Archive for Orality

Sayable but not writable

The distinguished Chinese linguist, Y. R. Chao, developed the concept of "sayable Chinese" and wrote a series of books illustrating what he meant by it. Basically, what Chao intended by "sayable Chinese" were texts that could be understood when read aloud.  This may sound like a somewhat ludicrous proposition for most languages where what is written on the page may be easily understood when read aloud slowly and clearly.  For Chinese, this is not the case, especially when texts are riddled with Classical terms, sentences, and whole passages that are divorced from spoken language.  But even parts of supposedly pure Mandarin texts may not be intelligible to someone who hears them read aloud, since the semantic carrying capacity of the morphosyllabic characters is greater than their sounds alone.  That is why, when people tell others their names or when someone is giving a lecture or reading a text, auditors will frequently ask the speaker to write down the intended characters for terms that cannot be understood merely by hearing.  Thus, there are many instances where things are writable in Chinese but not sayable.

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