It’s not like this is a lost knowledge)

  44. Zev Handel says:

    I think Max makes a good point. It wasn’t that long ago — about a hundred years — that all educated Westerners were trained to read Greek and Latin in the original. We now manage without that. Reading Greek and Latin in the original is left to specialists with years of extra training; the rest of us access this cultural heritage through translations.

    Currently, near all college-educated Chinese can read Classical Chinese reasonably well. It takes a lot of extra schooling to learn the grammar and vocabulary of Classical Chinese. But it doesn’t require learning a new writing system or a new phonology.

    Direct access by educated Chinese to the vast literature (spanning 3000 years) in Classical Chinese would be lost if characters were replaced with alphabetic writing based on Mandarin. It would become restricted to specialists who require years of extra training not only to learn Classical Chinese grammar and vocabulary, but also an arcane writing system together with a set of stylized reading pronunciations. Everyone else would access these materials through modern Chinese translations.

    (If this were to happen, I suspect that Japanese scholars would have an easier time than Chinese scholars becoming experts in Classical Chinese. If you don’t grow up with Chinese characters, it will probably be much harder to become a rapid reader.)

    (It would also mean that most foreign learners of Chinese would remain completely unable to read Classical Chinese texts — just as most foreign learners of French don’t study Latin as part of their language curriculum.)

    The trade-off is one that the Chinese themselves must weigh. We can’t read Beowulf in the original and most of us don’t feel that as a loss. But I think it would be a painful transition for one or two generations of Chinese speakers. And it would mean a complete revamping of Chinese high school and college curricula.

  45. Zev Handel says:

    Another brief point: Even without the disappearance of the keyboard (and I certainly wouldn’t put any money behind that prediction!), Chinese character entry will continue to become more efficient. The power and sophistication of the input methods is increasing rapidly. Through improved databases of word and character frequency and improved context-driven algorithms, the ability of the computer to predict which character you intend will probably be astonishingly better in just a few years. And since each Chinese morpheme has a maximum of six keystrokes in pinyin (excluding tone), on average shorter than for English, writing in Chinese should end up being significantly more efficient than writing in English — whether one is using characters or pinyin as the ultimate written form.

  46. Max: Fair enough. I studied Latin and Sanskrit so I can’t really argue against that.

  47. Max says:

    Maybe you guys already know this, but I just stumbled upon a most interesting Wikipedia page, which describes a phonetic and very-well developed alphabet for English, called “Quikskript”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quikscript

    I personally think this is totally awesome 😀

  48. Syz says:

    “Japanese writing is incredibly efficient”
    “Regardless, both [Hanzi and Japanese] will remain very efficient ways to READ, thanks to the high degree of logography in both scripts.”

    Is this just your sense of it, or is there some kind of research on this?

  49. Chrix says:

    Sorry, no time to check sources right now, but how I’ve understood this debate: there’s research from Japan that suggests that the Japanese writing system is indeed highly efficient, but these findings have been questioned by some other scholars, but unfortunately I don’t recall the details.. .

  50. Zev Handel says:


    I probably shouldn’t have made so bold a claim without hedging a bit — this is based on both my own experience with Japanese and Chinese writing, and on things I’ve read here and there.

    The book “Writing and Literacy in Chinese, Korean and Japanese” by Taylor and Taylor (Benjamins, 1995) makes a strong case for the efficiencies of the writing system, and contains some good information on the psycholinguistics of reading. But it’s also problematic in some of its claims about how Chinese-character writing systems work. But it — and the many review articles that have been written on it — would make a good place to start researching more about this topic.

    Amazon link:

  51. Syz says:

    @Zev, thanks, looks cool. But holy $%!#, what’s the $176 price tag all about? This may take some sleuthing.

  52. Syz says:

    Damn that was fast, Max! very cool (and just what I needed to delay writing my next corporate missive)

  53. […] that might be sociolinguistic (Mandarin as future lingua franca) or esoteric, insider stuff (second round character simplifications) or random translation issues (“my ass is toast” for […]

  54. Francis Zheng says:

    hey, the pictures won’t load. Is anyone else having this problem? I can’t see the scanned images! =(

    • Steve (Syz) says:

      Francis, thanks for pointing out the pic problem. Looks like I’ve fixed it now. Let me know if you have any problems. Happy reading!

Leave a Reply to Kellen Parker