Considering the fact that we've had a lot of traffic on spelling bees, character amnesia, simplified characters, and whatnot on Language Log recently, it's not surprising that the following article by Dan Kedmey would appear in Time yesterday (Aug. 15, 2013), though without any mention of Language Log: "What the Word 'Toad' Can Tell You About China’s Modernization".
At first I was going to just write a short note about this article and add it as a comment to this post from a week ago. But the more I read through the article, the more annoyed I became by how riddled with errors it is. So I've decided to write this post listing some of the more egregious mistakes, lest innocent readers be led astray. After all, Time still commands a substantial readership, so the magazine needs to be held accountable for the accuracy of its statements, even when writing about something so supposedly quaint as Chinese — which, by now, certainly should no longer be viewed as exotic at all, since China has become very much a part of the global economy.
Where to start? I get a headache just thinking of all the misstatements in Kedmey's article. Well, let's begin with the "toad" business.
In Mandarin, the word for "toad" can be written with two syllables or three syllables, háma or làiháma. As you will soon see, both characters of the two syllable form have the "bug / insect / worm / serpent" radical (#142 in the Kangxi system). The three syllable variant of the word adds a character signifying "leprosy, scabies, mange" (note the "sickness; disease" radical [no. 104 in the Kangxi system]) at the front to suggest the warty skin of the toad.
Here are the simplified and the traditional forms of the three character word for "toad" in Mandarin, which also covers the two syllable word (the last two syllables of the three syllable variant):
You probably won't be able to tell them apart because the strokes of the first character are so jammed together as to be virtually indistinguishable to the naked eye. The only difference between the two forms is that the bottom right component of the first character is 贝 in the simplified version and 貝 in the traditional version, a savings of three strokes (4 strokes versus 7 strokes).
This gives a total of 18-12-16 = 46 strokes for the simplified form and 21-12-17 = 50 for the traditional form (although the simplified and traditional versions of the third character look identical, when written properly by hand, the traditional version has one extra stroke).
I've gone through this so laboriously because it is necessary to set the stage for one of the biggest flubs of the article. Namely, Kedmey cites Shi Dingxu, the head of Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies, as tallying up "the number of pen strokes it would take to write the two traditional characters that make up the word. 'Nineteen strokes,' he concludes."
Lots of things wrong here. Whether Shi was talking about the two character variant of the word (29 strokes) or the three character variant of the word (50 strokes) as written in the traditional form, there's no way he could come up with only 19 strokes! Moreover, Kedmey, perhaps following Shi, talks about the two character variant of the word for "toad", but all of the reports I've seen from the mainland about the writing contest cite only the three character variant, and it would surely make sense that the sponsors of the program would want to try to catch the contestants with the difficult first character, since the last two characters are relatively easy for students who are diligent about practicing their handwriting.
Since the Guójiā yǔyán wénzì gōngzuò wěiyuánhuì 国家语言文字工作委员会 (State Language Commission) is the co-sponsor of this show with China Central Television (CCTV), it would be unthinkable for the producers to make the traditional forms the standard for correct writing. In the PRC, the simplified forms are the standard; the traditional forms are viewed as something out of the past that are simply no longer current.
I have watched films of the two shows that hold such character writing contests in China. The names of the shows and everything else related to them are strictly in simplified forms. Although upon rare occasions the judges will discuss the construction of the traditional forms of the characters, the students are not expected to know them.
For instance, on Hànzì yīngxióng 汉字英雄 ("Chinese Character Heroes"), I saw fénmù ("grave") written as 坟墓 (simplified) instead of 墳墓 (traditional).
On Zhōngguó hànzì tīngxiě dàhuì 中国汉字听写大会 ("China conference on Chinese character dictation"), we can see jiànxiē ("intermittent") as simplified 间歇, not traditional 間歇, and diānqié ("belladonna") as 颠茄, not 顛茄 (one of the contestants miswrote the first character as chàn / zhàn 颤 ["quiver; tremble; shake"]).
Kedmey quotes Zhang Longxi, a professor of comparative literature at City University of Hong Kong, to the effect that Chinese characters aren't really as hard as foreigners make them out to be, particularly when we are talking about the simplified characters. But that begs the question because: 1. it isn't the foreigners who are complaining about how hard the characters are but the Chinese who have written the reports about these character writing contests, and 2. the contests were strictly on simplified characters, and still the contestants and particularly the audiences bungled them.
I personally find the simplified characters much more difficult to write than the traditional ones, not just because I was trained first for about twenty years on the traditional forms before being exposed to the simplified forms, but more importantly because the simplified forms lack many of the historical phonological and structural clues of the traditional characters. (I or someone else can give an example or two in the comments if anyone is interested.)
Kedmey goes on to say, "The simplified characters were introduced by a group of academics at the turn of the century who launched a campaign to strip the complexity out of the language, pruning the characters of superfluous strokes." Whether he means the turn of the 20th century or the turn of the 21st century, Kedmey is far off the mark to assert that this was when characters were officially simplified (unofficially people have been simplifying the characters for thousands of years). In actuality, the official promulgation of simplified characters took place after the founding of the PRC in the middle of the 20th century.
If you read the rest of the long paragraph where Kedmey makes this blunder, you will find that it is premised upon an even more colossal misconception whereby Kedmey confuses language and script. By mentioning the May 4th Movement of 1919, which included strong and successful advocacy of the replacement of classical by vernacular for written Chinese, which had nothing to do with the replacement of traditional characters by simplified characters, it is evident that Kedmey has confounded language for script. This makes everything he says about Beowulf and Chaucer, Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare, and so on in the next paragraph totally irrelevant.
Near the beginning of the third paragraph, Kedmey claims: "The Chinese call these occasional slips of memory 'character amnesia,' and it happens often enough that they have an old saying for it: 'The moment you take up the pen, you forget how to write the character.'" He's got it all backwards and upside down.
It's true that Chinese have an expression to describe the feeling one has when one can't remember how to write a character, and that is indeed “tí bǐ wàng zì 提笔忘字" ("picking up a pen and forgetting how to write a character"). Though the phenomenon has certainly been around for a long time, probably since just after the invention of the script, I don't know how old this particular expression is (why must Chinese sayings always be old?). One thing I do know for sure, and that is that it is not the Chinese who have called these not-so-"occasional" slips of memory "character amnesia". It was yours truly who invented the term, and he did so right here on Language Log on July 22, 2010.
The Chinese do not yet have a fixed translation of the term "character amnesia", though I've seen many different attempts to render it. I hope that they'll settle on something like hànzì jiànwàngzhèng 漢字健忘症, since jiànwàngzhèng 健忘症 is the technical term for "amnesia" in Chinese.
Definition: tí bǐ wàng zì 提笔忘字 ("picking up a pen and forgetting how to write a character"; N.B.: that is an adequate explanation of "character amnesia", but it is not a translation of the term per se)
Explanatory example: Victor mair, professor of chinese language and literature at the university of pennsylvania, said character amnesia is part of a "natural process of evolution".
Wéikèduō-méiěr shì Měiguó Bīnxīfǎníyǎ dàxué Hàn yǔyán wénhuà jiàoshòu, tā shuō, wénzì jiànwàngzhèng shì yī zhǒng zìrán de jìnhuà guòchéng 维克多-梅尔是美国宾夕法尼亚大学汉语言文化教授，他说，文字健忘症是一种自然的进化过程。
Wéikèduō-méiěr 维克多-梅尔 is the PRC-style transcription of my name; my real Chinese name is Méi Wéihéng 梅維恆 (first character is for "Mai[r]", second is for "Vi[ctor]", and the third is for "Hen[ry]").
wénzì jiànwàngzhèng 文字健忘症 is an ad hoc translation for "character amnesia"
Much could be said about the relationship between characters (simplified versus traditional), information technology, vernacularization, etc. and modernization, but Kedmey, in essence, has said nothing of significance in this regard.
Kedmey doesn't mention computers and cell phones (and their concomitant pinyin [romanization] input methods) at all, which are indubitably a primary cause (arguably the chief cause) of character amnesia. Instead, he strangely seems to attribute the decreased ability to write characters to simplification. Perhaps a case might be made for that, but Kedmey hasn't shown how simplification has had an adverse impact upon the ability to write characters or upon modernization in China. After all, modernization — judging from the title — was the mission he set for himself in this article, so he should have taken it upon himself to demonstrate some of the ways in which simplification promoted (or held back) modernization.
All in all, this is a very sloppy and irresponsible article, one unbecoming Time magazine.
[h.t. Ben Zimmer]