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Book published in pinyin – don’t tell your kids

September 20, 2010
A book of short stories presented entirely in pinyin, with no characters, has been published online. This is a fascinating development, as there are many academics who say (softly and not for attribution) that eventually it’s clear that characters will go away, just as they did with Korean and Vietnamese. The rise of computers is adding to this – people type in pinyin, translate it to characters and post those. There are those who suggest that the intermediate step isn’t necessary and many young people are just dispensing with it.

Readers of Chinese will say that the characters are necessary to distinguish between different characters. John DeFrancis coined the term  homographobia for it, the ” irrational fear of ambiguity when individual lexical items which are now distinguished graphically lose their distinctive features and become identical if written phonemically.” (His essay, linked above, is quite fascinating.)

His point is that Chinese speakers clearly do just fine talking, so it’s obviously possible to distinguish words with different meaning. He notes that most Chinese words exist as compound words (mingtian -tomorrow, zhouzi- table, Zhongguo, China) and the compound gives the necessary information, just as it does in spoken speech.

If history is any judge, the use of thousands of characters to represent a very small number of actual syllables will eventually go away. Think of the multiple systems that used to use such logographic writing – cuneiform, Mayan glyphs and ancient Egyptian being the main ones. The only one still is use are Chinese characters, which Japanese has borrowed.

But don’t worry that your kids are learning an obsolete writing system, it’s clear that characters will still be in use for years to come. But not, perhaps, for all time.


New book in Pinyin

September 13, 2010 at 1:38 pm ·

image of the cover of the printed edition of Pinyin Riji DuanwenI’m very pleased to announce the publication of a new book, Pīnyīn Rìjì Duǎnwén, by Zhāng Lìqīng. Other than one introductory letter in English, the work is entirely in Mandarin.

This is perhaps the world’s first Mandarin-language book to be published in Hanyu Pinyin without so much as one Chinese character. Thus, it is of historic importance. But it’s also a wonderful collection of stories. The author generously granted the right to release all of this book online.

The work will also soon be available in an inexpensive printed edition.

Some of you will recall Zhang’s lovely story Dàshuǐ Guòhòu (“After the Flood”), which first appeared here three years ago. It leads the new collection. The remaining twelve memoirs/stories are mainly in the same vein, recalling a childhood in China and Taiwan.

Zhè shì yī gè lǎo gùshi. Shìqing fāshēng zài 1946 nián xiàtiān. Nà nián wǒ jiāngjìn shí suì, zhù zài Sìchuān Chéngdū jiāoqū d Bǎihuā Qiáo. Zhōngguó Kōngjūn Tōngxìn Xuéxiào d jīdì zài nàli. Wǒ bàba shì nà ge xuéxiào d jūnguān….

The author died earlier this year. She was able to view proofs of the work, though her illness prevented her from making any corrections herself. Fortunately, several people stepped in, contributing substantially to the checking of the Pinyin and other aspects of the work. I’d like especially to thank the following people: David W. Goodrich, Jiao Liwei, Kuo Hsin-chun, Melvin Lee, and Victor H. Mair. Any errors found in the book should be considered my own.

Please report any divergences from the Pinyin orthography established by Yin Binyong and the spellings used in the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary (Zhang was, after all, one of the associate editors of that massive work) to me. I’ve made very few intentional departures from those.

Please note that the use of “d” (where most authors would use “de”) is intentional. This is not a bug but a feature, something I came to understand better the more time I spent with this text. The use of “d” is explained in the second introductory letter (Liǎng Fēng Gěi Biānzhě d Xìn: 2).

read more here.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2010 2:23 pm

    What academic says Chinese character is going away? Is it referring to dead academic like Lu Xun? Not happening. In fact I see the opposite is happening, nowadays when English media reference a Chinese topic, the original Chinese characters are often added alongside. For example just look at the wikipedia entry for Lu Xun. Why do people put Chinese characters there, those meaning is clearly redundant? People do this because there is a intrinsic connection from the Chinese characters to the concept that the supposedly equivalent transliteration does not carry.

  2. elizabethweise permalink*
    September 20, 2010 2:36 pm

    Some links:
    Why Chinese is So Damn Hard
    (don’t let you kids read this one until they’re in college!)

  3. September 20, 2010 2:58 pm

    That’s a few guys ranting about how they want to reengineer the Chinese writing system, not an observation about what’s happening in the society.

    A observation from one of the author is revealing, on a survey about IME, he finds “Around 98% of the respondents used Pinyin (romanization) to input Chinese characters”. The keyword is inputting “Chinese characters”. The percentage of people who forgo IME altogether and input pinyin directly is about 0% by my observation.

    Perhaps this book’s very announcement says it all, it is the FIRST Mandarin-language book to be published in Hanyu Pinyin, meaning they are alone in this endeavor.

  4. October 24, 2012 10:35 am

    I think it’s good to have pinyin foundation if you want to improve listening and speaking. If you want to read and write though, you MUST learn characters. This is important because of the 1.3+ different Chinese in the world who don’t all speak the same dialect accurately. Thus Characters unites them all, even Japanese and Korean. Learn more at Sunrise Method, we also have a free app on Apple store to help those search/learn characters.

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