The actuality of emerging digraphia

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Every time someone (usually a Chinese person) raises the issue of writing Sinographic languages in a phonetic script, people (usually non-Chinese) will jump on him / her and say that it can't be done or that it will destroy the culture.

When it is pointed out that it already has been done repeatedly for the last millennium and more ("Writing Sinitic languages with phonetic scripts" [5/20/16]) and that the Vietnamese and Koreans have done it successfully (passim), the ultimate response of the anti-phonetists is that we need to take a survey to find out if the Chinese people really want a phonetic script (most recently in the comments here:  "Sinitic languages without the Sinographic script" [3/5/19]).

All of these fears and cautions are misplaced and unnecessary.  If some individuals want to discuss the advantages of the phoneticization of Sinitic languages, that's their prerogative, and there sure have been plenty of them in China who have been doing so for the last century and more.

As to whether or not a government should or should not impose Romanization by fiat (as happened in Turkey), that worry too is bootless. If Mao, with all of his totalitarian, dictatorial power could not accomplish such a feat (it was Stalin who talked him out of it), that's just not in the cards for the PRC.

My wife, Chang Li-ching, was an ardent advocate of Pinyin, but even she didn't call for the abolition of characters.  Indeed, as I always say, she was one of the best Mandarin language teachers who ever walked the face of the earth, and that included all four aspects:  reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

During the half century and more that I've been observing the efforts of Chinese language reformers, I've seldom heard any of them advocate government intervention to prescribe Hanyu Pinyin (HP) in place of Hanzi.  Instead, what they have been doing is employing and applying HP in various useful, productive ways:  phonetic annotation, ordering of lists and dictionaries, semaphore, Braille, telegraphy, road signs, brand names, international documents (e.g., passports), computer input and other types of information technology and processing, designation of items in archeological research, armament types and manufacturing designations, banking, and so on and so forth.  After all, Chinese language reformers are applied linguists (e.g., Zhou Youguang, Ni Haishu, Wang Jun, Yin Binyong, et al.).

So, phoneticization is happening in all of those practical ways, but it is taking place in many other ways as well.  Above all, it is an extremely fashionable, trendy practice among young people on social media and in personal communication via the internet or other electronic media.  We've written about this frequently on Language Log, so there's no need for me to rehearse it again here.

Another way the alphabet is looming ever larger in China is as the elephant in the room:  English.  All school children in China learn English from elementary school (and often even before) through college, and it is particularly emphasized by those who want to get into the best schools (which gives them a leg up for going abroad to study later on).  Moreover, parents are sending their children overseas to study in English language medium schools at ever younger ages.  Over half of our many wonderful M.A. students from the PRC went to college in America, and many of them went to high school here as well.

Since not all families are able to arrange for their children to come to America, there have now been thousands of American and European style schools, colleges, and universities established in China — i.e., English-language schools are being brought to China.  I know many of the teachers who are employed by these schools, and nearly all of them are from America, with some from other English language speaking countries.

In sum, to say that people in China, especially in non-rural, non-remote, poor areas are unfamiliar with the alphabet would be an understatement.  Familiarity with the alphabet for English inevitably bleeds over into its application for Sinitic languages, especially since there are all the pragmatic advantages for its use outlined above.

So, those who are in favor of HP don't need to be concerned, and those who are opposed to HP don't need to be frightened.  HP is ineluctably playing a greater and greater role in the educational, cultural, social, political, and every other aspect of the lives of Chinese citizens, and this is occurring without regard to anyone pushing it as a governmental program.  It is happening because of the wishes of those who actually use it for a wide variety of helpful purposes.

Digraphia is emerging before our very eyes, enabling people to use the alphabet and the characters for whatever purposes they deem suitable.  Nobody needs to take a vote or carry out a survey for this to happen.  Of course, if somebody wants to do an academic, social science investigation about what is taking place, that's another matter.



  1. Bathrobe said,

    March 10, 2019 @ 4:23 pm

    I hadn't heard the Stalin story before. Ironically, Stalin was one of the greatest destroyers of traditional scripts and cultures who walked the earth. It was on his say-so that the whole of central Asia turned to Cyrillic. Did he ask the local people if they wanted Cyrillic? Of course not. But once a new system has been adopted, it is very hard to turn back the clock unless (again), the government is extremely determined and powerful. Mongolia tried to return to the traditional script but failed. An autocractic government might have succeeded, but Mongolia was democratising and certainly didn't have a Stalin to force the issue.

    This is the ultimate answer to those who want to 'put it to the people'. Most of the time 'the people' don't get to decide. Those who decide are governments, colonial or otherwise, educational authorities, people in power… Even in Western countries, when educational authorities decided to switch from phonics to other methods of teaching reading, parents didn't get a say. When countries implement spelling reform (like Germany), I am sure there is a lot of consultation involved, but in the end ordinary people don't have a choice. The new system is inexorably put into place and their children learn it whether they like it or not.

  2. Steve Morrison said,

    March 10, 2019 @ 7:30 pm

    In sum, to say that people in China, especially in non-rural, non-remote, poor areas are unfamiliar with the alphabet would be an understatement.


  3. Ricardo said,

    March 10, 2019 @ 8:47 pm

    I think it would be a mischaracterization to say that people 'jumped on' the earlier poster of "Writing Sinitic languages with phonetic scripts". People pointed out, fairly and politely, that there were some legitimate concerns about switching to a phonetic script. Much more objectionable, in my opinion, were that author's assertions that the issue was a 'no brainer' and that the only reason the characters were being taught was because of face.

  4. cliff arroyo said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 3:16 am

    "Mongolia tried to return to the traditional script but failed"
    IINM that was a case of trying to replace a not-great but functional writing system with one that would be far worse (from the point of view of Khalkha speakers at any rate) at allowing users to express themselves in writing on topics they want to write about.
    This is the elephant in the room regarding pinyin (or any more phonemic system). The main benefits that advocates lobby for have to do with things like freeing up students' time and making it easier for users to express themselves in writing (and making it easier for others to read what has been written). But these are clearly not issues that have any up side for those governing China
    My hypothesis (as someone who doesn't know Chinese but has some academic background in issues of language policy and who's read a bit about the relevant issues) is that the breakdown of attitudes is something like:
    -tiny, tiny minority in favor of phonemic reform
    -much larger minority would strongly oppose any increased usage of pinyin (if anything they would like to roll back usage)
    -much larger minority doesn't mind a fair amount of pinyin usage but would oppose mainstream usage (such as a wikipedia in pinyin).
    -absolute large majority of people who don't directly care one way or the other and will apply themselves to learning the system in place, no matter how it got there

  5. Bathrobe said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 4:25 am

    a case of trying to replace a not-great but functional writing system with one that would be far worse (from the point of view of Khalkha speakers at any rate)

    The downsides of the traditional script tend to be overplayed, but yes, it would have been an increase in the level of difficulty.

  6. Ricardo said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 4:28 am

    @cliff arroyo

    How do you see what happened with second round of simplified characters in China? Presumably, they were introduced to ease written communication and yet were rejected by the public and had to be rescinded by the government.

    I think that the fact that other ethnic Chinese still continue to use the characters in countries where they have greater freedom of speech (e.g. Taiwan) shows that the matter is not entire political.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 4:39 am

    I imagine that quasi-academic fora such as Language Log have their parallels in the Sinophone world, and would be very interested to learn whether discussions on the same theme as the present one take place there, and if so, what the general consensus is amongst those who contribute to those fora.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 7:46 am

    Miscellaneous housekeeping notes on this post and on "Sinitic languages without the Sinographic script" (3/5/19)

    Don't forget the English elephant in the room (see the o.p.). It is massively present throughout the Sinophone realm (China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore).

    See, inter alia, this post:

    "Language notes from Macao and Hong Kong" (6/22/14)

    And cf. this comment (10/12/15) by Eidolon:


    According to Lee Kuan Yew's autobiography, he spoke English and Malay, and that his "spoken Hakka and Hokkien were pathetic, almost negligible," while "Mandarin was alien to him." To this end, I think Lee Kuan Yew's "Hakka" – and indeed his "Chinese" – identity is primarily one of ethnic memory, rather than linguistic environment. To this end, it is perhaps understandable that Lee Kuan Yew was never that attached to Hakka, which was not his "mother tongue" but the tongue of one of his forefathers. Indeed, this is the case for several of the people listed as Hakka above, as Chinese tend to trace ethnic identity through their agnatic line.


    Lee's language of literacy and education was English, and, though he promoted Mandarin as a state policy and took lessons in it till the time he died, he never came close to mastering it.

    Despite government and educational policy in Taiwan, informal character simplification is widespread there:

    "The sociolinguistics of the Chinese script" (8/20/17)

    Informal simplification beyond the approved list is also common in China, e.g., xīnjiāng 新江 (lit., "new river") for xīnjiāng 新疆 (lit., "new boundaries / borders") and tiàowǔ 跳午 (lit., "jump noon") for tiàowǔ 跳舞 (lit., "jump dance"). People are definitely, even on an ad hoc basis, looking for a simpler, easier way to write.

    Regarding the claim of being "polite" toward other commenters, we find too many ad hominem remarks of this sort directed at individuals, even when they are mistaken about their interlocutor's identity and actual positions:


    It's curious how the issue of the abolishment of the chinese script seems to arouse much more passion among foreigners than among the Chinese themselves. It seems like the former ardently want a revolution whereas the latter have been, for the most part, happy with reform.


    Confusing admission

    I don't deny that there aren't many good reasons to switch to a phonemic-based script.

    Misnegation presumably meaning "I don't deny that there are many good reasons to switch to a phonemic-based script."

  9. cliff arroyo said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 11:09 am

    "Chinese still continue to use the characters in countries where they have greater freedom of speech (e.g. Taiwan) shows that the matter is not entire political."
    Of course it's not just political. And the overwhelming majority of users don't think much about orthography.
    On the other hand, apparently tens (if not hundreds) of millions of Chinese have been training themselves in pinyin input. Sooner or later some of them are going to wonder why they don't just stop there…
    To borrow a phrase: I think of pinyin as a sleeping giant, when it awakes it will shake the Sinophone world….

  10. Victor Mair said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 12:09 pm

    @cliff arroyo

    Excellent analogy, and good for you to point it out.

    This sleeping giant is much bigger than the elephant in the room.

  11. Neil Kubler said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 12:54 pm

    A footnote on Lee Kuan Yew's Mandarin: He began learning it as an adult and continued weekly lessons well into his 80s. I would disagree with the comment that "he never came close to mastering it." I was present about 10 years ago at a 20-minute official talk he gave, all in Mandarin and without any notes, to an audience of several hundred. Afterwards, he and I and 3 other linguists met with him (and his bodyguard!) for another half hour and we had a free-wheeling exchange on linguistic and policy-related issues, all in Mandarin. Based on all that, I would rate his Mandarin as at least ILR S-4 or ACTFL "distinguished", which is just about the closest to educated native speaker level that a non-native can aspire to.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 1:49 pm

    @Neil Kubler

    Thanks for your first-hand information. I was misinformed by several Singaporeans, including one who knew his personal tutor, who told me that Lee Kuan Yew's Mandarin was still not good in his last years.

  13. Alex said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 6:02 pm


    Concerning the second round of simplified Chinese characters. I have several staff members who had learned them.

    They liken the roll back to first one with this analogy.

    Any IT person can empathize with the analogy.

    In IT the vast majority of IT people think their chosen language or operating system is the best, mainly because they lack the will to learn something new. They would rather keep using their language or operating system even if its inferior or become inferior.

    Its the same with mobile phone operating systems, apple vs different flavors of android.

    There has been many instances within IT and daily life when someone was forced to change to the newer or different operating system or programming language and then they grew to love it.

    Primarily due to financial reasons Microsoft and google force up grades and many times like with my person example I found windows 10 better than 7. That said if my laptop wasn't dying at the time and Microsoft didn't discontinue windows 7 I would have kept on using it rather than use a Windows 10.

    So it back to the "its good enough" when in reality the differences between new is vast.

    I still remember my wife resisting to go to smart phone from the Nokia non smart phone dominated china. She kept on saying why would i need a smart phone all I do is make phone calls and send sms.

    I doubt she would go back to that phone now.

  14. Alex said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 6:11 pm

    sorry for the casual, mistake prone posts. sometimes I have to type and run. Its morning here and sending kids to school!

  15. Eidolon said,

    March 11, 2019 @ 8:57 pm

    "-absolute large majority of people who don't directly care one way or the other and will apply themselves to learning the system in place, no matter how it got there"

    I think cliff arroyo expressed it best – this is one of those issues that is of immense – and often times heated – interest to language planners, but which the average person is largely indifferent about, even though they are widely affected by it. This makes surveys a rather pointless exercise, as the public can be easily swayed by government fiat, and will adapt accordingly. To this end, the current Chinese "administration" has aligned itself with "cultural nationalism," and is thus highly unlikely to tolerate any kind of characters reform in education, since Chinese characters are seen as a key piece of Chinese identity and so central to the government's efforts to promote national unity. In fact, the late John DeFrancis made this observation many decades ago, and it still rings authentic today. As is always the case with China, political concerns override others, and since Xi's government is busy promoting the longevity and preeminence of Chinese civilization, it'd be a monumental loss of face to suffer a decline of characters education during his rule. Indeed, most recent news in China concerning characters portray them in exaggeratedly positive tones – with many "experts" coming out to proclaim their venerable history and centrality to the nation, regardless of the fact that the simplified characters used in the PRC today are a significant departure from tradition.

    So, I would say that the official stance right now is definitely in favor of characters education, and that this probably won't change in the near future. All the while, more and more people will take advantage of electronics input and English education to make their lives easier, essentially adapting to the fact of digraphia while still thoroughly educating themselves in characters, as per government requirement. This may seem like a contradiction, but it isn't all that different from the religious studies many countries put their kids through. I can sympathize with Alex's point about efficiency, but efficiency is only one factor in both policy making and everyday life. Cultural and identity are just as or more important, especially to the intellectuals and politicians who create language policy.

  16. cliff arroyo said,

    March 12, 2019 @ 1:02 am

    "That said if my laptop wasn't dying at the time and Microsoft didn't discontinue windows 7 I would have kept on using it rather than use a Windows 10."

    Not a great analogy, for me the most efficient version of Word (which I use every day) was 1997-2003 and every change since has meant an increase in time and difficulty for me to do my work (ribbon system – terrible!). The latest terrible thing was what they did to the 'find' option which makes it useless for me (long rant edited out).

    Anyhoo, what those who favor pinyin should do is start using it. Send pinyin texts to family and friends, do social media in pinyin etc. There would be push-back in the beginning but eventually some will begin to like it.

  17. Alex said,

    March 12, 2019 @ 3:50 am

    @cliff arroyo

    Thats funny perhaps some msft upgrades truly arent great. Many though are after learning them.

    On the pinyin I do that with friends on wechat! after awhile they do it back as they feel I understand better as they know my character reading is limited.

  18. Andreas Johansson said,

    March 12, 2019 @ 5:10 am

    I happened to look at a Chinese (PRC) coin today that a colleague was using to demonstrate the amazing power of a magnet he'd bought, and was surprised to note that it had more text in pinyin than in hanzi on it.

    (Specifically, there were fewer hanzi characters than pinyin syllables on it. This might not be the most meaningful measure of the amount of text out there, but the only other one I could apply is a straight character count, which is surely grossly unfair in comparing hanzi and pinyin.)

  19. boynamedsue said,

    March 14, 2019 @ 4:30 am

    "In sum, to say that people in China, especially in non-rural, non-remote, poor areas are unfamiliar with the alphabet would be an understatement"

    Misnegation, surely?

  20. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2019 @ 7:52 am

    "Misnegation, surely?"

    A previous commenter asked: "Misnegation?"

    Did you also mean to ask the same question? Or did you want to say, "Misnegation surely!"?

  21. boynamedsue said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 4:56 am

    The question mark was to recognise the possibility of an error on my part despite my being fairly sure I'm right. As in: "He is english, surely?" I hadn't read the other comment, and was asking the same question.

    And don't call me "Shirley".

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