Simplified vs. Complex / Traditional

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All right.  Something seems to be afoot.

You will note in the this news story from China that there have lately been calls for a speedy and complete restitution of the complex / traditional (FANTI) characters.  Of course, that won't happen (at least not right away), but if you read between the lines, it does seem that there will be a retrenchment of the simplified (JIANTI) characters.

In the coming weeks, during the leadup to the promulgation of the new list of revised characters, we will see many more articles like this one from today's Economist, "Not as easy as it looks."

For an excellent account of this most contentious issue, I strongly recommend an article entitled "The Chinese Character — no simple matter" from the China Heritage Quarterly of The Australian National University, 17 (March, 2009). Note particularly the link to chinaSmack near the end for netizens' reactions.

This is an argument — Simplified vs. Complicated / Traditional — that will never end. Simplification is a process that has been going on since the very birth of the script. Conversely, the opposite trend of complexification has also been going on since the early stages of the script. Witness our discussion of the extremely rare 馬馬馬 vs. 騁 in this recent post.

For those Chinese language reformers who advocate alphabetization (e.g., Lu Xun, Ni Haishu, Lü Shuxiang, Zhou Youguang, Yin Binyong, Apollo Wu, John DeFrancis, and countless others), whether as part of a digraphia or by itself, simplification is a stopgap measure. Many of these scholars feel that simplification actually exacerbates the problems posed by the traditional forms of the characters. And then there is Jacob von Bisterfeld, whose call for romanization was — quite amazingly — published yesterday in the Shanghai Daily as "In praise of learning alphabets, not grueling study of characters."

(A tip of the hat to Norman Leung, Daniel Maas, and Geoff Wade.)

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14 Comments »

  1. Fresh Sawdust said,

    April 23, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

    Hopefully these proposals, if they do ever materialize in concrete form, will meet the same fate (public outcry at the wierd-looking newspapers apparently, according to Daniel Kane in his book 'The Chinese Language' (pg 60)) that the Dì'èrcì hànzì jian3huà fāng'àn 第二次汉字简化方案 did in December 1979. I mean, that's just what the world needs right now, yet ANOTHER (third) system/set of Chinese characters to contend with. Still, look on the bright side, now might be a good time to start thinking of investing in dictionary and textbook publishing.

    I think I'd actually prefer to go back to traditional characters (despite their obvious drawbacks) than faff about learning and teaching whatever newfangled forms are being proposed.

  2. Kellen said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 1:13 am

    while we're on the subject of multiple forms of the characters, it would be interesting though admittedly impossible given the relationship between the countries to see a world where kanji and hanzi forms were the same, e.g. 龍, 竜 and 龙.

    i know that's absurd. but then, in my opinion, so are further reforms to the characters.

  3. joseph palmer said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 9:55 am

    I agree, fresh sawdust, and I am sure the reforms will fail in the same way. A small and arbitrary move in the direction of complexity, making it more time consuming for people to write new unfamiliar characters, though vaguely easier for a foreigner or child to learn them. No chance.

  4. KYL said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    The China Heritage Quarterly article has a very strong anti-PRC slant and simplifies, as it were, the debate's practical implications. The chinaSmack link presents a much more diverse range of viewpoints and is more balanced.

    The article also implies that by learning simplified characters, students are "unlettered" and cut off from China's historical literature and tradition. This is akin to arguing that because modern American students are not familiar with the printing conventions used in Shakespeare and Chaucer's time, that for that reason alone, they'd be cut off from English historical literature.

    In reality, to appreciate Chinese classical literature in the original, the students would have to learn Classical Chinese, and learn a script that is quite different from modern "Traditional Script." So the use of the simplified characters is the least of their problems. The rest of the students will have to learn classical literature from modern reprints with simplified characters (and/or modern standard mandarin translations), which is no different from the situation in any other modern language with respect to their own classical literature.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    Fresh Sawdust used a word that is completely new to me, "faff." When I looked it up on Urban Dictionary, I found that it is a very useful word to have on hand. But where did it come from?

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=faff

    [(myl) OED gloss for faff: " intr. To fuss, to dither. Often with about. Also as n., fuss, ‘flap’."

    1874 S. BARING-GOULD Yorks. Oddities I. 179 T' clock~maker..fizzled an' faff'd aboot her, but nivver did her a farthing's worth o' good. 1888 J. DALBY Mayroyd III. vi. 99 A flay-crow wench, aw feathers an' faff. 1954 N. COWARD Future Indefinite v. 319 The Welfare Officers appeared,..faffed about, used either too much initiative or too little, and retired in due course. 1959 ‘O. MILLS’ Stairway to Murder x. 117 It's a bad time for the villagers anyway, faffing around after the ewes. 1960 M. CECIL Something in Common xx. 228 Dithering about in a perpetual faff.

    Etymology is cf. faffle, which entry says

    [Of echoic origin: cf. maffle; also dial. faff a puff of wind, faff to blow in sudden gusts.]
    ]

  6. hu, yalung said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    Language is one of the key elements of a culture. Words evolve, change, renew and disappear like other things in any culture, such as costumes, music, hairstyles,,, .

    It can be healthy and constructive for people (including scholars) to exchange views, debate or argue about the matter, but is a bad idea to expect government to issue rules, orders to meet one group's fondness to seej personal gains. People will adopt or discard and making a language more efficient and graceful without the mandate from the professional nor the government.

    What PRC did year ago to set Jianti as national standard has been as troublesome as the harm caused by the disastrous one-child policy. Is it not clear enough?

    YLH

  7. James D said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

    It would be little different to what happens in other languages. I can read mediaeval Welsh orthography, but I find it quicker transcribed into modern Welsh orthography. Nothing's lost: if you're interested in old stuff, you'll make the effort to learn it (not difficult in the case of Welsh; I admit it must be a little harder with a non-alphabetic convention!).

  8. David B Solnit said,

    April 25, 2009 @ 12:30 am

    Just to amplify a bit on Victor’s remark that simplification has been going on for a long time: a significant proportion of the simplified characters are just formalizations of cursive forms that existed well before any modern reform attempts. Even if traditional characters are the norm in printed texts, you have to be familiar with these cursive/simplified versions if you want to read handwritten text, ranging from personal letters to high-art calligraphy. A nice introduction to cursive is Chinese Cursive Script: An Introduction to Handwriting in Chinese by Fred Fang-yu Wang (Yale U. Press).

    This doesn’t bear on many of the objections raised, such as that of the merging of homophones. The point is that at least some of the simplified characters have an origin other than some ham-fisted government committee. This is seldom mentioned in discussions of the issue (in English, anyway).

  9. dr pepper said,

    April 25, 2009 @ 12:57 am

    As storage gets cheaper and denser, and as it becomes standard to digitize everything, i predict that in the future basic scholarship will be easily available to non scholars. And there will be multilayered digital editions of ancient books containing

    1. Images of original manuscripts
    2. Transcripts of the manuscripts with normalized characters
    3. Transliterations of the words
    4. Translations and modernizations
    5. Commentary and notes on varient readings

    Readers will be able to go as deep as they want.

  10. hsknotes said,

    April 25, 2009 @ 4:48 am

    I'll be waiting for those 'translation and modernizations', right after the flying car I suppose. Are you a doctor like doctor pepper is a doctor?

    The heritage article is bad and shows a general misunderstanding of the situation only partly explained by an anti-PRC slant.

    "What PRC did year ago to set Jianti as national standard has been as troublesome as the harm caused by the disastrous one-child policy. Is it not clear enough?"

    No. It's not clear enough to me. I think that's like comparing apples and forced abortions.

    To James: Yes, something is lost. Maybe not to you, but to others. The point is, does it matter? Do people care? How big is the loss? etc. And in Chinese, the font change and simplifications make an arguably far bigger difference than u's becoming w's or th's from þ or even colour being turned into color. Sometimes the medium is the message, or at least is part of it.

    I think it can be difficult for language community without a language academy to understand how things are like elsewhere. And I think it can be perhaps more difficult for people who grew up with alphabetic writing systems to understand language reforms in non-alphabetic systems.

  11. Nigel Greenwood said,

    April 25, 2009 @ 6:20 am

    @ David B Solnit: … simplification has been going on for a long time: a significant proportion of the simplified characters are just formalizations of cursive forms that existed well before any modern reform attempts. Even if traditional characters are the norm in printed texts, you have to be familiar with these cursive/simplified versions if you want to read handwritten text, ranging from personal letters to high-art calligraphy. A nice introduction to cursive is Chinese Cursive Script: An Introduction to Handwriting in Chinese by Fred Fang-yu Wang (Yale U. Press).

    I agree: the Wang book is an excellent introduction. Its only slight drawback is that it's not always easy to find a given character. To that end I produced some time ago some alphabetical indexes for quick location of characters.

    YR Chao uses many traditional abbreviations in his 1968 Grammar of Spoken Chinese, referring to a 1930 publication by Liou & Lii, Sonq Yuan Yiilai Swutzyh Puu (I've used Chao's GR because I like the look of it & it appears too seldom on this blog).

  12. Fresh Sawdust said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

    I've just realized, after digging out my copy of Binyong & Rohsenow's 'Modern Chinese Characters', that Kane's book gives the wrong date – it should be more 1977 than 1979 (either way, I was but a pup back then). Apologies for any grinding of teeth that may have been caused. o:)

    Those interested in viewing that second set of simplified characters (that were soon abandoned and eventually abolished) can do a search on Google Book Search for Kane's book, or better yet, one on Wikipedia for 'Second round of simplified Chinese characters' and follow the Babelstone link at the bottom of the resulting wiki page. ;)

  13. Fresh Sawdust said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 7:26 am

    Whilst searching for an online version of the 1986 "Complete List of Simplified Characters", I chanced upon a nciku.com link to an interesting LL archived thread (by Bill Poser) which explains some of the apparent problems of (with?) simplified characters:

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003997.html

  14. ren said,

    June 1, 2009 @ 9:51 am

    Of these, 龍, 竜 and 龙, the middle "simplified" one is actually closer to the Oracle Bone Script than the first "traditional" charater is to the OBS. This is true for many other characters. Simplifying characters, rationally, into their original ideo and pictographic forms would be a win-win situation.

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