Thursday, September 27, 2007

English Needs the Chinese Alphabet

Ohhh, my poor synapses. It's at times like this I'm reminded why I swore off certain psychoactive amphetamine derivatives years and years ago. Six hours of awesome fun, six days of sub-par mental performance. Still, expensive as it all was, a rave up in the Japanese Alps is an experience I won't soon forget (though the memories might be a little fuzzy at times :-p )

Anyhow. The preceding is not the point of the post, but merely a weak excuse for the recent lack of posting (as I've spent myself into poverty until the next paycheck, I expect I'll be posting quite a bit more frequently in the future.)

You think you know a country. You've been there a few years, can speak the language, and have talked to enough people and had enough strange experiences that you get to thinking that there's nothing more that can really surprise you. And then out of nowhere something pops out that smacks you right upside the head and forcefully reminds you of how alien a place you're in.

Japanese people can read a novel in three hours. That's average. A fast reader can do it in under an hour; a slow reader takes maybe eight or nine. Now, I'm a fairly fast reader. I've been literate since about the age of three or four (thanks, Mom!), and I've spent an excessive fraction of my life with my nose stuck in a book. If I'm really going, not pausing to digest what I'm reading but just flying through it as fast as possible, I can get finish a three hundred page, hundred-thousand word novel in maybe eight hours. At that rate I read maybe two books a week (lately significantly less than that, as I've been immersing myself in Japanese media the last few months as part of an effort to master the language in time for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test in December, which I'll probably fail anyway.)

I've dreamed about being able to read faster for years. Most of those dreams involve some sort of cyborg prosthesis that reduces cover-to-cover elapsed time to a matter of seconds. So you can understand why, when I found out that the average Japanese reading speed is over twice as fast as that of a Westerner, I felt just a twinge (well, maybe more of a stab) of jealousy, heightened by the knowledge that it's far too late for me to ever be able to read Japanese at native-level speeds (maybe if I'd started at three or four....)

Westerners are often baffled by the Chinese alphabet (the Japanese use a modified version of the Chinese alphabet, which is why from here on I'm going to talk about Chinese rather than Japanese characters.) It seems ridiculous to us - at least it certainly did to me - that their alphabet is isomorphic to their dictionary, with thousands of characters that have to be laboriously memorized. The roman alphabet seems intuitively more practical: fifty-two characters, combined with some fairly simple phonetic rules, are perfectly sufficient for recording all the words of our or any other language.

Then again, so is binary.

Think about what happens when you read. In order to understand a printed word, your eyes have to scan it from beginning to end, picking out the letters, putting them into syllables, and eventually forming it all into a coherent word. This is an entirely different process from that involved in reading Chinese characters. The characters contain no clues as to how to pronounce them (although in Japanese - which actually has three alphabets, two of them phonetic - have a way around that, by writing tiny furigana above the kanji. This is a Japanese thing, though; the Chinese do quite well without it.) Reading Chinese characters is all about pattern recognition: your eyes settle on the character and it's meaning flashes instantly into your brain (assuming you know the character, that is; if you don't, it's just a disturbing blank spot.) You still have to scan in order to get the high level grammatical structures, of course, but the individual words are much more quickly available.

I first noticed this a while ago, actually, maybe a month or two after I started studying Japanese. As I mentioned above, Japanese has three alphabets: kanji (Chinese characters), hiragana (phonetic characters), and katakana (phonetic characters used in a roughly analogous way to italics, ie for emphasis or rendering foreign words.) TV shows over here often have subtitles (not just western shows; the Japanese ones too. Not sure why), so when watching TV I'd also try and read the subtitles. I noticed that any kanji I happened to know I would recognize instantly, but for the kana I'd have to stop and sound them out, a much more laborious process.

It wasn't until a week or so back, though, that I really put two and two together, and started asking my students how long it takes them to read a book. Three hours, ladies and gentlemen, was the resounding answer. And this is for a language that, truth be told, uses phonetic alphabets very extensively. I can only imagine how much faster the Chinese must be, with a written language that dispenses entirely with phonics.

Hence the title of this post. English would be, I think, enormously improved if it started adopting Chinese characters. There's a tradeoff, of course. Mastering the Chinese alphabet is no small task; Asians generally aren't fully literate until they graduate high school (though considering the number of semi-literate college grads back home, this isn't such a big difference ... and indeed, I have to wonder what the hell their excuse is. It's not like the roman alphabet is hard to learn. But I digress....) That investment in time, however, pays off later with the ability to take in information at over twice the speed possible with a phonetic alphabet.

I'm not suggesting a complete abandonment of the roman alphabet, here, but more of a marriage. The Japanese example is instructive: they do their nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs with kanji, but put most of the grammatical structures together with kana. Here's an example of what this hybrid written language might look like:

I went to the store and bought some running shoes.
I 行t to the 店 and 買t some 走靴.

The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution banning arms sales to Venezuela.
The 国連安全保障理事会 判決d a 決意 禁止ing 兵器 販売s to Venezuela.

Those are just examples, in which I just substituted the Japanese compound kanji directly. A fully anglicized Chinese alphabet could well be even more compact.

It sounds crazy, I know, but English has become the language of the world, and that world includes well over a billion people who use kanji as a matter of course. It wouldn't be at all unheard of for some kind of hybrid language to emerge, and I for one am all for it. Both styles of writing have their advantages, and putting them together could well create the ultimate written language.

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Emily said...

Very interesting post, Matt. I like your idea. It's really the same thing that happens in spoken language (Spanglish), but for writing.

Laura and I can hardly have a ten minute conversation without throwing in some Georgian because sometimes there isn't a word in English that captures a certain concept.

Keitousama said...

Yeah, the expat population in Japan (we call ourselves gaijin, of course) do the same thing, peppering our speech with all sorts of Japanese words. Keitai instead of cell phone, and 'genki' (which doesn't really translate well) are two of the more common ones.