Exercised over promiscuous polysemy
Snide comments have a way of getting outed sooner or later. But since a couple of months had passed since I compared Chinese characters to English spelling, neither in very favorable light, I thought I’d gotten away with this one:
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.
And I had gotten away with it — until yesterday, when 练 vs 炼 got a public defender who noted* some quite different senses of 练 and 炼. Fair enough, I’m not trying to say there’s no difference. I’m saying that
- Chinese characters make lots of distinctions in written language that do not exist in spoken language. [This is not remotely controversial]
- I am claiming that, in many cases, they do this for no good reason [this is sure to be controversial]
What would a good reason be? The standard I’d propose would run something like this:
Use distinct written representations of homophones if and only if native speakers are apt to be confused when they are represented by the same written form.
Let’s be fair to Chinese and use some English examples. To borrow Zev Handel’s comment on the same post, I agree it’d be confusing in some cases to represent “to” and “too” with the same spelling. The short sentence, “I’m going to”, without any other context could certainly be read to two ways. But then again, I’m not so sure it’d cause as much confusion as you might think.
On the other hand, some English spelling differences are egregiously pointless. “Stationary” vs “stationery” comes to mind. Let’s say we merged the spellings. “Ack!” exclaim the upholders of English orthography (UEOs), “Then you wouldn’t know when I was talking about a ‘stationary store’ or a ‘stationery store’!”**
Uh, sure. Or, maybe not. Even if you really wanted to talk about a stationary store in the sense of a store that was stationary (not that sold stationery), you’d be hard-pressed to make that clear with today’s spelling conventions unless you jumped through some hoops as I did just now. Absent that, only 3% of the readership would notice, 90% of them would just think you spelled it wrong, and the other 0.3% are gotcha mavens you don’t care about anyway.
What I think many UEOs forget is how well we deal with homonyms all the time. We do it so well that we have trouble realizing how promiscuously polysemous many words are — until you get Geoff Pullum posing a question like this:***
What do support poles, staff positions, battery terminals, army encampments, blog articles, earring stems, trading stations, and snail mail have in common with billboard advertising, accounts recording, making bail, and assigning diplomats?
The answer is that they are all based on post and yet we have no trouble dealing with them in writing or speaking.
So should 练 and 炼 be merged? Oh, relax. As I’ve said before, I’m not advocating the abolition of Chinese characters. I’m not advocating character reform. I haven’t even answered to my own satisfaction whether the two characters meet the standard set out above (i.e. if they were spelled the same would people get confused?).
The interesting question to me is where scripts draw the line between strict representation of sound and attempts at parsing polysemy.
* What commenter 很有区别 [there'sabigdifference] said:
“练”的意思是大多是说人或者动物反复学习，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
**Interestingly, prosody usually makes these distinct in spoken English: STAtionery store, stationary STORE.
***Promiscuously Polysemous is Pullum’s term in the same article. Damn that’s beautiful.