Character amnesia and kanji attachment

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The following short (5:48) interview video, in which a handful of Japanese speakers not only fail to remember exactly how to write some common Sino-Japanese words, but sometimes end up writing unrelated characters that share none of the same components, is a valuable addition to the ongoing conversation about character amnesia at Language Log (references below):

Interestingly, in a subsequent video, the Japanese host identifies a salient example of Kana-only Japanese from recent history, namely, early video games, in which, owing to hardware limitations, Kanji were omitted entirely.  The whole video is 12:19 long, but we enter at 8:50, where the host is discussing the possibility of abolishing characters altogether.  If you want a basic introduction to the Japanese writing system, you can go back to the beginning and start from there:

A selection of Language Log posts concerning character amnesia:

[Thanks to Alexander Giddings]


  1. krogerfoot said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 1:16 am

    Interesting. For the most part, everyone did well except for one young woman who admitted she was terrible at kanji (and the host praised everyone who came up with the right characters effusively). I was afraid I was going to see something that Japanese TV does too often, which is to seek out young people with poor kanji skills, have a merry laugh at their struggles, followed by a long furrowed-brow panel discussion about declining literacy in Japan.

    More of a head-scratcher for me was using the English "battle" (the katakana version of which is an everyday word in Japan) to prompt 戦闘. I would have thought of 戦闘機 "fighter plane" before I thought of バトル, though now that I think of it, the interviewer was probably trying to avoid giving hints with other words that use the same kanji. I wonder if the people who struggled with 戦闘 would have easily produced 戦い tatakai "fight" or 戦争 sensō "war."

  2. phspaelti said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 2:12 am

    Well "everyone did well", except it was 1 out of 5 for 賄賂. Of course that one is tough, except that it's a completely normal word. It's also remarkable to see grown-up, literate people being so happy with themselves because they are able to successfully write a word like 献立.

  3. David Moser said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 2:31 am

    One point people seldom point out is this: Even IF most Japanese do a reasonable job of remembering and writing most Kanji, AT WHAT EXPENSE?? The time and struggle it takes to attain this level of mastery is truly a tragic waste for a young person, who could be spending their time learning other aspects of language. And even more awful for Chinese students, whose burden is even greater, wasting so many of their most cognitively absorptive years memorizing thousands of admittedly beautiful but arbitrary symbols.

  4. krogerfoot said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 2:38 am

    賄賂 is a completely normal word, but the characters aren't all that common, which is what makes it tricky. I mean, "paraphernalia" is a completely normal English word, but it took me at least five tries to get it right, which is a tragedy in itself, since I'm a total spelling nerd.

  5. Bathrobe said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 2:50 am

    What makes 賄賂 tricky is that neither 賄 nor 賂 suggests the pronunciation. Yūraku would be a more plausible reading than wairo.

    Incidentally, I have similar trouble remembering 行贿 and 贿赂 in Chinese…

  6. Bathrobe said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 3:00 am

    In fact, 歪 wai meaning 'crooked' is more intuitive as a way of writing wai. That is the character I would immediately think of.

    献立 is difficult mainly because kon is not the most common reading of 献. Ken is.

  7. krogerfoot said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 3:03 am

    Regarding the AT WHAT EXPENSE?? argument, what do the scholars have to say about this? I know I should have been paying more attention to the discussion, but it seems that if you want to argue that a society is hobbled by an overcomplicated writing/spelling system, you have to contend with the fact that the first societies that come to mind seem to be doing pretty well—China, Japan, English-speaking North America/Oceania/UK.

  8. Arisu said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 8:16 am

    I would argue that all but ONE of those could be considered "common".
    Yes, they may learn all of them in Elementary school, but they are rarely written or used by the "average" person living the "average" life.
    Consider where does one see these words, if at all, in daily life? If you are not in a language field, you are not going to use or see 翻訳 that often. If you are not interested in battle games or war in general, you are not going to run into 戦闘 that often.
    I have often thought that the Japanese choice of 常用漢字 could do for some revisioning. (This was actually done recently, but….)

    Incidentally, The one I would consider "common" is 賄賂. There's an awful lot of it in the news…. constantly.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 8:25 am


    We should not ignore or overlook the point being made by David Moser: Chinese and Japanese children spend far more time on memorizing hanzi / kanji than do North America/Oceania/UK on learning English spelling. This is something we've covered scores of times from many different angles on Language Log.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 8:42 am

    From a distinguished Japanese cultural historian of the Edo period:

    This is especially close to all of us ordinary citizens. We can read most kanji, but since we don't write them very often, we have to think very hard if we have to write them.

  11. Arisu said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 9:05 am

    I wonder Why "AT WHAT GAIN" is never asked?

    Back in 2006-7, there was a show of some sort about kanji. I remember very clearly an older woman saying that she "thought of (the picture of ) the kanji" first when searching for just the right word or trying to remember a word.
    I've done that myself. Heck. I've made up words on the fly by joining two kanji and produced a real word a significant number of times.

    Perhaps it is the nature of the material, but I find I have a much easier time picking up new words, remembering new words, and/or infering meaning from unknown words when they are presented in Japanese versus English. (English is my 1st language.)

  12. J. M. Unger said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 9:08 am

    For someone who understands that Chinese and Japanese texts are not processed in fundamentally different ways in the brain from, say, English texts, it is obvious that all the alleged script-related cultural differences separating East from West must be due to external factors, such the length of time it takes to become literate, the apportionment of time during the school day, and so on, not to some internal psycholinguistic mechanism activated by the system of kanji and by no other species of character. I think this is a major reason that people fail to ask the "at what cost" question: they do not want to believe that there is something important they could learn from the answer. They belittle the question by treating it as nothing more than an invidious rhetorical put-down of Eastern civilization, whereas it is, in fact, precisely the right question to investigate.

  13. krogerfoot said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 9:22 am

    I should hope I'm not overlooking or ignoring David Moser's point. I can't speak to Chinese education, but I've lived and worked among the products of Japan's system for decades and it seems odd to describe it as a tragic waste. Literacy in Japan is for all intents and purposes universal. If kanji is holding Japan back in some way, the effect is not very apparent. Plus, I learned it myself, and it didn't seem like either a waste of time or a particular struggle.

    I don't dispute that kanji is harder than the Roman alphabet, and that hanzi is harder still. It's just my amateur observation that societies with complicated and counterintuitive writing/spelling systems (say, China/Japan/Thailand/the Anglosphere) do not seem notably impeded in comparison with their neighbors with more simplified systems.

  14. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 10:00 am

    The " societies with complicated and counterintuitive writing/spelling systems (say, China/Japan/Thailand/the Anglosphere)" that krogerfoot mentions have them because of a long cultural history that has made a radical break with the past difficult, lest a connection with that past is lost. One might wonder about how much Korea and Turkey lost when they made such a break.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 10:13 am

    Yes, Coby, and how much have they gained?

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 10:14 am

    Ditto for Vietnam.

  17. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 11:33 am

    Victor: I was not implying that I know the answer. But I have known Turks who have expressed regrets about not being able to read their grandparents' letters and diaries.

  18. Zeppelin said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 2:52 pm

    Living in a German city with a large Turkish population, I do find it convenient that I just have to learn some basic words to be able to understand, say, store signs and notices. I can't do the same for the many Arabic shops. Maybe it'll be an advantage for integration, eventually?

    I'd say Turks probably lost more of a connection to their cultural past as a result of the sweeping *language* reform that happened at the same time as the switch in alphabets.

  19. raempftl said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 3:16 pm

    I think the arguement that there are no apparent costs to society is looking at the problem from the wrong direction. In order to achieve the necessary literacy levels, a heavy burden is put the individual.

    It may not cost society but it definitely costs the individual children time in which they could do stuff that is much more fun. Children also need much longer before their reading ability reaches a level sufficient for the really interesting stuff. I remember reading lots of adventure books (Jules Verne, Alexandre Duma etc.) at about the age of ten. We read "Robinson Crusoe" at school when I was in from 4 (i. e. ca. 10-years old). How many 10-year old Chinese or Japanese Children would be able to read equivalent Chinese or Japanese books? And even if they are able to, do they have the time to do so or are they spending their time to learn Kanji?

    Regarding gains:
    @Arisu: I am someone who tends to think in pictures. And from what Japanese friends told me I am able to pick up Kanji relatively quickly with relatively little effort. How ever this is still relative. I am definitely held back by having to spend time learning Kanji in which I could learn lots of new vocabulary instead. I am pretty sure you and the woman on the variety show belong to a very small minority.

    @Coby Lubliner: I gave a Grimm's Fairy Tales book to a Japanese friend with a very good command of modern German. She was rather astonished at being able to read 200-years old German so easily. From what she told me I understood that it is impossible to read 200-years old Japanese texts or classical Japanese literature without further study. And my friend, incidentally, thinks it would be a waste of time to do so. If the language changed so much anyway, the gain (The few people interessted enough in classical Japanese literature to study it need somewhat less time to learn to read it.) seems pretty small in relation to the cost (Everybody has to spend countless hours to learning Kanji).

    Are literate Mandarin or Cantonese speaker able to read classical Chinese literature?

  20. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 3:51 pm

    "Are literate Mandarin or Cantonese speakers able to read classical Chinese literature?"

    As someone who has been teaching Classical Chinese for 40 years to students from all over the world, including hundreds from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and Korea, the answer is no. They need special training, just as do students from Russia, Germany, France, Canada, the USA, and elsewhere. Classical Chinese is as different from Mandarin or Cantonese as Latin is from Spanish, French, or Italian, and as Sanskrit is from Hindi or Gujarati.

  21. Usually Dainichi said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 6:51 pm

    Fantasizing about orthographic reform is one of my favorite hobbies, so I'm generally sympathetic to the viewpoints of the AT WHAT COST "camp". However, realistically speaking, I also have to acknowledge arguments against it.

    1. Changing an orthography is a huge investment. The change does not just have to "even out", it has to give a return which matches the investment, and interest. Even if you can argue that the return is great, you'd have to argue that the investment with interest isn't even greater. I'm interested in the extent to which modern technology can reduce the investment. Probably around 80% of what I read is digital, and it should be becoming easier and easier to automatically switch orthographies (thereby connecting you to you legacy orthography texts). Easier for some orthographies than others, surely, but I would guess that automatic hanzi->pinyin conversion can be done fairly easily with a very low margin of error. Even conversion of non-digital script is becoming possible (There are already apps which let you point the camera of your device towards something, and you see the translated/converted output on your screen)

    2. Lots of time is spent in the educational system which is related to "culture" and isn't directly applicable skills (for the big majority of students). Learning ancient history, reading the literary canon with works that you might not even like, same thing for the art canon etc. I'm not sure learning characters is much worse. Adding to that theories that education is really functioning more as a filtering mechanism in society than an educating mechanism (I'm not saying it should be this way), the "waste" part becomes even smaller.

    3. I think the AT WHAT COST camp might be exaggerating the wasted effort. I can only compare the Japanese educational system to the Danish one first hand, but I don't feel that much more time is spent on first language education in the former than the latter. And mind you, much of the time spent on learning kanji is really spent on learning vocabulary. Often you learn the vocabulary with the character. Not wasted time.

    My own overall view and answer to the AT WHAT COST question is that I don't really worry about the wasted effort of people who manage to become fully literate. My concern is for people where this barrier just makes the difference that prevents them from becoming fully functionally literate. Literacy is an imporant tool in a democratic culture, and functional illiteracy would definitely harm some social groups more than others.

    As someone mentioned, I don't think the problem of illiteracy is big in Japan with regards to "getting by every day". But when it comes to, say, reading and understanding the newspaper and by extension understanding what's going on in the world, I'm not quite as sure.

  22. Alexander Giddings said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 6:58 pm

    Let me preface these remarks by stating that my knowledge of Japanese is entirely second hand (i.e. derived from reference materials), and that I am most familiar with the use of the characters as they appear in Korean mixed script.

    Thinking about the content of the second video, specifically, the reasons given by our host for retaining the Kanji, and the analogy he draws between Japanese and Korean, sparked a chain of reasoning leading to a (potentially novel) proposal for Japanese script reform that both takes our host’s arguments seriously and seems to me quite technically feasible. I’ve been following the debate surrounding the characters for quite some time, and can’t recall seeing anything like this elsewhere, so it might be worth sharing here.

    My proposal, then, is (briefly) this: bring the Japanese use of Kanji into line with the internal logic of the character system, and introduce word spacing. Allow me to explain.

    From the point of view of Korean, at least, one of the things that makes written Japanese so utterly baffling is the way in which readings apart from on’yomi simply fly in the face of the internal logic of the character system, reducing the relationship between a character’s visual form and pronunciation (and, in some cases, its meaning) to one that is entirely arbitrary, rather than simply mostly arbitrary, as is the case for Korean, where phonetic (and semantic) components are often of some assistance.

    This almost uniquely Japanese problem could be resolved by restricting the use of Kanji to the domain of Sino-Japanese words with on’yomi readings, and using Kana to write all others, including both purely native words and loan words from languages other than Chinese.

    Such a reform would essentially place Japanese where Korean was about 50 years ago during the period of mixed script, in which Hanja were used for Sino-Korean words only, while all others were written in Hangul. The resulting Japanese script (let us call it “S-Japanese”) would be vastly more manageable and consistent than the present one, while at the same time taking seriously the six major reasons offered by our host for retaining the Kanji, namely:

    1. Readability: Kanji help to separate words in a sentence.
    2. Homophones and homographs: Kanji help to disambiguate words that are strict homophones, as well as those that are distinguished only by pitch accent.
    3. Historical integrity: a vast number of extant documents written in Kanji need to be understood by ordinary Japanese people.
    4. Semantic functions: Kanji can sometimes help with guessing and remembering the meaning of new words on the basis of the Kanji used to write them.
    5. Literary expressions: the present system can be manipulated in unique ways to achieve certain literary effects.
    6. Attachment: most Japanese people don’t want to abolish the Kanji outright.

    Let me address each of these in turn.

    1. Readability: this function could be supplied by the entirely unproblematic addition of word spacing, an addition which would, if anything, further enhance the visual distinction between Sino-Japanese words and the particles attached to them.

    2. Homophones and homographs: this is a problem that applies chiefly to Sino-Japanese vocabulary, and the Kanji would still be around to serve this function in S-Japanese. Admittedly, this is a case of using the characters to solve a problem that they themselves caused in the first place, but it could be left to (possible) later reforms to address that question.

    3. Historical integrity: to my mind, this is the most serious problem for any attempt at script reform, and, short of a Khmer Rouge-style “Year Zero” cultural upheaval, one that is not going to go away any time soon. Those literate in S-Japanese would, of course, have no more trouble than they do now comprehending the Sino-Japanese component of extant texts, while their continued familiarity with the visual form (and meaning) of the characters ought to make passive, recognition knowledge of other readings not terribly more difficult to achieve than it is at present. Of course, in new texts composed using S-Japanese, these latter readings would not be used.

    4. Semantic functions: again, this predictive “perk” applies chiefly to higher order Sino-Japanese vocabulary, which would not be affected by the introduction of S-Japanese. If anything, it would be enhanced by the removal of exceptional usages in which the meaning of the characters is wholly unrelated to the meaning of the compound. Instances of native compounding should still be relatively perspicuous when written in Kana.

    5. Literary expressions: admittedly, this is an area where S-Japanese would have to disappoint slightly. However, appreciation of these literary devices in extant works should not be too badly affected, for the reasons expressed above.

    6. Attachment: of all possible reformed scripts, S-Japanese might be the least likely to offend Japanese sensibilities. The Kanji would still be alive and kicking in a vast number of common words, and the visual aesthetic of S-Japanese would differ from that of extant texts almost exclusively by the addition of word spacing, so the sense of continuity with Japanese history and culture that our host describes could be preserved to a significant degree. Moreover, it could be argued that the use of Kanji for native Japanese vocabulary is one of the reasons why the Japanese are so attached to them in the first place. In that case, by ceasing to use the Kanji for this purpose, S-Japanese might, over time, slowly loosen this sense of attachment, and prepare the ground for later reforms, at least to the same extent that Korean mixed script did.

    After a period of transition, the generation(s) schooled in S-Japanese would then have the choice of retaining a more consistent and manageable mixed script for the sake of felt historical and cultural continuity, or of following the (South) Korean example by gradually phasing out the Kanji in favour of Kana-only writing. Admittedly, the former would still leave Japanese with the sort of problems that Korean faced with mixed script back in the day (and would, of course, only very partially address the phenomenon of character amnesia showcased in the first video), so, in an ideal world, my preference would be for the latter, but, if the native speaker community should prove unwilling to effect that sort of change, S-Japanese would still be a tremendous improvement over the existing system.

    At least, that’s how I see the matter. Maybe you think differently. If so, I would be interested to hear your comments.

  23. Lazar said,

    February 25, 2016 @ 7:16 pm

    @Usually Dainichi: Could it be argued that Danish phonology poses the same "AT WHAT COST" challenge as the Japanese writing system? There was that study by Bleses that found that Danish children take longer to acquire vocabulary than those who speak other languages.

  24. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 1:41 am

    Lazar: is Danish orthography really that much worse than English, French or Portuguese?

  25. Lazar said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 2:30 am

    No, I mean Danish phonology:

    Danish-learning children, for instance, lag behind a number of other languages in their receptive vocabulary development, knowing about 100 fewer words at age 1;3 than children acquiring other languages. This finding has generally been attributed to the complex phonetic structure of Danish, characterized by a uniquely large inventory of vowel-like sounds. This results in indistinct syllable and word boundaries, which might hinder word segmentation and acquisition.

    Obviously phonology is more natural and intrinsic than orthography, and thus harder to change by directed effort, but still I think the comparison with difficult writing systems may be valid.

  26. Vanya said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 8:28 am

    The time and struggle it takes to attain this level of mastery is truly a tragic waste for a young person, who could be spending their time learning other aspects of language.

    What other aspects? Japan produces excellent writers, and is arguably one of the more creative societies in the world. North Korean kids don't have to waste time learning characters any more, but it doesn't seem to have resulted in any obvious benefits to society. I think the AT WHAT COST camp radically underestimates how much time children will be forced to waste in any formal school setting. You can waste time learning characters, learning political propaganda (in North Korea), or simply by doing worksheets and useless arts and crafts projects as I did in my American elementary school.

  27. JS said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 8:39 am

    To talk about opportunity cost, the field of alternative possibilities has to be delimited in some way… if you offered American parents the choice of having their kids spend 30 minutes a day learning Chinese characters versus continuing to do whatever they would have done otherwise, you'd have some takers.

  28. JS said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 8:40 am

    I.e., what Vanya said while I was typing :D

  29. Victor Mair said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 10:42 am

    Loose ends:

    1. Compare South Korea with North Korea.

    2. What Korea, Vietnam, Turkey, and other countries have gained by changing their script.
    (We've heard a lot about what they lost.)

    3. What the PRC has gained by simplifying the characters.
    (We've heard a lot about what they lost.)

  30. krogerfoot said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 11:28 am

    I'm sorry for lumping China in with Japan in my examples, given that the former has serious problems with illiteracy and inequality that the latter does not. But what problems does Japan have that reforming the writing system would solve? Why would replacing Japan's writing system with one less baffling (to outsiders) succeed, where similar reforms involving far less upheaval continue to fail for English orthography?

    I mean, I think I understand why English spelling reforms never catch on—English orthography has a complicated but firm logic to it, however illogical and maddening it seems to learners. English speakers are "attached" to something more than the eccentricity of the spelling or some purported elegance of the letters themselves. The Japanese kanji/kana system has a similar equilibrium to it. Again, I haven't studied Chinese, but for me Japanese writing was not an impediment to learning the language but rather helped me grasp the way it all hangs together.

    [(myl) One obvious problem for Japan that the orthographic system makes worse is the aging population and its economic effects. As the last article mentions, the U.N. estimates that Japan will "need to attract 650,000 immigrants per year". That would be difficult enough for a relatively homogenous island society, but the complex orthography makes integrating immigrants especially difficult. See "Japanese literacy: Back to the future again?", 12/25/2006 for a bit of discussion.]

  31. Victor Mair said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 12:15 pm

    For the last 40 years and more, I have informally tracked kanji usage in Japanese books, newspapers, journals, magazines, signs, notices, labels, directions, messages, reports, business cards (meishi), packaging, etc., etc. and the conclusion I reach is that the proportion of kanji used now is much less than it was four-five decades ago. Conversely, the proportion of katakana, hiragana, rōmaji, and English has increased dramatically.

    Has anyone done studies of this phenomenon in a more formal, rigorous way? And I would suggest extending the investigation back a hundred years or more.

  32. Eidolon said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 1:16 pm

    I fall within the camp of people who believe that the Chinese script is significantly harder to learn than any popular alphabet, but that at the same time, the time and effort their children spend learning it is not all that different from the time and effort our own children spend doing "useless" activities in school. Educationally speaking, East Asia probably has the edge on most Western countries, hence their higher performance on almost all international scholastic competitions. I don't think the "education" argument is especially useful for them, as such.

    But I do think that current computer input technology makes inputting especially difficult for logographic writing systems, and that this could ultimately be what leads them down the road to script reform. Not as a matter of political policy, but as a matter of preference due to alphabets being the path of least resistance when it comes to computer input. In this respect, I believe that human nature – specifically laziness – will ultimately succeed where politics & science have failed.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 1:27 pm


    It seems that people are going to vote with their fingers.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 1:32 pm


    "…the time and effort our own children spend doing 'useless' activities in school."

    On the surface, many of those activities may seem "useless", but deeper down they contribute to the creativity for which our society is so well known throughout the world.

  35. Natalie Solent said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 2:17 pm

    The difficulty of learning Chinese characters relative to an alphabetic or syllabic script is at once a reason to drop the characters and to keep them.

    Ordinary Turks must surmount a barrier before they can read their grandparents' letters and diaries in Arabic script, but anyone who is moved to cross that divide can become proficient in a few years. To learn to read Chinese characters when one starts in adulthood is a much harder task. I would expect a much lower proportion of people would have the time or motivation to do it. So the sense of being cut off from the past will be more severe if ever China and/or Japan do cease using characters.

    It's a dilemma I'm glad I don't have to face. Talk of reforming English spelling seems to have died down compared to my youth, but it would be a far less momentous decision. I suppose the pluricentric nature of English these days makes it very unlikely to happen.

    On a slightly different subject, I was talking recently to a Chinese teacher of Chinese to British students at a major university. Inspired by reading this blog, I asked what she thought about the greater difficulty of learning characters relative to phonographic writing systems. She didn't accept that it *was* any more difficult either to learn or to teach. I say this not to "lay down the law" – I've no experience of learning characters, although a couple of members of my family have studied Japanese – but just to observe that it seems to be a subject on which educated opinion differs. Maybe she herself was a good teacher and a good learner and underestimated the difficulties faced by others.

    Alexander Giddings – Yes, spaces would really help comprehension at the very low cost of making Japanese take up a little more room on the page. It is almost a pity that technical developments came so quickly that the habit of using spaces in video games mentioned by Yuta in the video did not have time to take hold.

  36. Charlie Ruland said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 2:40 pm

    I currently live in Cologne, Germany with seems to host a population of almost 10% ethnic Turks, and the complaints I have heard here were not about being unable to read one's grandparents' letters and diaries, but the lacking beauty of the Latin alphabet compared to the ubiquitous Islamic calligraphy, and also the remoteness of the Latin alphabet to the Arabic abjad, the script used for Arabic, the language of God (if you are a Muslim).

    I think at least the calligraphy argument also applies to Chinese characters and their adaptations to other languages.

  37. Charlie Ruland said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 2:47 pm

    Correction: with seems → which seems.

  38. The Other Mark said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 4:25 pm

    The Germans lost the use of the absolutely ghastly Fraktur typeface, for no loss to anyone.

    The loss of a difficult orthographic system is to the people at the top who have cultural power as a result of knowing it. It's very awkwardness is what aids in this.

    It takes people who actively want to discard the previous system, such as the Turks at the start of the 20th century, or the Russian Bolsheviks, to remove such impediments.

    The only time Japanese could have been reformed was in 1946.

  39. Levantine said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 5:36 pm

    In response to Natalie Solent, learning to read Ottoman Turkish does not take anything like two years. It's true that a good deal of Ottoman Turkish (that written in a courtly or literary register) is extremely flowery and difficult to make sense of, but this is not a function of the script, since the text becomes no more intelligible when transliterated into Latin. But (provided you have a dictionary to hand to look up obsolete words) texts like late Ottoman newspapers and personal letters are not difficult to read once you learn the script and a few basic conventions. I'm a heritage speaker of Turkish, and it took me only one class of Ottoman instruction (as in one hour of class time) before I could embark on reading texts by myself. Turks would benefit a great deal from being taught the Ottoman script in school, but the whole idea has become so tied up with religious sentiment that I don't trust Turkey's education system to approach it in the right way.

  40. krogerfoot said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 5:50 pm

    (myl) One obvious problem for Japan that the orthographic system makes worse is the aging population and its economic effects.

    Thanks for this—I hadn't thought of it. Japan already seems to have gone with a kind of English-default mode of internationalization. Prof. Mair's citation of Singapore's strategy in the linked discussion above is another perspective I had overlooked.

  41. David Marjanović said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 6:01 pm

    For special uses, Turkish typography has actually gone pretty far in imitating Arabic calligraphy in Latin letters.

    Literacy in Japan is for all intents and purposes universal. If kanji is holding Japan back in some way, the effect is not very apparent. Plus, I learned it myself, and it didn't seem like either a waste of time or a particular struggle.

    What about the suicide rate in Japan's schools? Couldn't the kanji be one of the reasons?

    I mean, I think I understand why English spelling reforms never catch on—English orthography has a complicated but firm logic to it, however illogical and maddening it seems to learners.

    Oh no, that's not the reason! The reason is that you'd need to get a lot of people from all the larger English-speaking countries together to agree on something (after teaching them some basic phonology and the like).

  42. krogerfoot said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 6:18 pm

    What about the suicide rate in Japan's schools? Couldn't the kanji be one of the reasons?

    Is this a serious suggestion? Japan's juvenile suicide rate is a serious issue, one that some of us commenting here have faced in a very personal way. Whether you mean this as a flippant aside or as a sincere suggestion, I think it's not even wrong.

  43. John said,

    February 26, 2016 @ 7:13 pm

    If you're going to hold up kanji as the reason for Japanese students committing suicide, you might want to first explain why South Korea, with its writing system widely praised for simplicity, has an even higher teen suicide rate.

  44. J. M. Unger said,

    February 27, 2016 @ 9:30 am

    Oh, those Koreans! Always competing with the Japanese! But less cruelly and more seriously, this just illustrates how hard it is to provide plausible causal links between the many, obvious, and uncontroversial differences in writing systems and macro-level cultural and societal differences. My guess is that the common thread here is the overall style of teaching and examinations in post-Meiji Japan, which may indeed have had something to do with the endless drilling of kanji, but which left a decisive imprint on ROK schools after 1945 that has never been erased despite the "downgrading" of hanca in ROK curricula and ordinary life.

  45. markonsea said,

    February 27, 2016 @ 12:00 pm

    Interesting stuff from Alexander Giddings, which ties in – in a sort of a kind of a way – with thoughts I've had, which are inspired by ancient Egyptian.

    The Egyptian script did not indicate vowels, which produced a lot of what would've been homographs but for the addition of a determinative character – an added hieroglyph (sometimes two) which had no function other than to ascribe the preceding word to a "class" such as people, gods, plants, violent actions and the like.

    It didn't work as well as it might have done (to my sensibilities, anyway) because (a) there was a large number of determinatives and (b) they were in many cases identical with characters used for their phonetic value.

    Applying these thoughts to Japanese would suggest replacing all kanji by katakana, as suggested by AG, but setting up a fairly limited set of kanji determinatives to suffix to the New Kanji to help resolve the homophone issue.

    It could work – and there'd still be kanji!

    @The Other Mark – I don't think Fraktur is ghastly at all, either absolutely or relatively. Just like roman type, some fonts are more pleasing than others, and there's a huge range of them.

  46. Natalie Solent said,

    February 28, 2016 @ 11:47 pm

    What you say about the relative ease of learning to read Turkish documents from before Ataturk's reforms when one already speaks modern Turkish is very interesting, Levantine. Now you say it, I wonder why I didn't realise this myself. After all, as a child I experimented with writing English in various other writing systems, some of them real ones I had found in books and some of them created by me. No doubt I used the real-life ones all wrong but it certainly wasn't that hard to learn enough to write and read secret messages and so on. Maybe I was thinking of how long it had taken people I know to learn to use various scripts foreign to them while *also* learning the associated foreign language – a nearly irrelevant comparison.

  47. Vanya said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 7:08 am

    On the surface, many of those activities may seem "useless", but deeper down they contribute to the creativity for which our society is so well known throughout the world.

    That seems like the flip side of the pro-Kanji argument that all that drilling and memorizing provides students with the mental discipline and memory to be superior workers in the modern economy. Seems hard to prove. My personal guess, based on knowing a lot of American children who have been home schooled and seem to be exceptionally creative anyway, is that in fact most activities in American elementary schools are indeed "useless" for anything other than keeping children busy (and Austrian schoos are even worse). Of course the problem is that people are diverse and there simply is no perfect pedagogical system. Maybe the American system is best for the average child, I just don't know how you figure that out.

  48. Simon said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

    Japanese kanji, though difficult to learn for people raised on another script paradigm, is not such a monumental task when broken down into the easy to digest blocks of characters assigned to each grade level, especially when that is the only writing system one is surrounded by. The "character amnesia" posts that pop up here are not that revealing, since stopping random Americans on the street and asking them to spell a list of words would, I expect, yield even more tragic results. The point is that those kanji would all be instantly and easily read by those folks who supposedly have "amnesia", just as the correct spellings would be by the Americans.

    As someone who is very comfortable with the Roman alphabet, I have to say that reading Japanese using all roma-ji is incredibly cumbersome and headache inducing. It slows me way down. I've heard the argument that goes somewhat like "well if you just transcribe the sounds it should be just as easy to follow as a conversation in real life". This is not true. In English, we rely heavily on English orthography, capitalization, punctuation, spacing to make text much easier to parse and read through, without the distractions of ambiguity. If we wrote in English only what we hear, it would be a more taxing process to actually read, having to frequently make decisions about meaning in places where orthography would have spelled it out for us otherwise. In actual conversation, we have the benefit of context, emphasis, intonation, body language, to help us distinguish "Break!" from "Brake!". Since we have none of those in written language, it sure is helpful to have things like the crazy English spelling system, or Japanese kanji, to disambiguate for us.

    I think people are so attached to these supposedly difficult writing systems because, ultimately, they make the job of reading text easier. I feel sorry for the Koreans and Vietnamese… j/k ;-)

  49. Vasha said,

    February 29, 2016 @ 7:49 pm

    Just to add one more anecdote, I recently spoke to a young Chinese man who told me he bitterly envies English speakers for having been able to read for pleasure in their childhood. This was not something he's ever been able to do. To be sure, literacy was a double struggle for him because his native language is Xiang and he's never been able to speak Mandarin well. He said he wished they had actually taught Mandarin in his school; students were apparently just expected to pick it up somehow. I can see how teaching reading in a language the students don't know, without ever acknowledging that barrier, would be very ineffective!

  50. Victor Mair said,

    March 1, 2016 @ 8:05 pm

    For those who do not know what Xiang is, it's a variety of Sinitic that is more commonly known as Hunanese.

    I asked my students from China whether they considered Xiang to be a type of Mandarin or whether it is something else.

    Most of the students said they weren't sure what it is; some Mandarin speakers said they think it is a kind of Mandarin; several native speakers of Xiang / Hunanese said that they think it is a language unto itself.

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