Writing characters and writing letters

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A few days ago, I wrote the following titles on the blackboard in my "Poetry and Prose" class:

Dà Táng Sānzàng qǔjīng shīhuà 大唐三藏取經詩話 (Poetic Tale of Tripitaka of the Great Tang Fetching Scriptures)

Yóuxiān kū 遊仙窟 (The Grotto of Playful Transcendants)

Guānshìyīn yìngyàn jì 觀世音應驗記 (Records of the Verifications of Responses by Avalokiteśvara)

As I was rapidly writing the strokes of the characters — click click click tick tick tack tack click clack tick tack — I suddenly became aware of how different the writing sounded from when I write something in Roman letters.  Not only did writing characters sound very different from the way writing letters sounds, the two types of script have a very different kinetic feel to them.

Normally, when I write characters by hand on a piece of paper, I do not notice this stark difference of sound and feel because the pen doesn't make a sound as it touches the paper and because the size of the characters is so small that one doesn't experience any movement of the hand, much less arm, only the fingers.  When writing characters that are three or four inches high on the board (so that they can be seen by students at the back of the classroom), the movements of my hand and arm wielding the chalk are greatly magnified, so that I gain a physical sense of the overall composition of the character and how its components are put together to form a whole.

When I write something in Roman letters, on the other hand, instead of the click click click tick tick tack tack click clack tick tack of the characters, it's more like swish swoosh swash swoop, a sort of gliding across the board rather than a clickety clack attack on its surface.  (I subsequently noticed that when my students write something in Chinese characters on the board, they produce the same swift clickety clack sounds I do.)

The descriptions of the differences of writing characters and letters given above recapitulates the observations about swype typing and entering characters tracing their shapes with one's fingertip on the glass plate of a cell phone that I made in this post:

"Swype and Voice Recognition for mobile device inputting" (1/22/14)

It was only after I had composed all but the previous paragraph of this post that I realized I had already apprehended the same phenomenon several years ago, but in an inchoate fashion:

In late 2012, while visiting my son Tom in Dallas, I noticed that he was doing something very odd with his cell phone.  Most people enter text into their cell phone by pressing their thumbs (or their fingertip) on the letters of a small keyboard, whether virtual or actual.  But Tom was doing something altogether different:  he was sliding his finger over the glass surface of his phone and somehow, by so doing, he was able to enter text.  I was dumbfounded!  What amazed me most of all was how casual he was about it.  He'd be talking to me about something, then glance down at his cell phone, move his fingertip around on the glass, and — presto digito! — he'd have typed a message to someone and sent it off.

Now, Tom is in telecommunications and in general is a very handy guy who can fix almost anything, so I thought that what he was doing with his magic finger was not something that ordinary mortals could achieve.  I simply filed that mind-boggling experience away in the back of my head somewhere (though I subsequently did draft a preliminary Language Log post about it that got lost somewhere).

But two things happened recently that made me resolve to actually record my thoughts on the phenomenon of Tom's relaxed symbiotic relationship with his phone.  The first incident was in Prague this past summer when I observed a colleague from Taiwan entering Chinese text on her cell phone.  Normally, that would not be a big deal, because nearly all Chinese speakers I know use Hanyu Pinyin (Romanization) to enter text (as I have described in many Language Log posts), and it looks pretty much like someone entering English.  But my colleague from Taiwan, a professor in the Chinese literature department of National Taiwan University who is obviously highly literate and intensely devoted to the characters, presented a totally different appearance as she entered Chinese text into her phone with a shape-based system.

Unlike Tom's nonchalant swiping across the glass surface of his cell phone, the professor from Taiwan seemed to be attacking her poor cell phone.  OMG!  With a frenzied swishing, she raced her fingertip around in circles, bends, crosses, hooks, and all manner of other shapes.  Her whole body even got into the action.  I was breathless from watching her and almost had a heart attack for fear that she was going to collapse from the strenuous effort.  She was clearly practiced at what she was doing, yet it looked as though she were engaged in a most difficult task.

Juxtaposing Tom's smooth motions with the Taiwan professor's frenetic movements in my mind's eye, they seem to serve as a parable of the two writing systems.

It is uncanny how closely what I wrote in the opening paragraphs of this post unconsciously mirrors what I wrote on this subject four years ago.  Of course, there are minor modifications of the writing feel and sound of the two systems (characters and letters) depending upon the size and nature of the media one employs (chalk, pen, pencil, brush, fingertip, stylus, blackboard, paper, glass plate of a smart phone, etc.), but they cannot mask the essential divergence of the two systems:  one phonetic based on few strokes (an average of three or less for each element) and one morphosyllabic based on an average of numerous strokes (approximately twelve for each element).  Speaking as someone who has spent more than half a century using both systems of writing every day, I believe that there is a fundamental distinction between the psychological perception of and existential relationship with letters and characters felt by their users.


"Alphabets are as simple as…", by Roger Highfield, The Telegraph (4/18/06)


  1. John Rohsenow said,

    November 7, 2018 @ 10:58 am

    I expect this post will elicit the usual spate of comments, & I hesitate to be the first, but….

    I always used to (try to) make my beginning students follow me writing the characters on the bbd (& counting the strokes aloud) by having them "trace" the stroke order of the characters in the air with their fingers or fingers and arms, telling them that producing characters was a kinetic skill like playing tennis or shooting baskets, etc. (btw, on the first day of introducing writing chars, I used to show an old video (now long out of 'print') from the Seattle Museum on the history/evolution of characters plus the eight basic strokes, followed by my native writing TA grinding up ink on a stone and demonstrating the strokes with brush pen,)
    I have the impression that (like the voice input programs for computers) that one has to initially "teach" one's smartphone screen to recognize one's own individual method of writing characters in Chinese
    as I suspect that native writers to not enter characters in stroke-by- stroke "block" KAISHU style, but rather use a more practiced cursive style (is that also true of input-ers of Latin alphabet-based writers like Thomas Mair?)
    I expect that some will again point out that when you write a Chinese
    character, you will (usually) be expressing (the equivalent of) a morpheme in speech, and thus it would be "better/fairer"(?) to count the number of "strokes" in all the letters per written "morpheme" or word in (say) English rather than in merely one letter.

  2. Neil Kubler said,

    November 7, 2018 @ 11:31 am

    I agree with Victor that there is a fundamental distinction between letters and characters in terms of psychological perception by users. But, as John points out, educated native writers do not normally write characters stroke-by-stroke but rather write in connected, cursive style (unless writing for children or foreigners), so I'm not convinced there is really more "click click click" when writing Chinese than when writing English. Related to this is the question of whether it doesn't take longer to write traditional characters than simplified characters, because the former have more strokes. But the answer is it really takes about the same amount of time, because educated writers write in cursive (on which most simplified characters are based) and then it all comes out about the same…

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 7, 2018 @ 2:22 pm

    I should have added in the o.p.:

    Thus there are both kinetic and (depending upon the medium) acoustic repercussions resulting from whether one writes in letters or in characters.

    When they write on the blackboard, my students from China (by far the largest segment of the class) click click click as much as I do.

  4. James Unger said,

    November 7, 2018 @ 2:28 pm

    I recall a certain faculty member who taught Japanese at Chicago when I was a student there telling me that Creel used to write characters on the blackboard more or less inside out, with little or no regard for traditional stroke order or direction.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 7, 2018 @ 4:42 pm

    I click-click-click when writing roman letters (and numerals and the occasional Greek letter) on the chalkboard. Maybe it's a good thing I'm not trying to write Chinese characters.

  6. AG said,

    November 7, 2018 @ 11:56 pm

    There's a whole genre of "pencil scratchings that sound like music" videos on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-cNFA9YYas

  7. Victor Mair said,

    November 8, 2018 @ 12:22 am


    Very cool!!

  8. Robert said,

    November 8, 2018 @ 6:58 am

    I am tempted to make a connection with the opening passage of Ways of the Hand, by David Sudnow which I discovered only today.
    "From an upright posture I have looked down at my hands on the piano keyboard for some years as I studied jazz music, and when I regard my hands now, my looking is deeply informed by the looking I have done.
    If I watch my hands on a typewriter, I don't recognise their movements. I am startled by the look of my hands while typing, just as I'm surprised by the sight of my profile when surrounded by mirrors in the clothing store. It's like witnessing an interior part of my body going through some business.
    But the sight of my piano-playing hands is familiar. I know their looks, not only in those intimate ways in which we all know our hands' looks but as my jazz-making hands. It is the way of the hand that I watch noe. For a long time in learning to play jazz piano, I was busy watching my hands and the terrain of the keyboard to see that they did not get into trouble; or I was looking at the keyboard in order to find places to take my fingers, so that instructional work was occurring as a form of guidance in which my looking was very much implicated. Then my look became preoccupied in more subtle ways, party to a kind of imaginary conceiving of various aspects of the territory in which I was moving."

  9. Scott P. said,

    November 8, 2018 @ 11:00 am

    But, as John points out, educated native writers do not normally write characters stroke-by-stroke but rather write in connected, cursive style (unless writing for children or foreigners), so I'm not convinced there is really more "click click click" when writing Chinese than when writing English.

    The post concerns writing on a blackboard in an academic context. Do Chinese professors write in cursive in class? I always print English when writing on the blackboard, for legibility.

  10. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    November 8, 2018 @ 4:54 pm

    The only academic article I know which adds a bit to the issue is:

    Stroke systems in Chinese characters: A systemic functional perspective on simplified regular script by Xuanwei Peng

    Regarding the Arabic language, the script wich uses ligatures heavily (see the pdf ISO Arabic Presentation Forms A) might feel distinct to those only used to handwriting Latin sript.

  11. liuyao said,

    November 9, 2018 @ 1:52 pm

    "The post concerns writing on a blackboard in an academic context. Do Chinese professors write in cursive in class? I always print English when writing on the blackboard, for legibility."

    Professors at college may only write occasionally personal/place names or book titles (as VHM did), if they have not switched to projectors. In contrast, secondary school teachers may write more on the board. See this popular channel of Mr. Li Yongle for examples of cursive blackboard writings:


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