Saturday, August 28, 2010

Koreans can afford to chuckle (a bit)

I just stumbled upon a funny, yet strangely sad, article about a tech-related phenomenon called "character amnesia," in which modern Chinese and Japanese folks find themselves unable to recall how to write certain Chinese characters because they've gotten so used to using mobile phones and computers, whose input methods are often letter- or syllabary-based.

Like every Chinese child, Li Hanwei spent her schooldays memorising thousands of the intricate characters that make up the Chinese writing system.

Yet aged just 21 and now a university student in Hong Kong, Li already finds that when she picks up a pen to write, the characters for words as simple as "embarrassed" have slipped from her mind.

"I can remember the shape, but I can't remember the strokes that you need to write it," she says. "It's a bit of a problem."

Surveys indicate the phenomenon, dubbed "character amnesia", is widespread across China, causing young Chinese to fear for the future of their ancient writing system.

Young Japanese people also report the problem, which is caused by the constant use of computers and mobile phones with alphabet-based input systems.

There is even a Chinese word for it: "tibiwangzi", or "take pen, forget character".

A poll commissioned by the China Youth Daily in April found that 83 percent of the 2,072 respondents admitted having problems writing characters.

As a result, Li says that she has become almost dependent on her phone.

It could be argued that Koreans have been dealing with character amnesia for a long time, since they haven't used Chinese as their first writing system for over half a millennium: since the 1400s, Koreans have had their own writing system, called hangeul, which is an alphabet in the truest sense. Alphabets can generally be described as a series of phonetic symbols that generally have a one-to-one sound-to-symbol correspondence. Exceptions abound, of course: in English, for example, the letter "x" actually represents two sequential sounds, "k" and "s," and some letters may variously represent different sounds in different contexts-- the letter "c" comes immediately to mind. And once we add phenomena like digraphs (wh, rh, ph, etc.) and diphthongs (such as the "ei" and "ai" in "blame" and "pine"), it becomes obvious that alphabets aren't so simple to define. But in general, alphabets enjoy one-to-one sound-to-symbol correspondence.

Alphabets have the advantage of being much, much more efficient writing systems than characters, or even syllabaries. With letters, it's all a matter of permutations and combinations. Characters, by contrast, are unique symbols that represent not only a cluster of sounds but also, generally, a distinct idea. A person who learns characters is therefore doomed to memorizing thousands of them, and also to memorizing how the characters, when clustered in twos and threes, work as compounds. (A single Chinese character is often itself a compound, composed of a radical plus one or more other characters, all of which work together to produce a given concept.)

Hangeul may have hamstrung itself by structuring syllables as letter-clusters, thereby making the letters impossible to type out as strings, but nowadays that fact presents no difficulty to a Korean with a current computer: the spelling rules for hangeul are easily programmable, and the graphic capabilities of a computer allow any type of syllable to be written on screen. When I was in Korea, I found it easier to type cell phone text messages in Korean than in English.

Modern Korean students generally learn about 1800 government-mandated hanja while young; many students gradually forget them after high school, so that by the time they're in college, they're already struggling to recall how to write certain characters. Many of the hundreds (thousands?) of students I taught in Korea confessed to forgetting how to write certain hanja (Sino-Korean characters). Older Koreans-- the ones still in Korea-- tend to be more knowledgeable about hanja than the younger crowd, but even they sometimes reveal embarrassing lacunae in their knowledge. And first-generation Koreans who live overseas often forget most of their hanja, unless they're artists or scholars or legal professionals who have to retain (or even expand) their knowledge for professional reasons.

So in general, character amnesia isn't a big problem in Korea. Koreans need only memorize a 24-letter alphabet (just like Greek), then learn the spelling and phonetic rules. That's enough to get the average Korean functioning just fine on a cell phone or with a computer. Korean orthography and phonology can be devilishly hard to learn because of all the exceptions to the rules, but mastering the basics is only a matter of one or two lessons. A total neophyte can be sounding out Korean syllables in just hours. Good luck making the same claim for either Chinese or Japanese.

To be fair, it would be wrong to denigrate a language by judging it according to a narrow standard like communicative efficiency in the modern world. Asians (and even many non-Asians) continue to practice Chinese calligraphy because of the ways in which the characters engage the mind and body: one can't just write a character willy-nilly; good writing requires concentration, discipline, commitment, and care. Chinese is a gorgeous language to look at, and despite its inefficiency in an age of globalization, I suspect it'll be around for a long time.

One last remark. The article says this:

In Japan, where three writing systems are combined into one, mobiles and computers use the simpler hiragana and katakana scripts for inputting -- meaning users may forget the kanji, a third strand of Japanese writing similar to Chinese characters.

D'oh! The last part of that sentence is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. Kanji might best be called "Sino-Japanese characters," just as hanja are Sino-Korean characters. Saying that they are merely "similar to" Chinese characters is quite misleading: over 99% of kanji are, in fact, Chinese characters, not purely Japanese characters that resemble Chinese characters. I think the writer of this article was trying to find a concise way to express the notion that Chinese characters, as they crossed over into other cultures, developed regional nuances ranging from slight diversions to radical departures from the original Chinese. There's no easy way to say that succinctly.

In the teched-up, Darwinian circumstances we live in, some writing systems are going to win out over others because they work well in a given global cultural climate. If the current climate favors efficiency in communication, then there's no doubt that an alphabet will trump characters every time. But this doesn't mean there's no room for less efficient, more elegant forms of expression that engage different parts of the body and brain. I'll say this for Chinese: once you learn a character and train yourself to recognize it instantly, it's often easier and quicker to read strings of characters than it is to read words formed from strings of letters. Chinese characters provide us with the original "whole language" approach.


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