jeudi 24 octobre 2013

A Pictorial Vision of the Book of Changes (易經/Yi Jing)

Very interesting art work about Yi Jing by GupaJuhe (alias Guillaume Hebert) at Wistaria Tea House (紫藤廬)

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GupaJuhe Retrospective 1994/2013
A Pictorial Vision of the Book of Changes (易經/Yi Jing)

Born the 27th of April 1969, GupaJuhe studied at the Fine Arts College of Caen (France) where he received his "DIPLOME NATIONAL SUPERIEUR D'EXPRESSION PLASTIQUE" in 1995. However it was in 1993 he discovered Yi Jing and made it the subject of his artistic study. Thereafter Yi Jing quickly became the source of his work.
Today, a solitary and independent artist, GupaJuhe's continous endeavor has given birth to an original and specific art form.
The Yi Jing Artistic Development Studio (易经艺术工作室) was founded in 2010 by GupaJuhe.
Situated in Taipei, YJADS aims to develop the various diagrams of Yi Jing (易经 or 周易) through art.

Official web site :

Les trigrammes, hexagrammes, le Yi Jing (livre des mutations)

"Le lien qu'ils établissent entre les bagua et l'écriture n'était vraisemblablement pas technique mais idéologique". Vivianne Alleton, l'écriture chinoise (page72) collection Que sais-je?

"Sur le plan graphique, on voit mal comment les hexagrammes auraient pu engendrer la structure complexe des caractères. Vivianne Alleton, L'écriture chinoise. Le défit de la modernité (page 90). Edition Albin Michel.

Même si les trigrammes n'ont donc rien à voir avec l'écriture chinoise je me devais de signaler leur importance dans la culture chinoise ainsi que l’intérêt particulier de Leibniz pour les trigrammes dans lequel il pensait trouver un langage universel

產 chan / to produce to give birth

備 bei / to prepare

袍 pao / robe

中 zhon / middle

mardi 22 octobre 2013

戲 xi / to play

唱 chang / to sing

祭 jì / to offer sacrifice

察 cha / to inspect

The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy by John DeFrancis

 From The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy by John DeFrancis, © 1984 by the University of Hawai`i Press.

The Ideographic Myth

The concept of ideographic writing is a most seductive notion. There is great appeal in the concept of written symbols conveying their message directly to our minds, thus bypassing the restrictive intermediary of speech. And it seems so plausible. Surely ideas immediately pop into our minds when we see a road sign, a death's head label on a bottle of medicine, a number on a clock. Aren't Chinese characters a sophisticated system of symbols that similarly convey meaning without regard to sound? Aren't they an ideographic system of writing?

Origin of the Myth

The concept of Chinese writings as a means of conveying ideas without regard to speech took hold as part of the chinoiserie fad among Western intellectuals that was stimulated by the generally highly laudatory writings of Catholic missionaries from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The first Western account of the fascinatingly different/Chinese writing was the comment made by the Portuguese Dominican Friar Gaspar da Cruz in 1569:
 The Chinas [Chinese] have no fixed letters in their writing, for all that they write is by characters, and they compose words of these, whereby they have a great multitude of characters, signifying each thing by a character in such sort that one only character signifies "Heaven," another "earth," and another "man," and so forth with everything else. [Boxer 1953:161-162]

Cruz's remarks about Chinese were given wider currency when they were repeated by Juan Gonzales de Mendoza in a book that went through thirty editions in the principal European languages before the end of the century.
A more authoritative description of Chinese writing was advanced by the renowned Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). His original manuscript, written in Italian, was not published until 1942, but it was used by a fellow missionary, Nicola Trigault, as the basis for a "liberal version" in Latin that was published in 1615 and went through ten editions in various European languages in the next few decades (Ricci 1942: CLXXVI-CLXXVII). From this Latin version of Ricci's observations, European readers learned that the Chinese have a system of writing "similar to the hieroglyphic signs of the Egyptians" and that they "do not express their concepts by writing, like most of the world, with a few alphabetic signs, but they paint as many symbols as there are words." Readers also learned that "each word has its own hieroglyphic character," that "there are no fewer symbols than words," and that "the great number of characters is in accord with the great number of things," though thanks to combining them the characters "do not exceed seventy to eighty thousand" (Trigault 1615:25-29, 144).
The Popularity among European scholars of these early works on things Chinese is matched by the huge eighteenth-century collection of missionary reports and essays entitled Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences, les arts, les moeurs, les usages, &c des Chinois, par les missionaries de Pekin. Here the discussion of Chinese characters was introduced in an article signed "Ko, Jés." He was one of a number of Chinese converts who spent some time in France and provided information to the missionaries. In his discussion of the characters the author presented the view that
they are composed of symbols and images, and that these symbols and images, not having any sound, can be read in all languages, and form a sort of intellectual painting, a metaphysical and ideal algebra, which conveys thoughts by analogy, by relation, by convention, and so on. [Mémoires 1776:24]
This view was taken up and expanded on by the well-known Father J. J. M. Amiot in a longer article in which he described characters as
images and symbols which speak to the mind through the eyes -- images for palpable things, symbols for mental ones. Images and symbols which are not tied to any sound and can be read in all languages. ... I would be quite inclined to define Chinese characters as the pictorial algebra of the sciences and the arts. In truth, a well-turned sentence is as much stripped of all intermediaries as is the most rigorously bare algebraic demonstration. [Mémoires 1776:282-285]
It is a curious fact, however, that while the notion that Chinese writing conveys ideas without regard to sound was widely held, no special name appears to have been coined for it. Westerners had made the acquaintance of Chinese in the sixteenth century. Friar Gaspar da Cruz, as noted above, referred to the Chinese symbols as "characters," and the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignani, who visited Macao in 1577, referred to Chinese characters as "that innumberable multitude of exceedingly intricate ciphers which pass for writing" among the Chinese (Bartoli 1663:147). It seems that for the next 250 years and more Chinese writing was referred to simply by such noncommittal terms as "characters" and "symbols."
It was not acquaintance with Chinese but decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing following Napoleon's conquests in North Africa that led to the coining of several expressions related to the ideographic idea. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English term "ideographic" was first used in 1822 to describe Egyptian writing. The French term "idéographique" was first used in the same year (Robert 1977:957). This was the very year that the French scholar Champollion announced his success in deciphering the Egyptian script. It turns out that the English term represents a direct transliteration of the French expression coined by Champollion in a celebrated letter announcing his discovery (Champollion 1822; Anonymous 1822).
Decipherment of this script had long been impeded by the notion that it was symbolic of ideas, particularly mystical or spiritual ones. It was not just the discovery of the famous Rosetta Stone, with its bilingual text in three scripts (Hieroglyphic Egyptian, Demotic Egyptian, and Greek) that made this possible. As Gordon (1968:24) stresses: "The decipherment of Hieroglyphic Egyptian required the replacement of the deep-seated notion of symbolism by the correct view that the main (though not the only) feature of the script is phonetic."
Champollion's success in deciphering the Egyptian script was due to his recognition of its phonetic aspect. He believed that what he called "the alphabet of the phonetic hieroglyphs" existed in Egypt "at a far distant time," that it was first "a necessary part" of the hieroglyphic script, and that later it was also used to transcribe "the proper names of peoples, countries, cities, rulers, and individual foreigners who had to be commemorated in historic texts or monumental inscriptions" (1822:41-42). These insights won by Champollion are supported by the succinct description of the Egyptian system of writing made by a recent authority: "The system of hieroglyphic writing has two basic features: first, representable objects are portrayed as pictures (ideograms), and second, the picture signs are given the phonetic value of the word for the represented objects (phonograms). At the same time, these signs are also written to designate homonyms, similar-sounding words" (Brunner 1974:854). The same authority also stresses that "hieroglyphs were from the very beginning phonetic symbols. ... Egyptian writing was a complete script; that is, it could unequivocally fix any word, including all derivatives and all grammatical forms" (Brunner 1974:853-855).
Champollion, however, overemphasized the use of "phonetic hieroglyphs" in transcribing foreign names (in his account this seems to be their only use), and he also obscured the significance of his own discovery by calling the Egyptian symbols "ideograms" and the writing "ideographic." Moreover, referring to the use of the symbols to write words foreign to the language, he added (1822:4): "The Chinese, who also use an ideographic script, have exactly the same provision, created for the same reason." It is ironic that the scholar who demonstrated the falsity of the old belief in Egyptian as symbolic and nonphonetic should have helped to popularize terms that powerfully reinforced the popular misconception of both the Egyptian and Chinese systems of writing.

The Essence of Writing

This misconception involves the precise nature of writing -- not Egyptian or Chinese writing but all forms of writing. The problem is not so complex as we make it out when we let ourselves get bogged down in consideration of detailed differences among the great varieties of writing. It becomes quite simple if we limit consideration of the written forms, be they signs or symbols or characters or pictures or whatnot, to the principles involved in the two basic aspects of form and function.
As to form, there is nearly unanimous agreement that writing started with pictures. As to function, there is less agreement. Did an Indian or Egyptian or Chinese picture of the sun convey an idea directly, or did it evoke a spoken word and through this intermediary convey the meaning?
Gelb insists on viewing the question in terms of two stages in the development of writing. In the first stage, in which he places what he calls "forerunners of writing"(1963:59), the symbols are clearly pictographic in form, though he prefers to call them "descriptive" or "representational." Just how did they function in conveying meaning? Gelb is not very clear, except in a negative sense of how they did not function in systems such as those of the North American Indians. In these systems the symbols did not represent specific sounds. Indeed, Indian pictographs were not even formalized or conventionalized and never transcended a sort of ad hoc quality in that they most often dealt with specific situations, were aimed at specific persons, and lacked generality or continuity in time. A typical example of Indian pictography, one in which it comprises more than the usual isolated symbol or two, is a message passed on by an Indian agent from a Cheyenne father to his son informing him of the transmission of $53. Another is a come-up-and-see-me-sometime invitation from an Ojibwa girl to her lover (Gelb 1963:31-32). Both require elaborate interpretation to be understood by anyone but the immediate persons involved. For the latter the symbols apparently comprised a sort of prearranged code. As noted by Mallery, the author of the most exhaustive studies available of the pictographs of American Indians, "comparatively few of their picture signs have become merely conventional. ... By far the larger part of them are merely mnemonic records" (1886:15-16). The meager information contained in the Amerindian pictographic symbols stands in contrast to the great amount of knowledge about the economic, social, religious, and other aspects of Sumerian, Egyptian, and Shang societies that can be obtained by reading their voluminous written records.
In the second stage, the pictographic form may be carried over from the first but the wholly new principle of using them to represent sounds makes its appearance, at first haltingly, then increasingly, until it eventually becomes the dominant feature. At this point, "full systems of writing" come into being (Gelb 1963:60).
One must insist on this clear dividing line between the two stages of writing. If we look only at the surface similarity in the depiction of objects in various forms of writing, we shall overlook the significance of the use of a particular picture or sign as a purely phonetic symbol. To lump together the writing of the American Indians and the early Chinese and Egyptians because of some similarity in graphic forms is to fall victim to the kind of befuddled thinking that is indicated by calling all of them pictographic or ideographic.
This point is of such overriding importance that we must pursue it a bit further by viewing Chinese writing in terms of the two-stage approach. Suppose we illustrate the matter by taking up once again the character for "wheat." We can summarize its form and function in the two stages as follows:

  • Stage 1: Protowriting
    • Form: Pictograph of wheat: wheat pictograph
    • Function: To represent the idea "wheat"
  • Stage 2: Real Writing
    • Form: Pictograph of wheat: wheat pictograph or character for wheat
    • Function:
      1. To represent the word ləg ("wheat")
      2. To represent the word ləg ("come")
    Stage 1, the era of protowriting akin to that of the American Indians, is assumed but not attested. We have no record of such a stage, although some evidence of pre-Shang writing is beginning to emerge (Aylmer 1981:6; Cheung 1983), but since elsewhere attempts at writing started with the drawing of pictures, we assume the same for Chinese. Whether the pictures were vocalized -- that is, represented concepts that were expressed orally in one definite way -- is a matter of disagreement. In any case there would be no indication of their having a specific phonetic value.
    By the time we come to Shang writing we are already well into stage 2: real writing. It is not a completely new stage, however, as there are overlaps in certain areas. The chief overlap is in the form of the symbols. These are identical in the two stages, or perhaps those in the second stage are somewhat more stylized, a matter of no particular importance. There may be overlap also for the first function, that of representing, either directly or indirectly, the concept "wheat." The second function is, however, completely new in that it introduces the rebus use of the pictograph meaning "wheat" to represent another word with the same sound but with a totally different meaning. The rebus idea can be illustrated in English by the use of the four following pictographs depicting a human eye, a tin can, a seascape, and a female sheep or ewe: eye can sea ewe
    Taken together these pictographs make no sense as meaning-symbols but do make sense as sound-symbols: eye can sea ewe. The rebus idea seems obvious to us since we use it in children's games, but it actually constitutes a stupendous invention, an act of intellectual creation of the highest order -- a quantum leap forward beyond the stage of vague and imprecise pictures to a higher stage that leads into the ability to represent all the subtleties and precision expressible in spoken language. Writing is now directly, clearly, firmly related to language: to speech. If there was ever any question whether a symbol had a sound attached to it, this now receives a positive answer. In the earliest form known to us, the character for "wheat" was borrowed to represent the word "come" precisely because both were pronounced in the same way.
     In human history it seems that the idea of using a pictograph in the new function of representing sound may have occurred only three times: once in Mesopotamia, perhaps by the Sumerians, once in China, apparently by the Chinese themselves, and once in Central America, by the Mayas. (Conceivably it was invented only once, but there is no evidence that the Chinese or the Mayas acquired the idea from elsewhere.) The idea that was independently conceived by these three peoples was taken over, as were at times even the symbols themselves, though often in a highly modified form, by others who made adaptations to fit a host of totally different languages. One of the major adaptations, generally attributed to the Greeks, was the narrowing of sound representation from syllabic representation to phonemic representation (Gelb 1963; Trager 1974), after an earlier stage of mixed pictographic and syllabic writing (Chadwick 1967).
    The precise form in which the words in these languages are represented is a matter of quite secondary importance. With regard to the principle, it matters little whether the symbol is an elaborately detailed picture, a slightly stylized drawing, or a drastically abbreviated symbol of essentially abstract form. What is crucial is to recognize that the diverse forms perform the same function in representing sound. To see that writing has the form of pictures and to conclude that it is pictographic is correct in only one sense -- that of the form, but not the function, of the symbols. We can put it this way:
    QUESTION: When is a pictograph not a pictograph?
    ANSWER: When it represents a sound.
    The use of the pictograph for "wheat" to represent the homophonous word ləg ("come") transformed the function of the symbol from pictographic depiction of an object to syllabic representation of a sound. This change in function has been the essential development marking the emergence of all true systems of writing, including Chinese.

    Sinological Contribution to the Myth

    The fact that some Chinese pictographs have not undergone a change in form parallel to the change in function has tended to obscure the significance of the change that did take place. As a result, the phonetic aspect of Chinese writing is minimized by many people, even specialists in the field. Creel in the United States and Margouliès in France are leading exponents of a view that has been taken over, in even more simplistic form, by the public at large. Both scholars are aware that there is a phonetic aspect in Chinese writing. Yet their attention is so narrowly focused on the nonphonetic aspect that their otherwise useful contributions to learning (especially Creel's informative and readable The Birth of China) are unfortunately diminished. Their discussions of Chinese writing are confused and contradictory -- at one time seeming to say one thing, at another something else, but coming down ultimately to a conclusion, that is completely untenable.
    Creel (1936:91-93) says:
    That Chinese writing was pictographic in origin does not admit of question. On the other hand, Chinese is not, and was not three thousand years ago, a pictographic language in the sense that it consisted of writing by means of pictures all or most of which would be readily understood by the uninstructed. ... The Chinese early abandoned the method of writing by means of readily recognizable pictures and diagrams. ... It was in part because the Chinese gave up pictoral [sic] writing that they were able to develop a practicable pictographic and ideographic script, with comparatively little help from the phonetic principle. To draw elaborate pictures of whole animals, for instance (as is done on some of the Shang bones), is too slow a process. The course taken in many parts of the world was to conventionalize the picture, reduce it to a simple and easily executed form, and then use it to represent homophonous words or parts of words. The course the Chinese have chosen has also been to conventionalize and reduce, but they then use the evolved element for the most part not phonetically, but to stand for the original object or to enter with other such elements into combinations of ideographic rather than phonetic value. This parting of the ways is of the most profound importance.
    The last two sentences are the crux of Creel's thesis. Where Boodberg and others, as noted earlier, see phonetic elements, Creel sees elements that are conventionalized or reduced forms used "to stand for the original object or to enter with other such elements into combinations of ideographic rather than phonetic value." This emphasis on ideographic symbols that are merely conventionalized forms of pictographs leads Creel into the fanciful explanations of Chinese characters that were so sharply condemned by Boodberg. Boodberg's refutation contained in learned journals known only to specialists could do little to counter the impact of Creel's views expressed in his popular The Birth of China. Here Creel says: "We have specialized on the representation of sounds; the Chinese have specialized on making their writing so suggestive to the eye that it immediately calls up ideas and vivid pictures, without any interposition of sounds" (1937:159).
    If we take this statement at face value without qualifying it with "What the author really meant to say was ..." -- a practice that runs the risk of misinterpreting what the author meant -- the statement is absurdly false, as can be attested by any reader of this book who has not studied Chinese. Simply look at the characters sprinkled throughout the work and note how many or how few immediately call up ideas and vivid pictures without any interposition of sounds.
    The qualification that we hesitate to read into Creel's statement is suggested by the author himself, but in the same specialized journal mentioned earlier and quoted to the effect that Chinese is not "a pictographic language in the sense that it consisted of writing by means of pictures all or most of which would be readily understood by the uninstructed." But if the ability to grasp an idea "immediately" or "readily" from symbols that are "a practical pictographic and ideographic script" though not "pictoral writing" is limited to those who presumably must be classified as "the instructed," this makes the otherwise absurd statement inanely true. For it is equally true that the instructed can immediately grasp an idea whether it is expressed in Chinese characters, in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in Japanese kana, or even in our less than perfect English orthography. All literates are conditioned, like Pavlov's dogs, to respond to certain culture-bound stimuli. The written word "chicken" evokes in my mind precisely the same picture -- or pictures -- as the written character (or ), except perhaps that in the first case I may salivate in anticipation of Kentucky fried chicken and in the second of chicken cooked in soy sauce.
    Apart from the error of thinking that Chinese characters are unique in evoking mental images, where Creel and others from Friar Gaspar da Cruz right on down go astray in their characterization of Chinese writing is to succumb to the hypnotic appeal of the relatively few characters that are demonstratably of pictographic origin and to extrapolate from these to the majority if not the entirety of the Chinese written lexicon. The error of exaggerating the pictographic and hence semantic aspect of Chinese characters and minimizing if not totally neglecting the phonetic aspect tends to fix itself very early in the minds of many people, both students of Chinese and the public at large, because their first impression of the characters is likely to be gained by being introduced to the Chinese writing system via some of the simplest and most interesting pictographs, such as those presented at the beginning of Chapter 5. Unless a determined effort is made to correct this initial impression, it is likely to remain as an article of faith not easily shaken by subsequent exposure to different kinds of graphs. This may also explain the oversight even of specialists who are aware of the phonetic aspect in Chinese characters, including such able scholars as Li and Thompson (1982:77), who refer to Chinese writing as "semantically, rather than phonologically grounded" and consider that a character "does not convey phonological information except in certain composite logographs where the pronunciation of the composite is similar to one of its component logographs." It takes a profoundly mesmerized observer to overlook as exceptions the two-thirds of all characters that convey useful phonological information through their component phonetic.

    Myth vs. Reality

    A limited number of pictographic or semantic characters, like the limited number of what Bolinger (1946) Calls "visual morphemes" and Edgerton (1941) "ideograms in English writing," or even the extensive but still limited systems such as mathematical or chemical notation, cannot be considered indicative of full systems of nonphonetic writing that can function like ordinary orthographies to express nearly everything we can express in spoken language. The fact is that such a full system of nonphonetic writing has never existed. The system of Chinese characters, the Sumerian, Accadian, and Hittite cuneiform systems, and the Egyptian hieroglyphic system were none of them complete systems of semantic writing. For Sumerian and Accadian, Civil (1973:26) provides figures summarized in Table 8 showing the relative importance of phonetic versus semantic elements in various texts. With respect to Egyptian, Edgerton says that "of the total number of signs in any normal hieroglyphic or hieratic text, the overwhelming majority will not be ideographic at all but phonetic" (1940:475). The same is true of Chinese, as was shown in great detail in Chapter 5.

    Semantic Versus Phonetic Aspects of Cuneiform Symbols
    Symbols Sumerian Accadian
    Syllabograms 36.4-54.3% 85.6-95.7%
    Logograms 60.3-42.8% 6.5-3.5%
    Classifiers 3.1-2.9% 7.6-0.7%
    Nonphonetic symbols occur in every writing system. But using the existence of these symbols, however numerous, to conclude that whole systems not based on sound have existed, or even that such systems are possible, are unwarranted assumptions that lead inevitably to the complete obfuscation regarding the nature of writing that is expressed in the Ideographic Myth.
    This myth, it is apparent, exists in two aspects. Both must be rejected. The first is that the Chinese characters constitute an existing system of ideographic writing. This has been shown to be factually untrue. The second aspect is the validity of the ideographic concept itself. I believe it to be completely untenable because there is no evidence that people have the capacity to master the enormous number of symbols that would be needed in a written system that attempts to convey thought without regard to sound, which means divorced from spoken language. A few, yes, as in any writing system, including English with its numerals and other "visual morphemes." Even quite a few, given the large number of Chinese syllabic signs and graphs without good phonetic clues. But while it is possible for a writing system to have many individual "ideographs" or "ideograms," it is not possible to have a whole writing system based on the ideographic principle. Alphabetic writing requires mastery of several dozen symbols that are needed for phonemic representation. Syllabic writing requires mastery of what may be several hundred or several thousand symbols that are needed for syllabic representation. Ideographic writing, however, requires mastery of the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of symbols that would be needed for ideographic representation of words or concepts without regard to sound. A bit of common sense should suggest that unless we supplement our brains with computer implants, ordinary mortals are incapable of such memory feats. The theory of an ideographic script must remain in the realm of popular mythology until some True Believers demonstrate its reality by accomplishing the task, say, of putting Hamlet or at least Lincoln's Gettysburg Address into English written in symbols without regard to sound.

    Objections to the Term "Ideographic"


    We need to go further and throw out the term itself. Boodberg proposed doing so years ago when he sharply criticized students of early Chinese inscriptions for neglecting the phonological aspect of Chinese writing and for "insisting that the Chinese in the development of their writing ... followed some mysterious esoteric principles that set them apart from the rest of the human race." Boodberg added (1937:329-332):
    Most students in the field have chosen to concentrate their efforts on the exotically fascinating questions of "graphic semantics" and the study of the living tissues of the word has almost completely been neglected in favor of the graphic integument encasing it. ... The term "ideograph" is, we believe, responsible for most of the misunderstanding of the writing. The sooner it is abandoned the better. We would suggest the revival of the old term "logograph." Signs used in writing, however ambiguous, stylized, or symbolic, represent words.
    The last sentence should be given the utmost emphasis: Chinese characters represent words (or better, morphemes), not ideas, and they represent them phonetically, for the most part, as do all real writing systems despite their diverse techniques and differing effectiveness in accomplishing the task.
    Boodberg's objections to describing Chinese writing as ideographic were anticipated by a century in a remarkable book by Peter S. DuPonceau. The author, a leading scholar who was president of the American Philosophical Society, was one of the outstanding general linguists of the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States. Although his work has been briefly noted by Edgerton (1944) and by Chao (1940), it has not received the attention it deserves among Chinese specialists. I must confess to having failed to check his views until quite recently, a failure which has put me in the position of reinventing the wheel. For DuPonceau, with an insight that is truly astonishing in view of the limited sources available to him, presents cogently reasoned arguments against the notion of Chinese as an ideographic script and against the whole concept of ideographic writing. His presentation, though faulty in some points (as noted by Chao 1940), constitutes what is probably the most extensive refutation yet written of the Ideographic Myth.
    DuPonceau (1838:106-107) summarizes the background of the ideographic concept by noting the general opinion that Chinese writing
    is an ocular method of communicating ideas, entirely independent of speech, and which, without the intervention of words, conveys ideas through the sense of vision directly to the mind. Hence it is called ideographic, in contradistinction from the phonographic or alphabetical system of writing. This is the idea which is entertained of it in China, and may justly be ascribed to the vanity of the Chinese literati. The Catholic at first, and afterwards the Protestant missionaries, have received it from them without much examination; and the love of wonder, natural to our species, has not a little contributed to propagate that opinion, which has taken such possession of the public mind, that it has become one of those axioms which no one will venture to contradict.
    But DuPonceau does venture to contradict, and in no uncertain terms. In a succinct statement which might well serve as a credo for all students of Chinese to memorize, he concludes (1838: xxxi):
    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.
    The conclusions obtained so long ago by DuPonceau are matched by the equally insightful observations of his contemporary, the French sinologist J. M. Callery. In the introduction to his syllabary of 1,040 phonetic signs Callery states (1841:i):
    If the works of the illustrious Champollion had not already proved conclusively that the Egyptian hieroglyphics, previously regarded as symbolic signs, are, for the most part, nothing but phonetic signs, that is to say, signs destined to represent the different sounds of the language, I would perhaps not dare to raise my feeble voice to say before the scholarly world that the Chinese characters are also, for the most part, nothing but phonetic characters intimately tied to the sounds of the language, and not symbolic or ideographic signs, as has generally been believed up to now; however, since the barrier of prejudice has been overcome, and in almost all the sciences the eminently rational procedure of observation has been adopted, I am hazarding to put under the eyes of the public the result of my researches on the phonetic system of Chinese writing.
    It is a pity that "the eminently rational procedure of observation" adopted by DuPonceau and Callery has been so much neglected by modern scholars. It is disheartening to see how pervasive is the idea that the Chinese in the development of their writing have followed, in Boodberg's words, "some mysterious esoteric principles that have set them apart from the rest of the human race." It is particularly disheartening to see levelheaded scholars suddenly taking leave of their critical faculties when confronted by Chinese characters. One reason for the pervasiveness and tenacity of the myth, I am now convinced, stems from the use of the word "ideographic." The term itself is responsible for a good deal of the misunderstanding and should be replaced, since its repetitious use, as in the big lie technique and in subliminal advertising, insidiously influences our thinking.
    Boodberg has suggested that it be replaced by the term "logographic," others by "morphemic." These terms have been widely adopted in academic circles, but many scholars apparently see no real difference between them and "ideographic." In his discussion of Sumerian writing, Civil (1973:21) quotes a French writer who uses the term "idéographique"; Civil follows it immediately with the bracketed explanation "[i.e., logographic]." A college textbook on linguistics (Geogheghn et al. 1979:131-1) equates the two terms in the following statement: "In logographic writing systems each character that is used represents either a concrete or abstract concept or idea. (For this reason, they are also called ideographic.)" Kolers, who believes that "there are two major writing systems in the world today, the semantic and the phonetic" (1970:113), makes no distinction between the two concepts underlying the two terms in his confused references to Chinese writing as a system that is "not phonetic" and contains logographic compounds" that are "derived from pictures" and are "intuitively appealing" (1969:353, 357, 360). These typical examples show that the term "logographic" is simply being taken as a fancier equivalent for "ideographic" and is not fulfilling the expectation of Boodberg and other sinologists that it would help avoid misconceptions regarding the basic nature of Chinese writing. Both terms are inadequate and misleading because they fail to indicate that the process of getting from graph to word/morpheme involves the phonetic aspect of the latter and because this failure leaves the way open to the idea that we get from graph to word/morpheme by means of some nonphonetic, in a word, "ideographic," approach. Only the adoption of some such term as "morphosyllabic," which calls attention to the phonetic aspect, can contribute to dispelling the widespread misunderstanding of the nature of Chinese writing.
    The term "ideographic" has been used not only by those who espouse its basic meaning but also by others who do not necessarily accept the concept but use the term out of mere force of habit as an established popular designation for Chinese characters. I find, to my chagrin, that in my previous publications I have been guilty of precisely this concession to popular usage without being aware of the damage it can cause. As a repentant sinner I pledge to swear off this hallucinogen. I hope others will join in consigning the term to the Museum of Mythological Memorabilia along with unicorn horns and phoenix feathers.

jeudi 17 octobre 2013

Codex Seraphinianus

Page wikipedia  :

Le Codex Seraphinianus est un livre écrit vers la fin des années 1970 par Luigi Serafini et publié en 1981 par l’éditeur à Franco Maria Ricci qui accepta tout de suite la publication dans son catalogue Les signes de l’homme ce travail original, graphique, et littéraire. Le codex est en fait conçu comme une sorte d'encyclopédie extraterrestre composée de onze chapitres traitant de la nature, des hommes, des minéraux, des mathématiques, de l'architecture et de l’écriture. Le codex est rempli de dessins surréalistes qui semblent décrire le monde des extraterrestres et le nôtre. Le texte est écrit dans une langue imaginaire avec une écriture inconnue inventée par Luigi Serafini et qui n'a pas pu être déchiffrée. L’écriture est constamment présente dans les 400 pages du livre, tant sur les légendes des dessins que sur la numérotation, les diverses tables des matières. Le tout forme un ensemble très cohérent, avec une constance dans la créativité. On y trouve même un chapitre présentant l’écriture et la parole une pierre de Rosette qui répertorie non pas le grec, le démotique et les hieroglyphes, mais deux langues imaginaires : celle du Codex Seraphinianus, et une nouvelle également inventée par Luigi Serafini.
Et pourtant, malgré l’homogénéité du livre, Luigi Serafini a laissé une brèche dans deux pages contiguës du livre, peut être une clef pour comprendre son intention : il s’agit d’un homme allongé dont l’encrier a laissé s’échapper des mots écrits non pas dans la langue originelle de l’auteur, mais en français : « fille orgiaque surgie et devinée, le premier jour sur la digue de Balbec ». Les proustiens auront sans doute reconnu la description d’Albertine (Albertine disparue). Par contre, le texte décrivant les deux scènes est écrit dans le même alphabet imaginaire qu’ailleurs dans le livre. Il s’agit de la seule exception dans tout le Codex. Il faut avouer que la signification de cette exception scripturale nous échappe et ce n’est pas les quelques suppositions que nous avons qui authentifient l’intention de l’auteur.

mercredi 9 octobre 2013

Chinese script and the diversity of writing systems. Geoffrey Sampson, University of Sussex.

from :


DeFrancis (1989) claims that all writing systems are similar in being phonetically based.  Chinese script, commonly cited as an exception, is according to DeFrancis essentially a syllabic phonographic system.  The present article argues that this claim confuses diachrony with synchrony.  It may be correct that the creation of a script always involves phonetic considerations, but subsequent evolution of script and spoken language can remove the phonetic basis of a writing system.  It is difficult to agree that modern Chinese writing is essentially phonetically-based; and it is certain that phonetic motivation is not a necessary feature for a script.

1.  Introduction.

John DeFrancis (1989) has argued at length that all writing systems used now or in the past are essentially similar in being based on a phonetic principle; and, in particular, that the Chinese script does not represent a fundamentally different type of system from scripts generally recognized as phonetically-based.  DeFrancis’s argument has been widely reviewed and discussed not only by Sinologists but by many commentators on the comparative study of scripts and on the psychology of literacy, and to date the clear consensus is that DeFrancis has successfully made his case for the universality of a phonetic principle in writing systems:  see for instance Krippes (1990), Wrenn (1990), Daniels (1991: 838), Tzeng (1991), Burling (1992: 423), Carello (1992: 212), Coulmas (1992: 254), Coe (1992: 31, 292), Liberman (1992: 168-9), Mattingly (1992: 18).  King (1991), while disagreeing with DeFrancis on certain specific issues, accepts that ‘it would be unsurprising if DeF[rancis]’s thesis proved to be correct’.

DeFrancis constructs his argument largely by taking issue with various points made in Sampson (1985).[1]  I am puzzled to know why DeFrancis attacks my exposition so vigorously, since it seems that on the issues that concern him most deeply DeFrancis and I are explicitly arguing on the same side.  Both DeFrancis and I have independently taken pains to rebut the idea, which continues to be put forward periodically by various writers, that Chinese script is a primitive or intrinsically inferior vehicle for intellectual communication by comparison with alphabetic European writing (see e.g. DeFrancis 1989: 221, 244-5; Sampson 1985: 160-5; Sampson 1991).  And both of us have stressed that ‘Chinese characters represent words (or better morphemes) not ideas’, as DeFrancis put it (1984: 145):  compare Sampson (1985: 149).  Nevertheless, I believe that there are real and linguistically interesting typological differences between scripts which DeFrancis blurs, and that the consensus identified in the previous paragraph is misguided.

Sampson (1985: 32) drew a (by no means original) set of distinctions among scripts or script-like systems, between what I called semasiographic and glottographic systems (the former relating visible marks to meaning directly without reference to any specific spoken language, the latter using visible marks to represent forms of a spoken language), and, among glottographic systems, between logographic and phonographic systems (the former representing a spoken language by assigning distinctive visible marks to linguistic elements of André Martinet’s ‘first articulation’ (Martinet 1949), i.e. morphemes or words, the latter achieving the same goal by assigning marks to elements of the ‘second articulation’, e.g. phonemes, syllables).  These are ideal types, and it is likely that actual, complex writing systems will commonly display at least some characteristics of more than one type.  Nevertheless I believe that many scripts can appropriately be viewed as predominantly exemplifying one rather than another type, and I do believe that modern Chinese script is a fairly good example of logographic writing, whereas the written forms of many European languages are fairly good examples of phonographic writing (though written English is too mixed to be described confidently as clearly phonographic or clearly logographic).

DeFrancis, by contrast, argues:

(i) There is no such thing as semasiographic writing ã the examples often quoted of direct visual representation of ideas, such as the American Indian pictorial messages discussed e.g. by Gelb (1963: ch. 2), are primitive, limited affairs which do not deserve even to be regarded as forerunners of full-scale writing systems.  Any full-scale script capable (as a spoken language is capable) of expressing whatever can be thought must necessarily do so by representing the elements of a particular spoken language; ‘... all forms of partial writing [by which DeFrancis refers to semasiographic writing], other than ... specifically speech-related examples, ... do not properly belong in a discussion of writing at all.’ (DeFrancis 1989: 57).

(ii)  A fortiori, Chinese script is not semasiographic.

(iii)  Any script which represents a spoken language does so chiefly by symbolizing phonetic units of that language, in other words there is no such thing as logographic writing; ‘the heart of all writing systems is its [sic] phonetic base’ (DeFrancis 1989: 56).

(iv)  A fortiori, Chinese script is not logographic.  It is essentially a syllabic phonographic script, though one of a rather elaborate, irregular kind:  ‘Chinese and other so-called logo-syllabic scripts are not a separate type but a subcategory of syllabic’ (DeFrancis 1989: 253).

To my mind, (i) is largely a matter of definition; (ii) is true; (iii) is false; (iv) unavoidably involves an element of subjective judgment, but if it cannot definitively be regarded as false it is at least a surprising way to think about Chinese writing.

2.  Semasiography. 

It is indisputable that there exist systems of communication by visible marks which are independent of any particular spoken language.  One example is the road sign system, which, for instance, uses the contrast between circular and triangular shape to distinguish command from warning, and displays a red and black car side by side to signal ‘No overtaking’.  Some of these signs (such as the one just cited) are partly iconic, others (e.g. the white horizontal bar on a red disc for ‘No entry’) are wholly arbitrary, but almost all of them are entirely independent of spoken language.  It makes no sense to ask whether the first sign cited should be read as ‘No overtaking’ or as ‘Overtaking is forbidden’, or whether it should be read as an English or as a German phrase.

I agree with DeFrancis that no semasiographic script ever used in practice has approached the degree of generality and flexibility possessed by all spoken languages.  Each such system has been limited to expressing messages relating to some narrow, limited domain, such as traffic discipline.  Whether this makes semasiography so different from glottography that the word ‘writing’ is inapplicable to the former, or whether rather one should call existing semasiographic systems ‘writing’ of an unusual, limited type, is purely a question of how one chooses to use the word ‘writing’ and as such, surely, is not worth many moments’ discussion.[2]

In Sampson (1985: 30-2) I speculated about whether there might ever be a semasiographic system comparable in expressive power to a spoken language.  I gave reasons for thinking that in practice this is unlikely to happen, but argued that ‘logically speaking such an outcome seems not absolutely excluded’.  DeFrancis is unwilling to admit that a ‘full’ system of semasiography could be even a logical possibility.[3]  He believes that those examples which do occur are necessarily limited to expressing very simple ideas ã concepts that would be expressed in speech by a word or short phrase rather than a multi-word sentence.

DeFrancis’s argument to this effect turns on examination of an example quoted in Sampson (1985: 28‑9) of purported complex semasiography, the ‘Yukaghir love letter’.  I had taken this example from a well-known book on writing, Diringer (n.d.: 35), and I retailed Diringer’s explanation of it without trying to check this.  DeFrancis has done the discipline a considerable service by investigating the history of the example in detail, and it turns out to be something rather different from what Diringer and I described, and arguably not an example of ‘communication’ at all.

If I had known the facts about the Yukaghir love letter which DeFrancis has brought to light, I would probably not have used it in my book.[4]  However, loss of this particular example does not establish the generalization that semasiography can never be used for logically complex messages.  Sampson (1985: 31-2) illustrated a second example, a set of instructions distributed with a Ford Escort car in 1982, in the form of two rows of six stylized pictures expressing a message that is admittedly less complex than that allegedly expressed by the Yukaghir example but is still fairly complex, requiring several clauses to express in English.  (I suggested the translation ‘When starting from cold, turn on the ignition without touching the gas-pedal; if the engine is warm, press the gas-pedal halfway down as you turn the ignition key’.)  In this case, I know the provenance at first hand, and the document remains in my possession (I should be happy to show it to enquirers).[5]  Whether it would be possible in principle to develop this kind of writing into a full-scale script, capable of expressing everything that can be expressed in speech, remains to my mind an open question.

3.  Chinese writing is not semasiographic. 

In the seventeenth century it was supposed by a number of European philosophers (cf. Knowlson 1975: 25) that Chinese script was a real example of the kind of full semasiographic system discussed as a hypothetical possibility in the preceding section.  One still sees this concept expressed by misinformed writers today.  It is quite wrong:  Chinese script was created as a means of representing visually a particular spoken language, the Chinese language as it existed at the period when the script was developed.  No-one familiar with the language and script could doubt this.

In Sampson (1985: 149) I list various considerations which demonstrate the point, such as the fact that (as with any other natural language) the morphemes of spoken Chinese are often polysemous and have ranges of meaning which are arbitrary and idiosyncratic, and these meaning-ranges will normally be common both to a spoken morpheme and to the written graph (or ‘character’) which represents that morpheme.  Occasionally, it is true, a single polysemous spoken word will have alternative graphs for separate subsections of its meaning-range, rather as the single spoken English etymon /metl/ has alternative spellings metal and mettle for separate subsenses ã and, as in the English case, the alternative writings are perceived as distinct vocabulary items.  For instance guo meaning ‘fruit’ and hence also ‘result’ has distinct graphs for the ‘fruit’ sense and the ‘result’ sense.  But even in such cases the alternative Chinese graphs will between them cover the identical meaning-range that is covered by the single spoken Chinese word; we do not find meaning-boundaries between written Chinese graphs and meaning-boundaries between spoken Chinese words overlapping and cutting across one another, as one finds with meaning-boundaries between Chinese words and meaning-boundaries between words of English or another spoken language.

There is, admittedly, a special consideration in the case of written Chinese which might seem to put its glottographic status in doubt.  Once a spoken language has acquired a written form, the two linguistic systems may evolve independently so that the relationship between written and spoken languages becomes increasingly remote.  With Chinese this happened in a way for which I know no parallel:  during much of recent history, before the reforms in written usage associated with the May Fourth Movement initiated in 1919, the standard written language of China (wen yan, or literary Chinese) was a language which when read aloud in contemporary pronunciation could not be understood by a hearer, irrespective of how learned he might be, because the spoken equivalent of a written text did not contain sufficient information to determine the identities of the morphemes of which the text was composed.  There were two reasons for this.  Sound changes during the long period since the creation of the script had removed many phonological contrasts and thus introduced an extremely high incidence of homophony among morphemes;[6] and developments in literary usage had created many possibilities of meaningfully combining morphemes in writing in ways that would never have occurred in spoken Chinese at any period of its history, thus reducing the chance of determining the intended morpheme among a set of homophone candidates by reference to its morphemic environment.[7]  Therefore literary Chinese not merely did only function but could only function as a written and read language, not as a spoken and heard language.[8]  This might seem to bring literary Chinese within the definition of semasiography.  But any literary Chinese text has a perfectly specific spoken form, composed of morphemes many of which occur in modern spoken Chinese and all of which are etymologically identifiable with morphemes that have occurred in spoken Chinese at some historical period:  there is a well-defined way of reading a literary Chinese text aloud (morphemes which are obsolete in spoken Chinese are given the pronunciations that result by applying subsequent sound-laws to the pronunciations the morphemes had when they were current in speech), even if this activity achieves no communicative purpose.  The situation is very different from a case such as the Ford starting instructions, where one has to invent some form of words to express orally the message of the text, and independent readers could reasonably select different spoken word-sequences to express the ‘written’ message.  Chinese script is glottographic.

4.        Is Chinese writing logographic? 

People with limited awareness of linguistic concepts sometimes talk as if the statement that a script represents a spoken language necessarily implies that the units of the script must represent phonetic units, such as consonants, vowels, or syllables:  that is, they overlook the logical possibility that a script might be logographic.  But linguists know that any natural language has units at many levels, and in particular that all human languages exhibit a ‘double articulation’ into units carrying meaning, on the one hand, and phonological units whose function is to serve as perceptually-distinctive building blocks out of which meaningful units can be assembled, on the other.  This feature is universal in human language:  it applies as much to languages having no written form as to languages which have scripts.[9]  It is at least logically possible, therefore, that a glottographic script might assign distinctive symbols to elements of the first rather than of the second articulation.  DeFrancis accepts, I think, that this is a logical possibility, but he does not believe it is a practical possibility or that Chinese writing should be regarded as such a script.

Consideration of the status of Chinese script in this respect is complicated by an unusual property of Chinese as a spoken language.  In European languages there is commonly little regular relationship between the position of boundaries of units of the two articulations.  The spoken English word analysed, for instance, comprises two morphemes, one of which is realized by two complete syllables and part of a third, while the other is realized by just the final consonant of the third syllable.  In Chinese, by contrast, phonological syllable-boundaries (which are always clearly marked ã Chinese phonology lacks ‘interludes’ (Hockett 1955: 52) such as the /t/ of English butter, which belong equally to the preceding and the following syllable) almost always coincide with morpheme boundaries:  each morpheme is represented by exactly one spoken syllable.  (There are marginal exceptions, such as, in modern Mandarin, the nominal suffixes -z, -r, and, in all varieties of Chinese, a set of disyllabic morphemes for unusual flora and fauna, the classic example being shanhu ‘coral’ mentioned by DeFrancis (1989: 259); but these cases are few enough not to be significant in the present context.)

Because, broadly, each Chinese morpheme is realized as a syllable, one might suppose that for this particular language there could be no distinction between a syllabic phonographic script and a morpheme-based logographic script.  Conceptually, however, there is a clear distinction, because of the high incidence of homophony in Chinese already mentioned.  The great majority of phonologically-possible Chinese syllables each represent several etymologically distinct morphemes with unrelated meanings.  (The standard dictionary of modern Chinese Xiandai Hanyu Cidian (Peking, 1981) lists on the order of 10,000 morphemes, and about 1280 distinct isolation-form syllables, giving an average of about eight morphemes per syllable.)  Suppose English were written in a script whose graphic units corresponded to word-sized units of the spoken language:  there would be a clear conceptual distinction between a script which used a given graph for all occurrences of words pronounced /s  n/ irrespective of meaning, and a script which assigned unrelated graphs to /s  n/ ‘male child’ and /s  n/ ‘star which our planet orbits’.  If English had numerous homophones and if one of these two alternative principles were adopted consistently in each case, we would call the script phonographic if homophones were written alike, and logographic if each etymologically distinct word had its own written form graphically unrelated to the written forms of its homophones.

The case of Chinese script is certainly not as clearcut as either of these two hypothetical cases.

Chinese graphs come close to standing in a one-to-one relationship with morphemes, so that etymologically distinct morphemes will normally have distinct graphs.  There is a significant incidence of distinct morphemes sharing a common graph ã in some cases the morphemes written alike are homophones (e.g. bie ‘other’ and bie ‘don’t’), in other cases they have distinct (but usually similar) pronunciations (e.g. qi ‘wonderful’ and ji ‘odd number’); and sometimes it is impossible to know whether alternative senses associated with a particular graph/pronunciation pairing represent polysemous evolution of meaning within a single etymon, or represent historically-unrelated homophones.  But even when a single graph clearly stands for two or more homophonous morphemes, the set of morphemes written with that graph will virtually always be a minority of the total set of morphemes sharing that pronunciation.  If one were to consider Chinese graphs as atomic units lacking internal structure, the script would rather clearly be basically logographic, though with occasional ambiguous assignments of graphs to alternative morphemes which are phonetically identical or related.[10]

However, most Chinese graphs are not simple forms but contain internal complexity, and the nature of this complexity is such that a graph often includes a more or less precise clue to its pronunciation.  This feature of the script may be (and is, by DeFrancis) used to argue that it is fundamentally a syllabic phonographic script with logographic accretions.

The internal structure of Chinese graphs is best explained historically.  On the order of a thousand morphemes are represented by simple graphs which originated as pictures corresponding to their meanings (though at an early date the iconic quality of the graphs was lost through stylization of their shapes).  A morpheme X having no simple graph was written by borrowing the graph for some morpheme Y that already had a written form and that was pronounced similarly to X (though, commonly, X and Y were not pronounced identically); and usually a distinguishing element was added to differentiate the written form of X from that of Y, in the shape of a simple graph for a morpheme related in meaning to X (‘hand’ for verbs of action, ‘water’ for words connected with liquids, etc.).  There appears to have been a very early stage at which the system of borrowing graphs by reference to similarity of pronunciation had not yet come into play, but only through that principle did Chinese script become a full-scale writing system capable of representing everything in the spoken language.  Thus the bulk of all graphs in the system which emerged are compounds containing two parts, a phonetic and a signific, and of the two the phonetic component is unquestionably more important:  there are on the order of 1400 different graphs used as phonetics within phonetic/signific compounds (some of the 1400 are themselves phonetic/signific compound graphs), but only about 200 graphs used as significs, and in the early history of the script there seems to have been some flexibility in the use of significs ã they might be omitted, or a single morpheme might be written with alternative significs ã whereas a morpheme was only rarely represented by alternative phonetics.

I shall use the term ‘compound graph’ for a Chinese graph that can be analysed into phonetic and signific.  (There are also graphs which might be called compound because they combine two simple graphs to represent a word whose sense is connected with the senses of both components, but for present purposes graphs of this sort are not interestingly different from simple graphs, and my use of the term ‘compound graph’ will exclude them.)

It might, then, be reasonable to describe the Chinese script during an early phase of its history as fundamentally phonographic, although phonetically imprecise (a phonetic element was associated not with a fixed syllabic pronunciation but with a range of related pronunciations), and having important logographic features (the use of significs, and the fact that a morpheme lacking a simple graph was written not with the graph for any similar-sounding morpheme but with that of one particular conventionally-fixed near-homophone).[11]  To this extent I accept DeFrancis’s view of the nature of Chinese script.  However, since Saussure it has been accepted among linguists that the structure of a linguistic system at a given time is a separate issue from the question of how the system evolved historically.  The evolution of Chinese script and spoken language over some three millennia have brought about changed relationships between script and speech, which make the script now more logographic and less phonographic than before.

Thus, sound-changes have in many cases caused syllables which used to be phonetically similar to diverge in pronunciation.  The morphemes for ‘two’, ‘grease’ were pronounced in Middle Chinese nzi-, ni- respectively, so it was reasonable for ‘grease’ to be written as a compound graph combining ‘two’ as phonetic with ‘flesh’ as signific; but, through the operation of regular sound laws, the modern Mandarin pronunciations have become respectively er, ni, making the rationale of the ‘grease’ graph quite opaque.  Furthermore, the massive loss of phonemic contrasts which has been a marked feature of the history of Chinese phonology means that a given absolute degree of difference between the pronunciation of two syllables constitutes a much larger relative difference, in the context of the impoverished modern phonological system, than it did in the richer phonological systems of Middle or Old Chinese; this again reduces the perceived phonetic homogeneity of a family of morphemes written with the same phonetic element.  It often happens that a morpheme X is written with a compound graph in which the element that is historically the phonetic seems quite inappropriate with respect to its modern Mandarin pronunciation, although there are several graphs standing for words that are perfect homophones of X which are used as phonetics in other compound graphs. (For instance, di ‘place’ is written with the phonetic ye ‘also’ and the ‘earth’ signific, but there are at least two simple graphs pronounced di and used as phonetics in other compound graphs.)  Sometimes a morpheme which remains current is written with a compound graph, the phonetic element of which when written independently stands for an obsolete morpheme, so that the phonetic element plays no part in the average reader’s understanding of the compound graph (for instance, cha ‘insert’ is written with the phonetic cha ‘pestle’ and the ‘hand’ signific, but cha ‘pestle’ is thoroughly obsolete).

These factors relate to developments in the spoken language; but developments in the written forms have also tended to change the nature of the script/spoken-language relationship in the same direction.  The written representations of morphemes have become more fixed:  a minority of morphemes do still have recognized alternative graphs, but there is no general freedom to omit or vary signific elements (where variant forms exist, commonly the difference between the alternatives is limited to different spatial arrangements of the same phonetic and signific elements).  The shape of a graph used as a phonetic element in a compound graph has sometimes diverged from the shape used when it occurs as an independent graph, so that the historical identity of the two is no longer recognizable.  (Thus feng ‘envelope’ was originally written with a compound graph containing the phonetic element feng ‘gracefulness’, but within the ‘envelope’ graph this element was given an extra stroke changing it into the graph gui ‘sceptre’; the graph for cha ‘inspect’ began as a compound containing the phonetic element qie ‘moreover’ ã the phonetic relationship between these syllables is not very close,[12] but this relationship is in any case irrelevant to the modern reader since a slight alteration in the writing of the phonetic element within the ‘inspect’ graph has made it appear to derive from dan ‘dawn’ rather than qie ‘moreover’.)

The net effect of such developments is that modern Chinese script, as a writing system for modern spoken Mandarin Chinese, is one in which many graphs contain recognizable clues to the pronunciation of the morphemes they represent but many others contain no such clues, and where there are such clues they are often very vague.  From a knowledge of the pronunciation of a morpheme and the information that its graph is a phonetic/signific compound, it would only rarely be possible to predict the identity of the phonetic (one would more often be able to predict the identity of the signific from the meaning of the morpheme).  From the point of view of a present-day Chinese-speaker learning to read and write, the phonetic element of a compound graph is often just an arbitrary part of the graph’s overall shape to be learned, and its historical role as phonetic is as opaque and irrelevant to his task as is the derivation from Greek ana and luein to an English-speaker learning to use the word analyse.

Whether one regards such a system as essentially logographic with elements of a phonographic principle, essentially phonographic with elements of a logographic principle, or as too mixed to assign to either category, must depend on a subjective judgment as to how close and regular the relationship between pronunciations and written forms needs to be before one treats that relationship as the central organizing principle of a script.  I tried to give readers of Sampson (1985: 157-8) an impression of the situation by discussing the analysis of ten graphs chosen at random, and I used this discussion to support my own judgment (shared with many other commentators) that modern Chinese script is essentially logographic though with limited phonographic features.  DeFrancis makes the opposite judgment, and supports it with numerical statistics (DeFrancis 1989: 99-113).  But DeFrancis reaches very high figures for the degree of phoneticity of Chinese graphs by counting a graph as phonetically motivated if there is any resemblance at all between the pronunciation of the graph and that of its phonetic element, and even (in the case of the highest figure quoted, on p. 113) by counting all graphs that were historically phonetic/signific compounds as phonetically motivated irrespective of whether sound-changes have destroyed that motivation.  While in general I favour the use of precise numerical methods rather than impressionistic approaches in linguistics where possible (cf. Sampson 1992), I am not persuaded that the question of how far Chinese script is phonetically motivated for its present-day users is one that can be addressed statistically:  it is not clear what we ought to count.  We have no accepted measure, for instance, of phonetic distance between linguistic forms that would allow us to specify how appropriate on average the phonetic element of a compound graph is to the graph’s current pronunciation.[13]

I continue, then, to regard modern Chinese writing as essentially logographic; although subjective judgments cannot ultimately be disputed, it is surprising to me that someone would make the opposite judgment about the script as it now exists.[14]  However, the script was certainly more phonographic at earlier stages of its history.  There would be nothing surprising in a judgment that Chinese script at the period when it first developed into a full writing system capable of representing the whole spoken vocabulary was an essentially phonographic system (though many would prefer to classify it as too mixed to assign to either type, and, as DeFrancis rightly points out (1989: 99ff.), the facts as well as their appropriate interpretation are quite debatable in this area).  Part of DeFrancis’s thesis may be a diachronic claim, that full-scale writing systems capable of expressing everything expressible in speech must always develop through heavy use of a phonographic principle, whether or not their phonographic status is compromised by subsequent evolution.  This is a conjecture which seems likely to be true:  it is hard to imagine a script with separate symbols for all the thousands of elements in the lexicon of a natural language being created without any exploitation of phonetic similarities for the task of generating the symbols.  It can be no more than a conjecture; to date too few writing systems have been created independently in the history of Mankind to test it adequately, and the cultural integration of the world means that future independent creations are now unlikely.

5.  Can a script be less phonographic than Chinese writing is?

DeFrancis uses his interpretation of the Chinese writing system as an essentially phonographic system in order to support the more general thesis that no script can be logographic.  But even if one accepted DeFrancis’s interpretation of Chinese script, the more general point would not follow.

There is in fact another example of writing which is much more clearly logographic than Chinese writing:  namely the use of Chinese graphs to write Japanese words.  Japanese uses a mixed script in which grammatical suffixes and particles are written phonographically while stems of lexical items are written with Chinese graphs.  Many modern Japanese lexical items are Chinese loanwords, and in these cases the function of the phonetic element within the Chinese graph (if it is a compound graph) remains what it is with respect to the Chinese language ã except that the Japanization of morpheme pronunciations introduces a further layer of distortion into the relationship between graphs and their spoken forms.  But Japanese also retains a stock of native lexical items, which are written with graphs for Chinese words having the same or similar meanings.  Since Japanese and Chinese are genetically unrelated, this means that the synchronic relationship between the pronunciation of a native Japanese stem and the phonetic element within the Chinese graph used to write it, if this is a compound graph, is totally random.

The very complex Japanese writing system contains more than the writing of native Japanese lexical stems, but this is an important subpart of the writing system as a whole.  In the 1946 codification of officially-sanctioned current graph-uses, graphs used for native stems accounted for 1116 out of a total of 3122 morphemes written with Chinese graphs.  This establishes that a method of writing which does not exploit phonetic relationships is possible, whatever one’s view of the status of modern Chinese script.

6.  Conclusion.      

I conclude that the diversity of the world’s writing systems, viewed as synchronic systems, is greater than several recent writers have supposed, even though practical considerations may lead to somewhat less diversity than is hypothetically possible, and scripts may be less diverse with respect to their historical origins than with respect to their current functioning.


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            [1]I would prefer to cite the 1987 edition of this book as its standard version, since the original 1985 edition (together with all American printings) contained a number of errors due to the fact that I was not shown complete proofs before publication.  But I believe none of the errors corrected in the 1987 edition, which were concentrated in chapters 5 and 6, are relevant to DeFrancis’s disagreements with me.
            [2]DeFrancis urges (1989: 57) that a discussion of semasiography is as out of place in a survey of writing systems as would be an introductory section on ‘Oxcarts of the World’ in a history of the motor car, suggesting that it is self-evident that these two things have nothing to do with one another.  But, although the ox-cart in particular was not a direct forerunner of the car, vehicles drawn by animals certainly were:  one could not hope to understand the early evolution of motor-car design without knowing about the structure of horse-drawn carriages from which cars were developed.  Such questions about relevance must be settled empirically rather than aprioristically.
            [3]In discussing my views, DeFrancis is selective in his use of quotation.  He describes semasiography (DeFrancis 1989: 34-5) as ‘writing that Sampson would have us believe might be capable of evolving into “a full-fledged semasiographic language rivalling English, French, and German in expressive potential” (Sampson 1985: 32)’.  What I wrote at the place cited was ‘Doubtless it is hardly likely to lead to the evolution of a fully-fledged semasiographic language rivalling [etc.] ...’.
            [4]As DeFrancis points out, Diringer eliminated the questionable material from the third (1968) edition of his book.
            [5]Since the matter has become unexpectedly contentious, I should add that the document does include some writing of the ordinary kind.  The whole message is headed ‘TO START’, and the two rows of pictures are respectively captioned ‘COLD’ and ‘WARM’ (in ten languages in each case).  But these fragments of glottographic script add up to far less than is conveyed semasiographically.
            [6]This point follows straightforwardly from the standard account of the history of Chinese phonology, as represented in Karlgren (1957); and, with respect to the differences between modern pronunciations and those of the Middle Chinese (Karlgren’s ‘Ancient Chinese’) of ca A.D. 600, this account is solidly based on several different categories of evidence.  With respect to the reconstruction of the Old Chinese or ‘Archaic Chinese’ pronunciations of ca 1000 B.C. the evidence is less solid, and there is a risk of circularity in relying on the standard reconstructions in connexion with a discussion of the nature of Chinese script, since the forms of the written graphs are a chief category of evidence used in reconstructing Old Chinese pronunciations.  But the point above about relative lack of homophony in earlier forms of spoken Chinese requires only acceptance of the Middle Chinese reconstructions.
            [7]This second point is harder to establish irrefutably, since we inevitably have little direct evidence of linguistic patterns in the speech of learned Chinese at early periods.  But consider for instance the gu wen (‘old style’) literary movement initiated by Han Yu ca A.D. 800:  this represented a revolt against a prevailing literary style that seems to have been perceived as artificial because it lacked the organic quality of writing which followed spoken norms.
            [8]Modern spoken Chinese uses a smaller stock of morphemes than literary Chinese, its vocabulary has developed in such a way that it uses a longer sequence of morphemes to express a given proposition, and it is less flexible than literary Chinese with respect to permissible ways of combining morphemes:  these factors between them explain why spoken Chinese is comprehensible while literary Chinese read aloud is not.
            [9]My use of the term ‘double articulation’ leads DeFrancis (1989: 253ff.) into a discussion of André Martinet’s individual theories about linguistic structure.  But the concept is, so far as I know, shared by linguists of all theoretical persuasions.  I used Martinet’s term in Sampson (1985) not to imply allegiance to one individual’s theories but because it is the classic label for an uncontroversial idea.  An American term for the same idea is ‘duality of patterning’ (Hockett 1973: 106).
            [10]Chinese dictionaries give long lists of subsenses for many graphs, without making any differentiation between cases where alternative subsenses are polysemous extensions of single etymological senses, and cases where historically unrelated homophonous etymons have been assigned the same graph.  The distinction between polysemy and homophony is not a clear one in the Chinese philological tradition, because the written graph is felt to be the essence of a morpheme ã if two homophones are written with the same graph then they are regarded as the same word.  In English, ear of corn is popularly taken to be a meaning-extension of ear as organ of hearing; experts can use comparison with other Germanic languages to go behind the spelling and establish that the two senses are in fact a case of accidental homophony, but comparable evidence is almost entirely lacking for Chinese.  One strategy available to someone wishing to interpret Chinese writing as predominantly phonographic might be to argue that more of the subsenses listed for individual graphs are accidental homophones and fewer are cases of polysemy than is commonly recognized (so that graphs would not be in a one-to-one but in a one-to-many relationship with morphemes).  However, although this may well be true, it would not do much to establish that the present-day synchronic functioning of the system is phonographic, since typically when a graph has a long list of subsenses in a large dictionary most of these are obsolete.  And I would add that in any case unanswerable questions about the prehistory of etymons 3000 years or more ago must surely be irrelevant to judgments about the synchronic properties of a linguistic system:  if Chinese speakers in the historical period have regarded the various senses associated with a single graph as subsenses of the same morpheme, then that fact alone perhaps requires us to say that (provided there is no pronunciation difference as in the ‘wonderful’/‘odd number’ case above) they are subsenses of one morpheme.
            [11]The reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology is too uncertain, I believe, for us to determine whether the phonetic selected for a target morpheme was commonly predictable in terms of some measure of least phonetic distance from a morpheme already having a written form.
            [12]The spellings ch, q both represent aspirated affricates, respectively retroflex and alveolopalatal.
            [13]Robbins Burling has pointed out to me that any method for quantifying the degree to which a script is phonographic would need to give separate figures from writer’s and from reader’s points of view.  Suppose the phonemes of a spoken language were in a one-to-many relationship with the letters of an alphabet, in such a way that the spelling of any word was a perfect predictor of its pronunciation, but the choice among alternative letters to represent a given phoneme had to be learned for each word individually.  Such a script would be 100% phonographic for the reader, but only somewhat phonographic for the writer.  Intuitively it seems true that Chinese script is more phonographic for reader than for writer; and it may be that scholarly discussions of script-types have tended to give undue emphasis to writer’s rather than reader’s point of view.  Even from the reader’s viewpoint, though, I would judge Chinese script to be ‘not very phonographic’.
            [14]I shall not attempt to claim that the essentially logographic status of Chinese script can be demonstrated from experimental psychological evidence, such as that of Sasanuma & Fujimura (1972);  DeFrancis argues (1989: 240) that the extant evidence is in fact inconclusive, and I am not qualified to challenge that.