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The Forum > Article Comments > Traditional Chinese characters deserve World Heritage status > Comments

Traditional Chinese characters deserve World Heritage status : Comments

By Jerry Chuang, published 8/2/2010

Traditional Chinese is characterised as one of the oldest and most beautiful written languages in the world.

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I'm currently learning Chinese (using simplified characters). Twenty years ago I did a year of university Japanese, using traditional Chinese characters. China’s simplified characters reduce the number of strokes in a fair number of characters but the writing system still remains an enormous hurdle for foreign learners. It is aesthetically beautiful, and certainly gives a successful learner a "oneupmanship" talking point. But it requires of the student, and of course, of the Chinese schoolchild, stupendous hours of learning - orders of magnitude more than learning to write using Pinyin.

The main argument Jerry raises for keeping the traditional characters is the ability to read the past. Well, English (and also French) spelling reflects a lot of the past. It shows, for example, that we used to pronounce ‘knight’ with a sounded /k/ and a fricative /x/. Today though, traditional (correct) spelling is an impediment to literacy in a world where literacy is an essential part of earning a living and functioning socially. Job applications usually require written resumes. If yours is full of defects in literacy, you’ll likely be disqualified from interview.

Languages which have been written down, or reformed, more recently, like Finnish and Russian, present far fewer difficulties to both native and non-native users. (Russian has one or two quirks reflecting older pronunciation, but nothing remotely like English.)

Highly educated, literate, and therefore socially privileged users of written Chinese will resist reform of something, the usage of which marks them out as superior to the less educated. (Shades of “An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him: the moment he talks, he makes some other Englishman despise him.”) It’s the same with English. George Bernard Shaw's spelling proposals didn't get to first base - because the written language, like religion and how it influences social and cultural ways, is one of the most conservative features of any culture.

Good try, Jerry. But as a literate and multilingual new learner of Chinese, lacking the personal cultural heritage, I won't cheer if China brings back a system with even more strokes than the present absurdly non-phonetic one!
Posted by Glorfindel, Tuesday, 9 February 2010 12:00:35 AM
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