(Samule E. Martin)
Most major languages in the world today are written with symbol systems of symbols that are similar in spirit to our own alphabet. The native writter makes use of a relatively small inventory of symbols to represent phonological elements -- typically syllables or phonemes, but in some cases morphophonemic and even componential elements. For various reasons, every writing system is in some way defective even when first instituted, and the institutionalization itself prevents the continuous revision that would keep the conventions of writing as well matched to the continuously changing spolen language as they may have been in the beginning. As a result, literate people tend to create formal written languages characterized by older forms, phonological and grammatical, which persist with very little change for long periods of time, until some sort of revolution demands a new written language that will correspond more closely to the living tongue.
The language spoken by more people than any other, Chinese, is usually written with a nonalphabetic system, a relatively large stock of characters that primarily represent words or parts of words. At the time the writing system developed, the overwhelming majority of Chinese words were single morphemes and the morpheme itself was in virtually all instances a single "syllable" -- traditionally defined as an initial plus an ending, the latter consisting of a vocalic nucleus with a tone and an optional coda. Accordingly, the writing has variously been called logographic or morphemic or monosyllabic, and there is no need to worry undduly about the slight inaccuracies implied by any of these terms. (The term "logographic" was popularized by Bloomheld and Kennedy, who seem to have taken it from Du Ponceau [1838:110]: "I would not call the Chinese chatacters a syllabic, but a logographic system of writing". Du Ponceau also use the term "lexigraphic.")
What are these Chinese characters, and how many of them are there? The K'anghsi dictionary of 1716 lists 40,545 different characters; Morohashi's recent dictionary carries nearly fifty thousand. (...) If we were to take all the characters that have ever existed, it is said, the total number would reach eighty thousand [Du Ponceau
1838, p.7n; Alleton 1970, p.47]. (...)
How are the Chinese characters structured? By tradition the graphs are divided into six categories, according to their origins; but the sixth category ("derivate characters") is so small and controversial that it is bets ignored. The five other categories are as follows:
(1) 'Pictographs' are direct iconic representations, such as those that depict the sun, the moon, a tree, a mouth, a mountain, a well, a bow, a stream, a gate, a shell, etc. Most characters have become highly stylized with the passage of time so that the original picture is not always obvious at first glance.
(2) 'Simple ideographs' depicts a logical idea: three horizontal lines to represent the number three, a pointer above or below the line to signal the words for up and down, etc.
(3) 'Compound ideographs' represent an abstract idea by combining two simple graphs, as when MOON is put to the right of SUN to represent the word for 'bright'. Two TREES are put together to represent the word 'grove'; three are combined to represent a different word for 'forest'.
(4) 'Phonetic loans' borrow a graph to represent a different word with the same or some similar sound, as when the character depicting a dustpan was borrowed to write the similar-sounding qí 'its', or the character depicting a kind of wheat was borrowed to write lái 'come'.
(5) 'Phonetic compounds' contain an element that hints at the meaning, usually called the 'radical', and an element called 'phonetic' that hints at the sound. The radicals, a kind of semantic classification system, were reduced in number from 540 of the first-century dictionary Shuõ Wén to the 214 found in the eighteenth century K'anghsi dictionary.
Is is said that 90 percent of all characters are phonetic compounds, with about 5 percent simple pictographs or ideographs and the remaining 5 percent compound ideographs or phonetic loans [Alleton 1970, p.33]. But in the modern shapes, both those created in China and those created in Japan, the phonetic and/or the radical sometimes disapears in the process of simplification. And we would expect the proportion of simple pictographs and ideographs to rise slightly as the number is restricted to the more frequent characters.
The shapes of the characters reflect a two-thousand-year history of brushwork calligraphy, of which one of the most important features is equidimensionality. Each character occupies an imaginary space of identical size, so that the same element must be given a smaller shape as it enters into more complex characters. (...)
For reasons apparently unknown, texts in East Asia have traditionally been written in vertical lines arrayed from right to left. But modern nonfiction publications have made increasing use of horizontal left-to-right printing, since that makes it easier to incorporate the foreign words and symbols so necessary in scientific work. (...)
Although Chinese writing is essentially logographic or morphemic, the characters are also phonetically to transliterate foreign names; these, however, are often abbreviated to the first syllable, especially when well known and when cited with a title. (...) Although the characters are not being used in their original senses, an attempt is made to choose characters that have a pleasant or neutral connotation, unless referring to a political personality, when the writer is free to vent his feelings by picking characters with abusive meaning.
When Chinese characters reached Japan they were eagerly embraced by an inquisitive people who admired discipline, respected learning, and showed an extraordinary taste for variety. Unfortunately they also had tin ears. The phonetic simplicity of their native language, with well under a hundred original syllables, made it a tortuous task to assimilate the more elaborate syllables of classical Chinese. Because of the richer syllable structure, Korean versions of Chinese words sound like Cantonese without tones; Japanese versions have a flavor all their own. The characters were repeatedly imported on different occasions and by different contacts with mainland; as a result, the Japanese ended up with more than one "Chinese" reading for many of the characters.
Now, the Chinese itself a number of characters have more than one traditional reading, the result of ancient derivational process or of dialect mixture.
When the Japanese borrowed Chinese characters they made an innovation that was to have far-reaching consequences. The characters represented Chinese morphemes, which the Japanese dutifully borrowed as words and as bound elements; but the morphemes themselves represented 'meanings', and the Japanese already had ways to express many of these meanings in their own, vastly different, language. So the Japanese started to associate a given character not only with the Chinese morpheme or morphemes imported with it but also with native words that were translational equivalents, calling these the "Kun" (explanatory) reading as contrasted with the "On" (phonetic) readings. (...) Since the exact misture of the three scripts depends upon an individual's education, knowledge, and whim, it is not surprising to find widespread anarchy in orthographic practices up until the educational reforms that followed Japan's defeat in World War II; these reforms have attempted to bring some semblance of standardization to the orthography, as well as a general simplification. Miller [1967, p. 133] tells us, "In 1927 the major Tokyo newspaper kept in stock printing type for between 7,500 and
8,000 different Chinese characters, and it was estimated at the time that an 'educated reader' would be 'familiar' with about 5,000 of these."
The postwar reforms aimed at reducing the number of characters and limiting the sanctioned readings to those deemed essential. Writers were asked to restrict, themselves to a list of 1850 characters "for the time being", called Toyo-Kánji, and to use these only according to the prescribed orthographic standards; of these a reduced list of 881 essential characters was required to be taught during the six years of elementary education. (...)
Among the postwar orthographic reforms was the adoption of simplified shapes for many of the characters and elements within characters. Later, the Chinese Communists independently simplified their script [cf. DeFrancis 1967], but often with different results from the Japanese, so that the characters currently used in Pekin and Tokyo have less in common today than they had at an earlier period.