Character amnesia redux

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This is a topic that we have frequently broached on Language Log:

In several recent messages to me, Guy Almog has raised the issue once again.  This is not unexpected for someone whose ongoing research focuses on the changing writing and reading habits of native Chinese and Japanese speakers, and mainly with issues of memory and forgetfulness of hanzi / kanji.

I'm not sure when I began to employ the expression "character amnesia ".  So far as I know, the first time I used the term in print was in the 7/22/10 LLog post cited above.  But I'm fairly certain that I was already using it in my classes, lectures, and correspondence long before that time.

I remember being very happy when Jennifer 8. Lee published her noteworthy article titled "In China, Computer Use Erodes Traditional Handwriting, Stirring a Cultural Debate" in the 2/1/01 NYT because it brought to public attention a phenomenon that I had already been witnessing for at least a decade before that time.  Namely, my Chinese friends who were coming to rely on computers for the bulk of what they wrote in Chinese complained about the stark attrition of their ability to write characters by hand, and they directly attributed this loss of handwriting ability to their use of computers.

Jennifer 8. Lee did not use the expression "character amnesia" in her 2001 article, but I distinctly recall bringing her remarkable piece to the attention of many friends, students, and colleagues, and was probably already using the expression "character amnesia" from around that time, if not before.

It's very interesting that Guy has dug up a Japanese review for a Sony DD-IC2050 electronic dictionary device that was published 18 days after Jennifer 8. Lee's article that, as Guy says:

…contains the sentence: “文字拡大機能も引き続きあって、加齢眼にもやさしいし、漢字健忘症に も役立つ。” (Something like: “[It] has a function of continuous characters-enlargement, good for “elderly eyes” and is also useful for Kanji Amnesia”).

(see here) [emphasis added by Guy])

Guy also located a tellingly titled "Calligraphy still holds the key to mastering kanji" (3/18/09) article by Mark Schreiber in The Japan Times that begins:

I recently encountered a new term that’s a real mouthful: IT依存性漢字健忘症 (IT izonsei kanji kenbōshō, kanji amnesia due to dependence on information technology). The word acknowledges that the proliferation of word processors has weakened people’s ability to recall both individual kanji characters and compound words.

(see here [emphasis added by Guy])

Clearly, the idea that electronic devices for composition with Chinese characters are related to character amnesia was in the air around that time.

Computers and other electronic devices are both a cause of and a solution for character amnesia.  This is a formulation that William Hannas has often put forward.

As I've observed over and over again, people who use computers and other electronic devices as their primary means for writing in characters constantly bemoan the fact that they forget how to write them by hand.  Consequently, they grow reliant on these devices to write with characters.

I would suppose that the expression "tí bǐ wàng zì 提笔忘字" ("picking up the brush / pen, [you] forget [how to write] a character"), or something like it, has been around as long as characters have existed.  It's like "on the tip of my tongue", when you forget a word you want to say — the same sort of feeling, though the one has to do with writing and the other with speaking.  Both of these are entirely natural phenomena.

Guy has been trying to trace the origins of this expression, "tí bǐ wàng zì 提笔忘字" ("picking up the brush / pen, [you] forget [how to write] a character"), which is sometimes used as a translation of sorts for "character amnesia", and vice versa.  So far, the oldest usage he has found was in a 1957 article by Yán Wénjǐng 严文井 titled “Yī ge wàiháng de yìjiàn 一个外行的意见” ("An outsider's opinion").  He also wonders whether it can be counted as a chéngyǔ 成語 ("set phrase").


  1. Michael Rank said,

    April 23, 2016 @ 1:54 am

    “So 提笔忘字” is sometimes used as a translation of sorts for “character amnesia”, and vice versa.” But presumably there are other more “scientific” ways of expressing this extremely widespread idea??

    And speaking of Jennifer 8. Lee there is a British social scientist who styles himself Perri 6

  2. Victor Mair said,

    April 23, 2016 @ 2:41 am

    @Michael Rank

    It is MSM hànzì jiànwàng zhèng / Jp. kanji kenbōshō 漢字健忘症.

  3. Bathrobe said,

    April 23, 2016 @ 3:51 am

    There seems to be a tendency for Chinese people to associate 成语 with old expressions that have a story behind them, such as 刻舟求剑 kè zhōu qiú jiàn 'mark the boat to look for a sword' (the humorous story of a man who accidentally dropped his sword in the water and marked the spot on the side of the boat). The problem is that these are often the hardest to use in ordinary prose or speech. The right circumstances for using 'mark the boat to look for a sword', supposedly appropriate for describing someone who is behind the times and unable to keep up to date with the latest developments, come up with surprising rarity.

    On the other hand, there are other less colourful expressions, many drawn from old books, that lend themselves more easily to everyday use. One is 实事求是 shíshì qiúshì, a favourite of Mao's that is still widely used, generally translated as 'seek truth from facts'. While it may have a story, it is certainly not the vivid kind of story that features in collections of 成语. Despite this, it is precisely expressions like 实事求是 that tend to gain widespread use.

    As to 提笔忘字, it certainly follows the typical four-character format of a 成语, as opposed to the more verbose form of the modern colloquial (我一拿笔就忘记了怎么写字). I don't see why it shouldn't be regarded as a 成语, despite its lack of ancient sources. What is important is its grammatical format and the way it functions in the sentence.

    (On the other hand, there are very concise colloquial expressions that look like 成语 but would be very hard to characterise as such, e.g., 说走就走 shuō zǒu jiù zǒu 'leave whenever you want'. The borderline is not always so clearcut.)

  4. Joseph said,

    April 23, 2016 @ 8:26 am

    It would be interesting to know if character amnesia affects adult second language learners of Chinese characters more than those who learned them in childhood, or if learning to write and remember the characters is in general easier for children.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 23, 2016 @ 8:57 am


    The people who complain about character amnesia to me the most are native speakers of Chinese who learned to read and write Chinese from the time they were children. Adult second language learners of Chinese characters are seldom (almost never) very good at writing them anyway, so the electronic devices are actually a godsend to them, as David Moser has explained here and elsewhere:

    "The future of Chinese language learning is now" (4/5/14)

  6. Mr Punch said,

    April 23, 2016 @ 10:20 am

    And speaking of Jennifer 8. Lee … her Boston Globe byline was Jennifer 8 Lee, but the New York Times apparently insists that 8 is a middle initial. I wonder if 8.0 would have been an acceptable compromise.

  7. Daniel said,

    April 23, 2016 @ 10:37 am

    Jennifer 8. Lee was my roommates cousin at one point. It's not her given name, but is on her driver's license. She put the period in her email name.

  8. Bob Ladd said,

    April 23, 2016 @ 4:08 pm

    "Jennifer 8. Lee was my roommates cousin at one point."

    Clearly English needs tense marking on nouns….

  9. Daniel said,

    April 30, 2016 @ 11:09 am

    Cousin's Roommate

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