[Editor’s note: This is the sixth of an ongoing series that examines the rise of writing – and therefore reading – around the world. We will be looking at the major developments and forces that shaped the written languages we use today. Links to all the previous posts are listed at the end of this one.]
Somewhere between 3000-2500 BCE, at the same time the Semitic alphabet arose in the West, the Chinese were developing a very different writing system in the East, one that better suited their language. In fact, until quite recently, Chinese character writing was more widely used than alphabetic writing systems, and until the 18th century more than half of the world’s books were written in Chinese. These included works of speculative thought, historical writings, novels, and writings about government and law.
The Chinese language contains clearly distinguished syllables, each of which corresponds to a meaningful unit known as a morpheme. The language is isolating rather than inflected like Latin or, to a lesser degree, English; that means each morpheme is represented separately. In English, a single word (for example, make), when inflected, creates an entire family of related words (make, makes, making, made, etc.). In Chinese, though, there is a one-to-one correlation between character and morpheme – one character (a logogram) represents only one morpheme (e.g., make). You need to add additional characters to create each of the inflected words. Since the number of morphemes in a language far exceeds the number of syllables, such a writing system requires an extremely large number of characters or graphs.
As mentioned above, the Chinese written language system is logographic, where symbols represent meaningful units. As in cuneiform writing, simple signs based on pictures (e.g. the graph for man resembled a standing figure, the graph for woman was a kneeling figure) soon gave way to more complex signs that included reference to sound. Even so, a very large number of characters was needed to express the different words, and by 1400 BCE, the script included some 2,500 to 3,000 characters; most of these can be read to this day. To resolve any remaining word ambiguity, the written characters were modified so that sounds and meaning together could differentiate them. Spoken Chinese continued (and still continues) to include many possible meanings for a given syllable, but the written form became unambiguous. The existing written system has endured intelligibly through many changes in the spoken language. The script was fixed in its present form during the Qin period (221–207 BCE).
Let’s look at some of the specifics on how the clarity of meaning was achieved. Simple signs to represent common objects were easy to achieve, but many words did not lend themselves to simple forms. To represent difficult words or words referring to intangibles, the Chinese borrowed a simple graph that pictured some object, using it as a second part of the character to denote a word similar in sound but different in meaning – that is, the first graph indicated the sound of the word, and the second, added, graph indicated the word’s meaning. With this invention, the Chinese approached the writing system invented by the Sumerians.
The system was then standardized to approach the ideal of using one distinctive graph to represent each morpheme in the written language. The limitation of this system is that a language that has thousands of morphemes would require thousands of characters. In truth, the number and complexity needed to contain a correspondence between each morpheme and graph in the Chinese script gave rise to about 40,000 different characters; a literate Chinese person needs to know perhaps 4,000 of those. Attempts have been made to simplify the written form, but these tend to re-introduce ambiguity, and they ultimately make the language more difficult to read.
The relation between the written Chinese language and its oral form is very different from the analogous relation between written and spoken English due to the large number of homophones in the former. In Chinese, no less than 188 different words are expressed orally by the syllable /yi/, but each one of those words is expressed in writing by a distinctive graphical pattern. A piece of written text read orally may actually be incomprehensible to a listener because of the homophones that have no spoken “meaning marker.” In conversation, literate Chinese speakers frequently draw characters in the air to allow the listener to distinguish between homophones. Written text, on the other hand, is completely unambiguous. English, by contrast, reflects almost the opposite situation – writing is often thought of as a reflection, though somewhat imperfect, of speech.
Not only did the principle of the how the Chinese script was written change with time, so too did the form of the graphs. The earliest writing consisted of carved inscriptions. Near the turn of the first millennium, however, the script came to be written with brush and ink on paper. As a result, the shapes of the graphs lost their pictorial quality, while the brushwork allowed a great deal of latitude for the writer’s aesthetic considerations.
In 1958, as a means of making the script easier to read, a system of transcribing Chinese into the Roman alphabet was adopted. This system was not intended to replace the logographic script, but rather to indicate the sounds of graphs in dictionaries and to supplement the meaning of graphs on such things as road signs and posters. A second reform simplified the characters by reducing the number of strokes used to write them. However, such simplification tends to make the characters appear more similar to each other, and thus more easily confused. The value of such reform is therefore limited.
Next up: Japanese writing
 Olson, David R. (nd.) “Chinese Writing.” Brittanica.com. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Chinese-writing
To read Part 1 (Sumerians), click here.
To read Part 2 (Egyptian hieroglyphs), click here.
To read Part 3A (Indo-European languages part 1), click here.
To read Part 3B (Indo-European languages part 2), click here.
To read Part 4 (Rosetta Stone), click here.