Tuesday 06 May 2003

Ignorance bought and paid for (in Japanese too)

Golly, Blogaria’s a strange old world. Before dinner I started an entry about Heidegger’s On the Way to Language. But on Monday night SBS screens the English Premier League Highlights show—and what a delightful hour it turned out to be: eating a delicious home-cooked Thai chicken stir fry accompanied by a couple of glasses of Cabernet Merlot while watching Australians Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka save Leeds United from relegation and, simultaneously, thwart Arsenal’s last chance of staying in Premiership contention (which is not to say I’m celebrating Manchester United’s victory).

I returned to my Heidegger post only to find a trackback from Stavros responding in his usual forthright fashion to a New York Times article (link via Language Hat) about one “William C. Hannas, ‘a linguist who speaks 12 languages and works as a senior officer at the Foreign Broadcast Information Service,’ author of a newly released book which claims that Asian science has suffered because the main Asian languages are written in “character-based rather than alphabetic” systems.” Stavros adds:

Not to get off on a rant here, but : in and of itself, this seems to me to be the most vile form of egregiously wrongheaded bullshit, and I suspect Mr Hannas is precisely the sort of person that I’d take great pleasure in pummelling until he whimpered like a frightened infant (a reaction that may reveal to some extent why I left academia many years ago, having dipped no more than a toe in its calm waters). But that’s not the thing that bothered me.

The article states, presumably parrotting Mr Dipshit, that “Western specialists are better informed today […and] now recognize that the writing systems of East Asia, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean, are “syllabaries,” in which each character corresponds to a syllable of sound.”

Now, I can’t speak for written Japanese (for which I think this may in part be true, depending on which way of writing the language one chooses - Jonathon may be the better person in the immediate neighbourhood to address that), and I’m only semi-certain it is true as far as my knowledge goes for Chinese, but this is completely and laughably wrong in the case of Korean.

Stavros is correct in saying that in Japanese this may be partly true, depending on which way of writing the language one chooses. Japanese can be written using the hiragana and katakana syllabaries—in which each character corresponds to a syllable of sound—but the only Japanese who regularly do so are kindergartners. By the end of their first year of elementary school, Japanese children are expected to have memorized and be using 80 kanji characters, many of which have multisyllabic pronunciations, such as:

migi (right), hidari (left), ame (rain), hana (flower), yasu (rest), sora (sky), tsuki/getsu (moon), yama (mountain), ito (thread), onna (woman), shita (below), ue (above), mori (wood/grove), mizu/sui (water), ao (blue), ishi (stone), aka (red), kawa (river), mura (village), shiro/haku (white).

By the end of elementary school, Japanese twelve year olds will be using 1006 kanji characters, hundreds of which have multisyllabic pronunciations.

In other words, as far as Japanese is concerned, the assertion that the language is based on characters corresponding to a syllable of sound is utter nonsense. Unless you’re referring to five year olds—but then there aren’t too many five year olds of any nationality winning Nobel prizes.

And, since Stavros went to the trouble of rendering “a rude bit of English, sloppily and phonetically… into the Hangul alphabet in 5 letters and two syllables for Mr Hannas, sounding something like ‘puhk kyu!’”, here’s the equivalent in Japanese:

Katakana: fakku-yuu

In this case, “fakku-yuu!” Naturally, since this is an English loan expression, I’ve used the katakana phonetic syllabary.

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I enjoyed your vigorous attack on poor Mr Hannas!

Mind you (trying to sound most demurring and non-confrontational here!) isn't it the case that Japanese newspapers and books are crammed full of hiragana and katakana alongside the imported (and very occasionally home-grown) Chinese kanji?

The last time I did a rough count, something approaching sixty per cent of the ink marks on a Japanese newspaper page were from one of the two syllabaries. And Japanese dictionaries spell kanji for users using hiragana (most of which users I assume are above kindergarten age). Of course most kanji are multi-syllable, but a small number are also one-syllable in their spoken form.

So isn't it a bit steep to say it's utter nonsense to claim Japanese uses characters representing syllables, and that only kindergarten children spell with kana? Sounds to me a rather reasonable simplification to introduce new readers to a tricky language with a fascinating hybrid script.

Is it Hannas' main argument you don't like? The bit about precision overriding innovation? That's obviously a big claim of his, but the syllable component of Japanese seems slightly more than utter nonsense to me.

Humbly yours! Mark

Posted by mark on 6 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Actually, article is correct about syllabaries, at least for Japanese. Though it's not one syllabaries per character, the syllabaries do make up the entire language including the kanji. Kanji is just one or more syllabaries. You can have variations in amount of kanji used because those 50 hiragana syllabaries can express everything. Just because article doesn't quite explain it well doesn't mean it's nonsense.

Posted by Joshiko on 7 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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