Writing (was Re: SOC: Confucian Capitalism and the Tao of Extropy

Wesley Schwein (schwein@pegasus.montclair.edu)
Mon, 1 Dec 1997 14:28:18 -0500 (EST)

On Sun, 30 Nov 1997 GBurch1@aol.com wrote:

> By bleeding off the energies of the
> occasional individualist unable to conform to Confucian orthodoxy, Taoism
> ironically served as an important element of the stability of the Sinitic
> world.

This reminds me of the role of Jainism and Buddhism in classical India.
They provided a spiritual outlet for the monied merchant caste which was
excluded from the mutual back-scratching rituals of the Kshatriyas and

> Finally, the general Chinese
> romance with textual symbolism (almost certainly a function of the
> ideographic nature of their written language), provides ample historical
> context for active participation in computer science in general and
> cryptography in particular.

There is no such thing as an ideographic script; this is a fiction
lingering from the first days of Jesuit missionary activity in China and
before Egyptian hieroglyphs were decipherd. Written Chinese is a
logosyllabary: characters represent phonetic information --syllables--
first and foremost. Syllabic content is modified by determiners, little
marks added to the syllable-character to indicate something of its
semantic value. Finally, a small percentage of characters in common use
are true logographs, having purely semantic value and no phonetic value,
similar to Arabic numerals. Classical Chinese dictionaries are full of
archaic characters which no one knows how to pronounce anymore --these are
logographs that have either passed from common use or were never commonly
used in the first place.

All writing systems have a phonetic basis because the phonology of a
language is the system with the smallest number of units. English has
about 42 phonemes; Japanese has IIRC about 120 possible syllables. 20 to
a few hundred functional units are about all anyone can reasonably be
expected to learn. Semantic systems, on the other hand, contain an
indefinite number of meanings. Can a human learn an indefinite number of
characters in a few years?

Daniels, P.T. & Bright, W. (editors) 1996. _The World's Writing Systems_.
New York: Oxford University Press.

DeFrancis, J. 1989. _Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing
Systems_. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Having said all that, I seem to recall that there are three levels of
literacy. At the first level, the reader reductively sounds out each
unit, whether letter or syllable. ("Kuh... ah... tuh... cat!")

At the second level, the reader reads the whole word phonetically. This
is as far as almost anyone got in the ancient Mediterranean world or
medieval Europe --people read aloud and literally listened to what they
were saying. The ability to read silently was almost unheard of; Saint
Augustine was famous for being able to read without speaking.

The third level is where most people end up now. At this point, all
writing systems effectively become ideographic in that the marks on the
page are perceived as a unit; we recognize the shape and do not read the
word phonetically (break it down by syllable or letter) except in the case
of words new to the reader. The whole word isn't even needed; try
covering up the bottom half of the letters in some text, or reading only
the first few letters. To get to this point, though, one needs to go
through the previous stages of analyzing writing in terms of phonology.

Wesley Schwein Hopeful monsters unite!