Character amnesia yet again: game (almost) over

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Last week, I witnessed a palpable, powerful, poignant demonstration of tíbǐwàngzì 提筆忘字 ("forgetting how to write sinographs; character amnesia").  This happened in a colloquium where, during the discussion period, someone mentioned the standard eight-volume Historical Atlas of China (1982-1988) edited by the renowned geographer Tan Qixiang (1911-1992).  A member of the gathering requested that the name be written on the whiteboard in sinographs.  A colleague — a tenured professor of medieval Chinese history — popped up and said they could write the name in characters.

Already a little bit wobbly on the semantophore / radical on the left side of the first character (the surname), with a little bit of kibitzing from colleagues, the volunteer managed to produce the requisite semantophore after several false starts and erasures.  After that great achievement (producing the semantophore amid much embarrassment), they turned to the phonophore on the right side but were getting nowhere fast, even with suggestions from colleagues who were looking on.

Finally, someone looked up the name on their phone and presto digito*, the correct writing emerged:  譚其驤 / 谭其骧 (the group — scholars all — collectively preferred the traditional form over the simplified one).


[*VHM:  I remember hearing this expression when I was young, but it barely exists on the internet, and I can't find it in dictionaries either.]

Judging from their rank on a list of the 9,933 most frequent characters, these are not even that "rare":

谭 #2145

其 #85

骧 #4475

As I explained in this post and have alluded to in other posts, few people know (i.e., can actively produce) more than three thousand characters, and basic literacy requires only approximately one thousand characters.  Given that the total number of existing characters runs to over 100,000 and that the standard character dictionary includes approximately 10,000 characters, those figures seem absurdly low.  Yet it is a fact of life that human capacity for memorizing characters (i.e., how to write them) seldom exceeds three thousand.  (This has been scientifically demonstrated by C. C. Cheng, emeritus professor of computational linguistics at the University of Illinois [for reference, see the 8th ¶ in this comment].)  Although some people may claim to know more and others may claim that they know someone who knows considerably more, these claims have not been repeated for numerous individuals under controlled conditions.

I want to stress explicitly:  it is not the least bit diūliǎn 丢脸 ("shameful; humiliating; 'face-losing'") to be unable to write a character like 譚 / 谭 (frequency #2145), much less 驤 / 骧 (#4475).  The scene described at the beginning of this post occurred in a group of about a dozen highly learned professors of East Asian languages.  They all laughed and said, "It happens all the time!"

Indeed it does.  Recently, a Ph.D. in Chinese literature forgot how to write xiǎo 曉 ("know; understand; dawn") (frequency #1357) during a formal job talk.  They were acutely embarrassed, but it was no big deal.  They got the coveted position anyway.

When I was a graduate student at Harvard, Professor Rulan Chao Pian (1922-2013) (daughter of the famous Chinese linguist, Y. R. Chao [1892-1982], who taught Chinese at UC Berkeley and Harvard), often forgot certain characters when writing on the backboard.  That was more than half a century ago, long before the advent of computers and the rampant character amnesia brought about by them.  Now with most Chinese texts being input alphabetically via pinyin, the attrition rate in the ability to write characters has been further drastically reduced.

For where things are headed with regard to character competence in the Sinosphere, check out this video which shows where they are now in Singapore.

Yóuxì [jīhū] jiéshù 遊戲[幾乎]結束 ("game [almost] over").


Selected reading

1 Comment

  1. David Moser said,

    April 28, 2022 @ 11:12 am

    This speaks to my daily reality. Hardly anyone writes Chinese by hand these days (just as I never have the need to write English by hand), and so there is almost no conscious awareness of a problem that is right in front of our noses. There is great irony in this state of affairs: The digital technology that has exacerbated the 提笔忘字 problem has also solved the problem. There is now little need to write characters, and thus no shame in the loss of the ability to write them. But it is a strange situation for someone like me, having studied Chinese for decades and thus technically "literate" in Chinese, yet unable to write the commonest of characters. I realized the other day that, despite having at this point read thousands of Chinese posters, Wechat texts, emails, and newspaper articles about Covid-19, it is nonetheless extremely difficult for me to remember the characters for some of the commonest terms. In trying to write 核酸检测 "nucleic acid test", I stumbled on the character 酸 (which is also the graph for the extremely common word for "sour"), and in the end had to consult Pleco. Same with the name for Covid-19 itself 新冠肺炎。 I struggled mightily for several seconds to write 冠, and couldn't retrieve the 寸 component. In trying to write the characters for "quarantine" 隔离, to my surprise and dismay, I suddenly could not retrieve the leftside component 阝 for 隔。 Just couldn't dredge it up, even having written it thousands of times in the past, and seeing it nearly every day here in Beijing. And so on. Early onset Alzheimer's? Hardly. Just the usual leaky memory of a 60+ year-old and the fact that I just never write characters anymore. Only the uniquely user-unfriendly Chinese script (and to some extent Kanji) presents such a problem, which nowadays is a problem that no longer needs a solution.

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