The difficulties of “cursive script” are “old news”

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[This is a guest post by J. Marshall Unger]

Responding to "Reading kanji in cursive script is devilishly difficult" (10/18/22), Jim Unger writes:

My only comment, which is just a reminiscence, is that one of the first books I bought when I started studying Japanese seriously at 18 was a guide to “grass-script” characters.  I still have it.  It had been produced in the early 1940s (cheap paper, thin binding) in the U.K. for military use in reading Japanese intercepts; to be useful, it includes forms that are calligraphically incorrect but common.  I recall that “airman” Edwin McClellan, by then the chair of East Asian at Chicago, which I entered that year, was among those acknowledged for their help by the compiler (Otome Daniels, about whom see "How the UK found Japanese speakers in a hurry in WW2", BBC News (8/12/15).

So, as far as I’m concerned, the difficulties of “cursive script” are “old news,” and, apart from the foregoing book reference, I have nothing to add. 

My wife, Mutsuyo, is busy doing research in Japanese archives (via the web) on the dossiers associated with decorations awarded to Japanese and to citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with whom Japanese interacted around the time of the Russo-Japanese War.  She has had to deal not only with “cursive script” but also outright errors in handwriting, the pretentious use of obscure kanji and non-standard glosses, cryptically written kanbun sentences, and historical meaning changes.  (And, of course, hentaigana pop up from time to time.) \

In a P.S. Jim adds:

The recent news that Japanese bureaucrats have decided to wean the country off of fax machines makes me chuckle.  The persistence of fax tech in Japan reflects the failure of computer software, despite its wide distribution, to put a significant dent in reliance on handwritten documents, which is also an obstacle to efficient filing and retrieval.  As I suggested back in the 1980s, the obvious solution is to adopt officially what DeFrancis called  digraphia:  define a single standard romanization; teach it in schools (that’s how school kids taught metric to their elders at home); and eliminate all legal restrictions against the use of standard romanized Japanese.  If people in Japan were free to use a single standard romanization whenever they pleased (for convenience or any other reason), I reckon that a new and better way of keeping records and doing business would naturally emerge in the “free market” of choices in less than a decade, but I would be surprised if the government pursued such a policy.

(I wonder whether fax messaging is common in the PRC.  I’d guess the government doesn’t like faxes because they’re not easy to censor.)

In answer to Jim's question about fax usage in the PRC, I can say this much clearly.  My Chinese friends who were holdouts in clinging to fax overwhelmingly tended to be highly literate and did so for two main reasons:

  1. they didn't want to fall prey to character amnesia by relying on computers to write the characters for them
  2. they were wary of having the government censor their communications sent via the internet

In the last fifteen years or so, I've probably only received half a dozen or so faxes from the Sinosphere, and that was because they included symbols that were not available in any electronic fonts.  Even then, most people prefer to scan documents and send them by e-mail attachment.


Selected readings


  1. Jim Breen said,

    October 19, 2022 @ 8:13 pm

    I have a copy of Otome Daniels ' sōsho dictionary too. I admit I haven't found it very useful.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 19, 2022 @ 11:13 pm

    I thought the most interesting detail in the BBC piece linked by Prof. Unger was:

    "Learning both to speak and read Japanese in such a short time was thought too difficult. So the servicemen trained either as interpreters, who needed to know only the spoken language, or translators, who could read it but not speak it."

  3. Noel Hunt said,

    October 20, 2022 @ 11:28 pm

    I have read with a quiet horror, over the years, Professor Mair's vituperations against the Chinese writing system. In this current post we learn that other eminent scholars, Professor James Unger and John DeFrancis also seem to hold in some contempt the choices that the Japanese or Chinese have made in relation to their writing systems, and feel obliged to offer 'solutions' to these poor, misguided Orientals. It is disappointing because one expects scholars of such repute to be above such things, but perhaps they are in good company, since William Dwight Whitney, the Sanskrit scholar was equally intolerant of the way classical Sanskrit uses syntactic devices vastly different from Latin and Greek; Professor Michael Coulson in the introduction to his wonderful Sanskrit textbook, writes of Whitney 'a great but startlingly arrogant Sanskritist of the nineteenth century…' and continues with a description of what he, Whitney, finds undesirable and depraved about classical Sanskrit syntax. Further on he writes, 'Whitney is typical of many Western scholars who manage to convey contempt for the avoidance [in classical Sanskrit] of the intricacies of the Old Indo-Aryan verbal system…'.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    October 21, 2022 @ 6:07 am

    Noel — Although I share some of your misgivings regards the frequent and repeated arguments in favour of the Chinese (etc) adopting a more "rational" (i.e., letter-based) approach to their orthography, I am nonetheless confident that Prof Mair (and others, such as John de Francis) are sincere and well-intentioned in their advocacy. As to whether they are misguided is, I think, less certain. Certainly I feel that there must be an element of hubris if any westerner seeks to persuade the Chinese (etc) that their traditional orthography is sub-optimal and should, for the benefit of future generations, be made more "rational" (see above), but if one leaves this aspect aside, I cannot help but feel that a letter-based orthography is clearly more suited to digital input than is a glyph-based one, particularly when the number of glyphs involved is reliably reported to exceed 50000, even if only 10% or so of the latter are needed on a daily basis.

    At a time when all texts were hand written, I believe that traditional Chinese orthography was as valid an approach as the traditional western, letter-based, one. But in a world where fewer and fewer texts are hand-written, and where an even-increasing fraction (which is asymptotically approaching 100% even as I write) are entered via a keyboard, I can see considerable merit in Prof Mair's and John de Francis' position, and feel that their western background should not disqualify them from contributing to the debate.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    October 21, 2022 @ 7:07 am

    [Afterthought, composed while under the shower] — "At a time when all texts were hand written, I believe that traditional Chinese orthography was as valid an approach as the traditional western, letter-based, one" —
    Except, of course, that it made the compilation and use of dictionaries very considerably harder. Of course, the ordering of the Latin letters "a" .. "z" is entirely arbitrary, but is easily learned; defining a canonical ordering of 50000 (or even 5000) glyphs, and learning such an ordering, is considerably more complex, and even stroke-counting, ordering by radicals, four-corners, etc., are all far more complex than learning and remembering the order of the latters "a" .. "z", even if the latter has to be extended to accomodate diacritics (e.g., è", "ư"), ligature-digraphs (e.g., "æ", "ij"), etc.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    October 21, 2022 @ 7:12 am

    @J.W. Brewer:

    A rational division of labor in dire circumstances.

  7. Timothy Lubin said,

    October 21, 2022 @ 7:52 pm

    Whitney's disdain for Sanskrit's foresaking the nuanced intricacies of the verbal system seen in its siblings (esp. Greek) prevented him from recognizing that this verbal intricacy was exchanged for an equal or greater intricacy on the nominal side: the hyperdevelopment of compounding as a productive communicative device. Relying on participles, verbal nouns, and other non-finite verbal forms in place of finite verbs, Sanskrit authors reveled in virtuosic use of long nominal compounds that embedded implicit syntactical relations between their members. The results were highly complex, permitting enormous compression, capable of precision but also offering ample opportunity for double entendre.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 22, 2022 @ 9:44 am

    From J. Marshall Unger:

    I find Noel Hunt's criticism—that "[in addition to Professor Victor Mair,] Professor James Unger and John DeFrancis also seem to hold in some contempt the choices that the Japanese or Chinese have made in relation to their writing systems"—just plain silly. None of us, as far as I know, believe that the people of Japan or China, (or, for that matter, Vietnam or Korea) chose their writing systems. Cf. Atatürk’s romanization of Turkish, the Russian Cyrillic spelling reform of 1917, or the Hussite orthography for Czech, none of which were exactly choices but for which we know at least who was principally responsible and when.

    The only choice DeFrancis, Mair, or I have discussed, as far as I know, is an action that the government of a country where Chinese characters have been used traditionally has taken sometime in the 20th century or may take at some future time. In fact, since the action involves defining the circumstances under which it will countenance its citizens using alternatives to Chinese characters, it is really a collection of many choices: which circumstances? what alternatives? and so on.

    There is plenty of historical precedent for this. Vietnam made its choice decades ago (DeFrancis wrote a whole book about it). North Korea at first banned the use of Chinese characters in favor of hankul but has changed its tune lately as it has become ever more reliant on the support of the PRC; South Korea has de facto dropped Chinese characters in most circumstances, again because of the advantages of hankul. In the PRC, the CCP has reneged on its early promises about pinyin in favor of a timid policy of simplified characters, which seems more designed to spite the Taiwanese than to help the masses on the mainland. In Japan, about which I have written, the government at first reformed the kana inventories and the rules for their use, and limited the number of kanji for general use, but has backslid since the 1980s.

    These—not fictitious choices made by “peoples”—are historical facts, and new ones will no doubt emerge as each of these societies is affected by future technological developments. They may do nothing in response to such developments, but they could, and DeFrancis, Mair, and I have explained why they might want to adopt deliberate policies of digraphia. None of us have said that Chinese and Japanese are “poor misguided Orientals,” and it is insulting to say we have.

    The ghost of William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894) will have to fend for himself, but I would point out that, when asked by Mori Arinori (1847-1889) for his opinion on replacing the entire Japanese language with a simplified form of English so that Japan could become a major world trading power, Whitney wisely advised him that such a total replacement was excessive, impractical, and unnecessary. (Mori, who went on to become the first Minister of Education in Japan, evidently took Whitney’s advice to heart.) In any case, I find the positive assessments of Whitney’s work by Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson much better informed and more persuasive than Michael Coulson’s complaints about his work on Sanskrit.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    October 22, 2022 @ 10:25 am

    John DeFrancis, J. Marshall Unger, and William Dwight Whitney all had close ties to Yale.

  10. Chris Button said,

    October 22, 2022 @ 10:53 am

    Regarding the decision over whether to go with an alphabet or not, the more I work on the reconstructions of Old Chinese in my dictionary, the more convinced I am that Pulleyblank’s hypothesis that the heavenly stems and earthly branches (ganzhi) represented an “alphabet” of sorts is fundamentally correct. Personally I think the less well-known version of his approach (published in Gordon Whittaker 1983) was his closest one, although I still differ from him in several places.

    What convinced me was that I did not reconstruct Old Chinese with an agenda to fit the ganzhi (and had always been highly skeptical of Pulleyblank’s hypothesis), but then I realized that the correspondences happened to work as I reconstructed the onsets of the ganzhi according to my system. I was quite taken aback, and had another one of those “wow Pulleyblank really was (and still remains) way ahead of his time” moments.

    As to whether there is any connection to the Phoenician alphabet (something that Pulleyblank later abandoned—at least in print), I am sympathetic to Professor Mair’s conviction that there is an association. However, the evidence is less compelling simply because I have to force the correspondences based on a preconceived hypothesis of an association. Having said that, the correspondences between shape and sound (particularly if my reconstruction of OC onsets is correct—the proof being in the pudding of my dictionary rather than in some theoretical description) do seem to go beyond just chance lookalikes. But perhaps I am swayed by my desire to see connections, and I have made a few adjustments to correspondences as I have progressed. Needless to say, my ability to do that does not fill me with confidence that my ideas are more than speculation.

    If there is interest, and a way to display the Phoenician symbols here, I would be happy to share my OC onsets and the thoughts on the possible correspondences on LLog.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    October 22, 2022 @ 12:57 pm

    Installing the Phœnician Ahiram font linked from this page allowed me to view all but six of the Phœnician glyphs on that page without making any change to my browser configuration. Whether that will suffice for your needs, Chris, I do not know.

  12. Jim Unger said,

    October 22, 2022 @ 1:14 pm

    I recall Cyrus Gordon pushing Pulleyblank's ganzhi-Phonecian theory in a lecture in Honolulu in the early 1990s, but unless someone digs up an OC inscription in which the ganzhi characters were used phonographically, the fact that 10 stems + 12 branches just happens to be the number of letters in the earliest Phonecian abjad seems more likely to be a coincidence than evidence of a (very long) chain of ancient communication.

  13. Chris Button said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 8:22 am

    Gordon talks a little about it in this article: Diffusion of near east culture in antiquity and Byzantine times”. He mentions Mair and Pulleyblank.

  14. Chris Button said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 12:26 pm

    I think it would be weird to find an inscription where the ganzhi are used phonographically because they are used as calendrical signs across the corpus of oracle-bone inscriptions. It would have to be very different in nature.

  15. Noel Hunt said,

    October 23, 2022 @ 11:55 pm

    The partial quotation from Professor Coulton I recorded above, 'Whitney is typical of many Western scholars …', continues, 'with a simultaneous contempt for the pedantry of those who flex their grammatical muscles from time to time by using a number of recherché forms and irritation at understanding the ordinary language of the learned…it is certainly true that modern scholars often meet with ambiguities and obscurities in reading Classical texts … But the texts were not written for us…'.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    October 24, 2022 @ 3:27 am

    An online (scanned) copy of the text from which Noel Hunt is quoting can be found at The passage in question can be found starting on line 2 of page 20.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    October 24, 2022 @ 8:49 pm

    From Bernard Cadogan:

    I did the Coulson Sanskrit" primer" when I was 16 and was enchanted by it. Consequently I was exposed also to Whitney's strictures on how the language developed.

    Years later, working on Sir George Grey as an influential 19th century anthropologist and linguist, as well as a colonial governor, I came across the Müller v Maine debate, that leveraged off Sanskrit.

    Max Müller at Oxford argued that language degenerates and turns into mumbo-jumbo, gibberish and decadent forms. His was a des Esseintes view of language. As a Sanskritist he influenced Whitney. Henry Sumner Maine at Cambridge ( also Oxford at times) argued that language was originally opaque and indistinct, and gradually after becoming a literate medium, became rational and clear. We can sense the influence of Vico on this latter view.

    That too was Sir George Grey's. Grey also classified myths and stories and narrative structures stadially, and held that hunter gatherers were bound by rational structures in their speech and societies and myths, of which they had not a clue, and which were opaque to them. In this he discerned origins of Law.

    I think Coulson's introduction to Sanskrit the best primer for a language ever written, apart from the Armenian primer which Lord Byron and Fr Pasquale Aucher ( Harut'iwn Awgerean) worked on, in which the Lamborgini mind of the former is apparent, passed on to his daughter Ada Lovelace, the designer of the first computer programme.

  18. Noel Hunt said,

    October 25, 2022 @ 12:27 am

    Thank you, Bernard, for that appraisal of Coulson, with which I can only agree. I studied Latin and Greek via the standard texts and my first Sanskrit primer was Perry's, very much in the Latin/Greek tradition but it wasn't until I encountered Coulson that I realized how much less suited to Sanskrit that approach is. Coulson's use of actual text from the dramas in the excercises unveiled a new world of Sanskrit, and his translations, and excursions into syntactical structures, are unsurpassed—in the latter, perhaps only Renou's "Grammaire Sanscrite" (to which he refers the student) is comparable, the venerable classic of Speijer's "Sanskrit Syntax" being quite inadequate in comparison.

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