Re: The History of the Alphabet

Lee Daniel Crocker (
Tue, 7 Oct 1997 11:43:17 -0700 (PDT)

> In English, it takes a simple set of prefix and suffix additions to get
> from "establish" to "antidisestablishmentarianism" -- how does Chinese
> handle such things?

Germans build big compound words, but Chinese just string many words
(and small "particles") together. The necessity to compound words is
a result of treating words as single-function nouns or verbs. In
Chinese, one doesn't need separate words for the noun "tree" or the
verb "to tree" (whatever that might mean), or the adjective "treeish",
or the abstract quality of "treeness"; one simply places the word
"tree" in context and along with particles that mark its use. Even
new nouns can be created by simple juxtaposition of old ones, as the
symbols "tree, flower" used together mean "vegetation".

> I find it an exceptional advantage to be able to call across the country
> or across the ocean and talk to people and understand them. People today
> having a hard time with Shakespeare and Chaucer is more an issue of
> general illiteracy and lack of the Chinese reverence for the ancestors
> than of phonetic drift.

Yes, the technology of the phone might have been different had our
language suffered as much phonetic diversity as the Chinese; perhaps
the telegraph would have been more useful, the symbol set much larger,
and would have been automated sooner. Or maybe facsimile transmission
would have caught on earlier (it was invented early, it just didn't
catch on until the 80's, because voice had always been more practical).

> As I understand it, each logograph in Chinese is a completely separate
> word. How many of them are there? I seem to recall a number around
> 40,000. English has about 350,000 words. Consequently, many things
> can be said in fewer words in English than in other languages, offsetting
> the "fewer penstrokes per Chinese word" that you mention.

Yes, that's a good point. Chinese does use more words per thought
than English, so the writing advantage probably isn't that big. It is
improved somewhat by the fact that Chinese is so horribly ambiguous.
While one needs many more words to express a thought accurately, they
generally don't bother.

(Hey, I made it through a whole post on linguistics without mentioning
a certain favorite language...)

Lee Daniel Crocker <> <>
"All inventions or works of authorship original to me, herein and past,
are placed irrevocably in the public domain, and may be used or modified
for any purpose, without permission, attribution, or notification."--LDC