The Chinese, when they invented their system of writing, found themselves possessed of a language composed entirely of monosyllables, each of which was a word of the idiom, so that they could, by the same character, recall a word and a syllable at the same time. They also found that each of those words represented an object or an idea, so that they could present to the mind through the eye, at the same moment, a syllable, a word, and an idea. It is no wonder, therefore, that they did not look further, and that their first endeavour was to affix a sign to each word, by means of which they would recall the idea at the same time. But the idea was only to them a secondary object; it was attached to the word, and could not be separated from it.
All savage nations, in their first attempts to communicate with each other by writing, have begun with rude pictures or delineations of visible objects. The original forms of a number of their characters show, that the Chinese began in the same manner. But that could not carry them very far; yet it may have served their purpose while civilization had not made much progress among them. Afterwards they tried metaphors, which they probably found of very limited use. At last, as they advanced in knowledge and civilization, they fell upon a system, which they have preserved during a period of four thousand years, and with which they appear to be perfectly satisfied. It is to that system that philologists have given the name of ideographic writing.
In forming this system, they invented a certain number of what I should call primary signs, which they applied to an equal number of words. Some of those signs were abridged forms of their original pictures and metaphors, but so altered as to be no longer recognised. The number of those primary or simple characters is not known; it is to be presumed that it was not greater than could be
easily retained in the memory. The Chinese grammarians, under the name of keys or radicals, have reduced them to the number of two hundred and fourteen; but of these several are compounded, so that the number was probably still smaller. Be that as it may, two hundred words, more or less, having signs or characters to represent them, by joining two, three, or more of them together, and using them as catch words to lead to one that had no sign to represent it, could produce an immense number of combinations; and a still greater one by joining to these, and combining with them, the new compounds; and so they might proceed in the same manner ad infinitum. By means of that system, with some modifications, the Chinese succeeded in representing all the vmrds in their language. The ideas were only an ingredient in the method which they adopted, but it was by no means their object to present them to the mind unaccompanied by the word which was their model, and which, if I may use a bold metaphor, sat to them for its picture; a picture, indeed, which bore no resemblance to the object, but which was sufficient to recall it to the memory.
From this general view of the Chinese system of writing, it is evident that the object of its inventors was to recall to the mind, by visible signs, the words of which their language was composed, and not to represent ideas independent of the sounds of that language. But the number of those words being too great to admit of merely arbitrary signs, the forms of which could not easily be retained without some classification to help the memory, they thought of some mode of recalling at the same time something of the meaning of each word, and that was done by combining together the signs of several of them, so as to make a kind of definition, far, indeed, from being perfect, but sufficient for the purpose for which it was intended. And that is what the Chinese literati, and the sinologists after them, have been pleased to call ideographic writing; while, instead of ideas, it only represents words, by means of the combination of other words, and therefore I have called it lexigraphic.
To make this still clearer, I shall add here the explanation given by the Chinese themselves of their system of writing, for which we are indebted to Dr. Morrison, in his Dictionary, and M. Abel Remusat, in his Grammar of the Chinese language (Morrison, Introd. p. 1. Remusat, p. 4.).
I believe it will fully confirm the representation that I have made of it.
The Chinese divide their characters into six classes, which division they call Lou-chou according to Remusat, and Luh-shoo according to Morrison's orthography. As these two writers do not agree as to the order in which these classes are placed, I avail myself of the same privilege, and place them in such order as I think best calculated to give a clear idea of the whole. The three first relate to the external forms of the characters, and the three last to the manner in which they are employed, in order to produce the effect required. We shall now examine them separately.
I. The Siang-hing, (R.) or Hing-seang, (M.) M. Remusat calls these characters figurative, as representing as much as possible the forms of visible objects. Thus the sun is represented by a circle, with a dot in the middle; the moon by a crescent; a man, a horse, a dog, the eye, the ear, &c: by linear figures, representing or attempting to represent the different objects, the names of which they recall to memory. The Chinese writers, says Dr. Morrison, assert that originally those figurative characters composed nine-tenths of their alphabet, which is difficult to believe, unless the alphabet itself is very limited; but the Doctor adds that they give but very few examples of them, which is much more credible.
Be that as it may, those characters, if ever they existed to any considerable extent, have long ceased to be in use. The Chinese themselves admit it; and the reason they give for it, according to Dr. Morrison, is, that "they were abbreviated for the sake of convenience, and added to for the sake of appearance, so that the original form was gradually lost;" no trace of it now remains. The characters, as they are at present formed, present nothing to the eye but linear and angular figures, quite as insignificant as the letters of our alphabet, otherwise than by being connected with the words of the language as those are with its elementary sounds, and when grouped together with the words themselves. Therefore, as they now appear, those signs can in no
manner be called ideographic.
II. The Tchi-sse, (R.) or Che-khe-sze, (M.) M. Remusat calls them indicative. They are an attempt to recall, by figures, ideas that have no figure. Thus the numerals one, two, three, are represented by horizontal lines, as in the Roman arithmetical characters they are by vertical ones; the words above and below, are represented by short vertical lines above or below horizontal ones; and the word or the idea of middle, by an oblong square, with a vertical line passing through the middle of it. It is evident that there can be but few such characters; I have seen none cited, except those above mentioned. Whatever may be said of them, there are not enough to characterize a system.
III. The Tchouan-tchu, (R.) or Chuen-choo, (M.) M. Remusat calls them inverted. They are an attempt to represent things by their contraries. Thus a character representing a fork, with three prongs and a crooked handle, the prongs turned towards the right, stands for the word left, and for the word right, if the prongs are turned the other way. M. Remusat quotes four others, intended to represent the words standing, lying, man, and corpse; but in my opinion they represent nothing to the mind through the eye, and they must be absolutely guessed at. M. Remusat says that their number is very small, (tres peu considerable,) and it is easy to conceive why it should be so.
These three first classes of characters are the only ones, the ideographic nature of which is said to be inherent to their external form. It has been seen that the first has long been entirely out of use, and is now superseded by arbitrary signs, which have no connexion with ideas, except by recalling to the mind the words by which the ideas are expressed. The two others, ingenious as they are, are too few, and too vague and uncertain in their expression, to give a name, much less a descriptive character to the Chinese system of writing. We shall now pass to the three other classes, which have nothing to do with the external form of the characters.
IV. The Kia-tsei, (R.) or Kea-tseay, (M.) which in the Chinese language signifies borrowed. M. Remusat defines it thus : (Gram. Chinoise, p. 3.) "To express abstract ideas, or acts of the understanding, they (the Chinese) have altered the sense of those simple or compound characters which represent material objects, or they have made of a substantive the sign of a verb, which expresses the corresponding action. Thus the heart represents the mind; a house is taken for man; a hall for woman; a hand for an artificer or mechanic, &c." Unfortunately for this theory, the sense of the characters (as corresponding with the words) has not been in the least altered; it is the sense of the words that has been changed, and the characters have followed. In the Chinese spoken language, a sailor is called a ship-hand, a monk a reasonhouse, or house of reason, &c., and the writing only applies the appropriate character to each of these words. The language is full of similar metaphors: east-west signifies a thing or something; elder brother with younger brother, signify simply brother, without distinction of age, &c. (Ibid. pp. 108,109)
The writing does no more than represent these words by the characters appropriated to each; the metaphor is in the language, not in the writing.
Dr. Marshman (Clavis Sinica, p. 185.) wonders that he has never seen a Chinese treatise on the grammar of the spoken idiom. The reason is obvious. The Chinese affect to ascribe every thing to their system of writing, which they would have us believe to be an admirable philosophical invention, independent of, and unconnected with the language, which they consider only as the oral expression of the characters, while the reverse is the exact truth. That a vain, ignorant nation should entertain such notions, is not at all to be wondered at; but that grave and learned European philologists should adopt them without reflection, is truly astonishing. The reader will see in the following dissertation, what strange opinions have been entertained on this subject, by men of the most profound knowledge and the most eminent talents.
There is nothing, therefore, in these borrowed characters, as they are called, that entitles them to
form a class in the Chinese system of writing. They are, like all the others, but the representatives of certain words.
M. Remnsat includes in this class the character representing the verb to follow, which, he says, is formed by the images of three men placed behind one another. I shall not inquire how distinctly these images are to be seen in the character suy, to follow (Morrison's Anglo-Chin. Diet- verbo follow).
It seems to be one of the old obsolete metaphors. This is what M. Remusat calls changing substantives into verbs, and it is the only example of it that he produces.
V. The Hoti-i, (R.) or Hwuy-e, (M.) This class and the following appear to me to embrace the whole graphic system of the Chinese. The first class (so called) is interesting only to antiquaries, the second and third relate only to the form of a few characters, and the fourth has been shown to be fallacious. These two last, therefore, claim our principal attention. I shall attend, in the first place, to the fifth class.
This class is formed of a combination of two or more characters, each of which represents a word, to represent another word of the language. M. Remusat calls it combined. Dr. Morrison, in his Chinese Dictionary, in which the words are classed in the order of our alphabet, explains Hwuy-e (No. 4560) to mean "association of ideas in compounding the characters." The learned Doctor here, it seems, merely translates a Chinese definition of that word. We take the liberty to define it thus: "The association or combining of several words in their appropriate characters to represent another word." Thus we combine the letters of our alphabet to give them a meaning which, separately, they have not. The Chinese combine their significant characters to give to the groups thus formed a meaning which none of them possess separately. The meaning is in the words to which the characters are applied, and that meaning they only hint at by the association of other words represented by their appropriate signs.
M. Remusat gives us six examples of these combinations. They are the word.light, represented by the words sun and moon, placed next to each other; the word hermit, by man and mountain; song, by bird and mouth; wife, by woman, hand and broom; the verb to hear, or hearing, by ear and door; and the substantive tear, by the words eye and water. All these words are, of course, represented by their signs, which bear no resemblance to the objects signified, whatever they might originally have done.
The characters are sometimes placed above, below, or by the side of each other, in their separate forms. Sometimes they are joined together with various alterations, so as to form but one character, in which last case they are not always easy to be recognised. Two hundred and fourteen of them, of which a few are compounds, but the rest simple characters, have been selected for the sake of method, and called roots or keys. They serve in the dictionaries to class the words by their analogies: every word is placed under some one or other of them. This concerns only the method or arrangement of the alphabet, but is no part of the system of writing, except so far, that a certain number of simple characters was indispensably required to form the basis of a combination system, which otherwise would have been impossible.It results from the above, that the graphic system of the Chinese, generally considered, consists in this:
1. A certain number of arbitrary signs (say two hundred) to represent an equal number of words, which may be called the nucleus or foundation of the whole.
2. An indefinite number of characters to represent all the other words of the language, which characters are formed by the combination of those primitives with each other, and with the new characters formed by that process also combined together, so as to have a distinct letter, character or sign for every word in the language. The separate meaning of the words thus combined, or the ideas, as the Chinese express it, are only an auxiliary means to aid in the recollection of the word to which is attached the idea which is to be conveyed. It very often happens that those combinations are mere enigmas, and present no definite idea to the mind, and sometimes one entirely contrary to its object; but they serve the purpose, precisely as our groups of letters when they represent different sounds from those attached to the separate characters.
I have explained this system more fully in the following dissertation, to which I must refer the reader.
VI. The Hing-ching, (R.) or Heae-shing, (M.) Although words expressive of moral sentiments, of actions and passions, and of numerous visible objects, may be represented or recalled to the memory by combining and placing together other words, which, by their signification, may serve as definitions or descriptions, or rather as catch words, to lead by their meaning to the recollection of the one intended to be represented,—it is very difficult, when there are a great number of objects of the same kind, all of which have specific names, but whose differences cannot be explained or even guessed at by the aid of a few words. Such are trees, plants, herbs, fruits, birds, fishes, and a great number of other things. Here the system of catch words could not be applied; and the Chinese invented this class, or rather this special combination of characters, to represent those kinds of specific names.
A certain number of characters, all, in their common acceptation, representing words of the language, are set apart to be used with regard only to their sounds, independent of their meaning; and, joined to the character which represents the name of the genus, they indicate the sound of the name of the species to be represented. Thus, if the name of an apple be ping, though that monosyllable may signify twenty other things, each of which has an appropriate character, any one of those characters, simple or compound, provided it be within the selected list, joined to the word fruit, or the word tree, signifies either an apple or an appletree, as the case may be. This class of characters the Chinese admit to be phonetic, or representative of sound, but they deny it as to all the rest, because they ascribe to the character the sense which is attached to the significant syllable, and which the written sign only reflects.
The Chinese have other modes of employing their characters to represent the sounds of words or proper names of foreign origin; but they are not included in the above six classes. They are fully explained in the following Dissertation, in which I have endeavoured to prove that the Chinese system of writing is essentially phonetic, because the characters represent words, and words are sounds; and because, if not connected with those sounds, they would present to the mind no idea whatever.
The Chinese characters have been frequently compared to our arithmetical figures, and to the various signs employed in algebra, pharmacy, &c., and therefore they have been called ideographic, or representative of ideas. The comparison is just in some respects; because ideas being connected with the words of the language, and those characters representing words, they may be said at the same time to represent the ideas connected with them. But the comparison does not hold any further. The numerical figures express ideas which in every language are expressed by words having the same meaning, and though their sounds be different, the idea is the same; the other signs are abbreviations, applied to particular sciences, and understood only by those who are learned in them. There is no doubt that if all languages were formed on the same model, and if every word in all of them expressed with precision the same idea, and if they were all formed exactly like the Chinese, the Chinese characters might be applied to all in the same manner as our numerical figures; but that not being the case, those characters are necessarily applied to a particular language, and therefore, their object not being to represent ideas independently, but at second hand, through the words of that particular idiom, they are not entitled to the name of ideographic, which has been inadvertently given to them.
If this theory be found consistent with reason and sound sense, there will result from it a clear and natural classification of the systems of writing now known to exist on the face of the earth. The elements of language are words, syllables, and the simple sounds represented by the letters of our alphabets. Those three elements are all produced by the vocal organs; and, as all writing is made to be read by all who understand the language to which it belongs, and to be read aloud as well as mentally by all in the same words, and in the same order of words, it seems clear that the written signs must represent or recall to the mind some one or other of those three elements; and hence we have three graphic systems, distinct from each other, but formed on the same general principle—the elementary or alphabetic, the characters of which, called letters, represent singly the primary elements of speech, which are simple sounds; the syllabic, that represents syllables which, for the most part, have no sense or meaning, but only serve as elements in the composition of polysyllabic words; and lastly, the lexigraphic, which, by means of simple or combined signs, represent the words of a language in their entirety; and this last mode seems to be more particularly applicable to monosyllabic languages, in which every syllable has a sense or meaning connected with it, which supplies a method for the formation of the characters, the multiplicity of which otherwise might create confusion. Nothing deserves to be called writing which does not come within some one or another of these three classes. It might be otherwise, if all men were born deaf and dumb; but since the habit of speaking, acquired in their infancy, has given body and form to their ideas, every thing which is not a representation of those forms, can, in my opinion, only be considered as an abortive attempt to make visible supply the place of audible signs, which may have served some limited purposes, but never deserved to be called writing. In the following dissertation I have considered in this point of view the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, and the paintings of the Mexicans. I will not anticipate here what I have said on those subjects. The result is, that an ideographic system of writing is a creature of the imagination, and that it cannot possibly exist concurrently with a language of audible sounds.
Another object of this publication is, to discover what ground there is for the popular notion that several nations, entirely ignorant of each other's oral language, communicate with each other in writing by means of the Chinese characters. As it regards nations whose languages, like the Japanese, are polysyllabic, and have inflections and grammatical forms, I think I have sufficiently proved that it is impossible that they should understand the Chinese writing, unless they have learned the Chinese language, though they may not be in the habit of speaking it. But it may be otherwise with respect to those nations whose languages are monosyllabic, and formed on the same model with the Chinese, and who have adopted the same system of writing. It cannot be denied, that to a certain extent, that is to say, as far as words, having the same meaning in both languages, are represented by the same characters, they may so far, but no farther, communicate with each other in writing. How far that can be the case, can only be shown by a comparison of their languages, and of the manner in which they make use of their written signs. For this purpose, I wish we had a more extensive vocabulary than the one here presented, which contains only three hundred and thirty-three Cochinchinese words, with their corresponding signs; but I hope it will be followed by others more copious and complete. It is much to be regretted that the English East India Company declined publishing the Dictionary offered to them by the Vicar Apostolic of Cochinchina, which probably was that composed by the venerable Bishop of Adran (See post, p. 101.) I am not, however, disposed to blame them for this refusal. It is well known that that illustrious body is not deficient in liberality, and that they have expended very large sums (M. Hemusat understood, in 1822, that the publication of Dr. Morrison's Dictionary would cost £10,000 sterling. (Melanges Asiatiques, vol. ii. p. 25.) The Doctor published several dictionaries, and other valuable works, so that the whole must have cost a great deal more) in the publication of Dr. Morrison's excellent Chinese dictionaries, for which science will ever owe them a debt of gratitude; it is not astonishing, therefore, that they should not be willing, at least for the present, to incur farther expense. But we must not despair of seeing the book published; there are Asiatic societies at Paris and London, under whose auspices many valuable philological works have been brought to light; and there is no reason to suppose that they will not still pursue that meritorious course. It would be worthy of them to republish the Anamitic grammar of Father de Rhodes (See p. 87). It seems now well ascertained, that the language of Tonquin and that of Cochinchina are nearly if not entirely the same; and with that book, and the two vocabularies here published, a pretty clear idea might be formed of the nature and character of the Anamitic dialects (There seems to be very little difference between the Anamitic spoken in Tonquin and that of Cochinchina. In Father Morrone's Vocabulary we find the word troi for heaven, while M. Kraproth gives us bloi in Tonquinese for the same word. Thus he gives us blang for moon, while in the Cochinchinese Vocabulary it is trang. But the Dictionary which follows gives us troi and bloi, and trang and blang, as synonymous words. So that the Tonquinese words appear to be also in use in Cochinchina. Whether the reverse also takes place, we do not know. After all, there seems to be but a trifling difference of pronunciation between them). But to return to our question.
On examining Father Morrone's Vocabulary, here subjoined, (No. II.) it cannot but be observed, that in adopting the Chinese alphabet, the Cochinchinese appear frequently to have paid more attention to the sound than to the meaning of the Chinese words to which the characters belong. Thus the character san, (Plate No. 14) which in Chinese means drizzling rain, is applied in Cochinchinese to the word sam, thunder; the character chouang, white frost, (19) to suong, the dew; ko, a lance, (37) to qua, yesterday; kin, metal, (232) to kim, a needle; po, to bring a ship to shore, (236) to bac, silver; tchy, fetters, (227) to choi, a broom,— and many others of the same kind. It shows how natural it is to consider written characters as representative of sound.* This, I am well aware will hardly be credited by those sinologists who consider ideas to be inseparably inherent in the Chinese characters. The learned M. Jacquet, to whom I communicated some of these examples, appears disposed to consider those anomalies as resulting from the addition or subtraction of some strokes in the running hand of the Cochinchinese, so that the characters might always be found to be bad imitations of some which have in Chinese the same meaning as in Cochinchinese; he, however, candidly acknowledges "que c'est plutot trancher la difficulty que la resoudre," in which I entirely agree with him. At the same time I must say, that the specimens I sent him were too few to enable him to form a decided opinion, and that he pointed out among them some affinities which have escaped our friendly annotator, M. de la Palun; as, for instance, that the character thanh, (Plate No. 86) which in Cochinchinese means a city, has the same meaning in Chinese, though it also signifies walls.* He has moreover observed, that the character ben, (89) which in Cochinchinese means la partie du nord, de Test, &c., is the same with the Chinese pien or plan, latus, ora, terminus, (De Guignes, No. 11,169.) But these few observations, however just they appear, do not solve the question before us. Independent of those characters which I cannot consider otherwise than as expressive of the Cochinchinese sounds, without regard to the meaning which they have in China, it is evident that there are many others, which, though Chinese in their origin, are combined together in a manner peculiar to the Cochinchinese language; so that, upon the whole, I cannot resist the conviction that forces itself upon me, that the inhabitants of Anam cannot read Chinese books, or converse in writing with others than their countrymen by means of the Chinese characters, except to a very limited extent, unless they have made a special study of those characters as applied to a different language than their own; or, in other words, unless they have learned Chinese.
On the whole, by the publication of this book, I have had in view to establish the following propositions:
1. That the Chinese system of writing is not, as has been supposed, ideographic ; that its characters do not represent ideas, but words, and therefore I have called it lexigraphic.
2. That ideographic writing is a creature of the imagination, and cannot exist, but for very limited purposes, which do not entitle it to the name of writing.
3. That among men endowed with the gift of speech, all writing must be a direct representation of the spoken language, and cannot present ideas to the mind abstracted from it. .
4. That all writing, as far as we know, represents language in some of its elements, which are words, syllables, and simple sounds. In the first case it is lexigraphic, in the second syllabic, and in the third alphabetical or elementary.
5. That the lexigraphic system of the Chinese cannot be applied to a polysyllabic language, having infiections and grammatical forms; and that there is no example of its being so applied, unless partially or occasionally, (In our alphabets we have single letters which represent words, as A, E, I and O, in Latin; A and I, in English; E and 0, in Italian; U, in Low Dutch; Y, in Spanish and French, &c. These are at the same time elementary, syllabic, and lexigraphic. In the ancient Egyptian system of writing, there are lexigraphic characters; but see what I have said on that subject, post, p. 129) or as a special, elliptical and enigmatical mode of communication, limited in its uses; but not as a general system of writing, intended for common use.
7. That nations, whose languages like the Japanese, and, as is said, the Loo-chooan, are polysyllabic, and have inflections and grammatical forms, although they may employ Chinese characters in their alphabet, cannot possibly understand Chinese books and manuscripts, unless they have learned the Chinese language; and that if those nations whose languages are monosyllabic, and who use the Chinese characters lexigraphically, can understand Chinese writings without knowing the language, it can only be to a limited extent, which it is one of the objects of this publication to ascertain.
Although strongly impressed with the conviction of the truth of these propositions, it is nevertheless with great deference that I submit them to the judgment of the learned.
P. S. D.
Philadelphia, 12th February, 1838.
Extrait de l'introduction Peter Stephen Du Ponceau. A dissertation on the nature and character of the Chinese system of writing (1838)