English as she is spoke
Posted by aogSaturday, 31 January 2004 at 23:03 TrackBack Ping URL

The Brothers Judd was discussing an article about the superiority of iconic written language over alphabetic ones. Since no one will read the comments again, I’ll weigh in here.

The best known iconic language is Chinese, where there is an icon / pictoglyph for every word. In contrast, English is written alphabetically, with a small set of symbols used to represent sounds which in turn are composed in varying numbers to form words. There are numerous variations on this pattern (for instance, Japanese uses primarily icons, but has two syllabaries for writting some elements of the language phonetically, such as conjuctions and verb conjugations).

Originally I was just going to make some short comments, but the article is so confused that I have to rip it apart.

As 20th century philosophers, linguists and logicians have established, a great number of the errors and confusions of Western thought are due to the structure of Indo-European languages, including their adoption of phonetic writing.

What philosophers, linguists and logicians would these be? I’ve never heard of any with that point of view. The big mistake here (which is commonly made) is to treat the written form of the language as the “real” language. It’s not. Spoken language is the dominant form, writing is merely a means of encoding spoken language. One might also note that phonetic writing was adopted for Indo-European languages millenia after the languages first existed.

The world view inscribed in Chinese characters - as well as the peculiar features of their grammar - turns out to be far closer to the reality that modern science has disclosed.

There is no world view inscribed in Chinese characters as characters. The particular words associated with the characters structures the world view of its speakers, but that’s a property of the language, not the characters it’s written in.

Take the notions of identity, substance and essence. Western philosophy and science, beginning with the Greeks, wrestled with them obsessively. What is a thing? What is its substance or essence? Surely something cannot be simultaneously A and not A? So what is A?

Modern physics has revealed all these questions to be meaningless.

No, modern physics has shown that there are different answers to these questions. An electron is still an electron. It can’t have electrical charge and not have electrical charge at the same time. It’s this article that’s meaningless.

A specialised language, mathematics, was required to disclose this reality.

This, right here, disproves the entire thesis of the article! When the Westerns, cruelly limited by their alphabetic languages, couldn’t write about this reality, they simply invented a new language. Doesn’t that make the original linguistic limitation rather trivial?

Indo-European languages could not have done so, for they created a different universe. For speakers of these languages, a ‘thing’ must have an ‘essence’, distinguishable from every other thing, because language has a word peculiar to each thing.

Every language has this same property - words. It’s in fact a bit of a puzzle as to why languages have words. Some languages (such as Innuit) are rather flexible about what a word is, but the concept of a word is still there.

[…] in Chinese, good is represented by a character combining the sign for ‘woman’ with the sign for ‘child’. Woman + Child = Good.

Chinese philosophy, unless influenced by other philosophies, wouldn’t dream of asking what is good, for the simple reason that good is represented in Chinese as a relation, not an essence.

So you mean Sun Tzu didn’t write about what was good in warfare? I must have a bad translation. Moreover, unless the word “good” is pronounced as “Woman, Child” this is another example of confusing the written and spoken languages and is completely irrelevant.

Overall, however, one can make a strong case that cultures with alphabetic languages will almost always do better as a technological society. While icons have advantages among technical uses (which is why computer interfaces use icons instead of words), alphabetic systems are far better at supporting mass literacy. It is mass literacy that makes a technological society possible.

Several of the commentors (such as Jeff Guinn) point out that mechanical aids such as printing presses and typewriters work much better with alphabetic system. Further, there is the “bootstrap” issue, where for an alphabetic system, once one has become somewhat literate further reading improves literacy. This is once again because the spoken language is primary, so that an alphabetic system can be sounded out and through that one can (usually) connect a printed word one has not seen before with the sound of the word and thereby know it.

What I would find interesting is how well neologisms work in non-alphabetic languages. The ability to construct new words for new things is key to promulgating them. In an alphabetic system there are roots and affixes one can use to build up words, but most iconic systems also have “radicals” which are constitutent parts of larger icons. It’s possible that neologisms can be constructed using new patterns of radicals and icons.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
pj Sunday, 08 February 2004 at 19:36

Nice post, AOG, sorry I’m coming to it late.

Your thought about neologisms is a good one - in fact Chinese has some trouble with this. Most neologisms in Chinese are represented as combinations of other words. The woman-child pairing is a good example.

The difficulty of promulgating new words also leads eventually to a paucity of words. My wife, who is Chinese, says that Chinese suffer because their language typically has only one way to express a thought, and therefore there is no way to express nuance — whereas English can often express a similar thought ten different ways, and each way has a subtle connotation, one being polite and another tough. My wife claims many disputes in China arise from the lack of nuance in language.

Annoying Old Guy Sunday, 08 February 2004 at 22:45

Heh. I just ran in to exactly that situation at work, with some naturalized Chinese. It turned on the difference between “a” and “the”. We had a software object A that solved a problem. There was a similar problem, so I said “just use an A”. This nuance was missed and they thought I meant “the A”, i.e. the one already present, which would have been a dumb idea for various reasons. This lead to some heated e-mail exchanges until I realized that they were arguing against something I hadn’t proposed. Chinese doesn’t have articles and so it’s not a distinction that comes naturally to a native Mandarin speaker. It’s a perfect example of the kind of thing your wife is talking about.

End of Discussion