Every language presents challenges — English pronunciation can be idiosyncratic and Russian grammar is fairly complex, for example — but non-alphabetic writing systems like Chinese pose special challenges.
There is the well-known issue that Chinese characters don’t systematically map to sounds, making both learning and remembering difficult, a point I examine in my latest column. If you don’t know a character, you can’t even say it.
Nor does Chinese group individual characters into bigger “words,” even when a character is part of a compound, or multi-character, word. That makes meanings ambiguous, a rich source of humor for Chinese people.
Consider this example from Wu Wenchao, a former interpreter for the United Nations based in Hong Kong. On his blog he has a picture of mobile phones’ being held under a hand dryer. Huh?
The joke is that the Chinese word for hand dryer is composed of three characters, “hong shou ji” (I am using pinyin, a system of Romanization used in China, to “write” the characters in the English alphabet.)
Group them as “hongshou ji” and it means “hand dryer.” Group them as “hong shouji” and it means “dry the mobile phone.” (A shouji is a mobile phone.)
Good fodder for serious linguists and amateur language lovers alike. But does a character script also exert deeper effects on the mind?
William C. Hannas is one of the most provocative writers on this today. He believes character writing systems inhibit a type of deep creativity — but that its effects are not irreversible.
He is at pains to point out that his analysis is not race-based, that people raised in a character-based writing system have a different type of creativity, and that they may flourish when they enter a culture that supports deep creativity, like Western science laboratories.
Still, “The rote learning needed to master Chinese writing breeds a conformist attitude and a focus on means instead of ends. Process rules substance. You spend more time fidgeting with the script than thinking about content,” Mr. Hannas wrote to me in an e-mail.
But Mr. Hannas’s argument is indeed controversial — that learning Chinese lessens deep creativity by furthering practical, but not abstract, thinking, as he wrote in “The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity,” published in 2003 and reviewed by The New York Times.
It’s a touchy topic that some academics reject outright and others acknowledge, but are reluctant to discuss, as Emily Eakin wrote in the review.
How does it work?
“Alphabets used in the West foster early skills in analysis and abstract thinking,” wrote Mr. Hannas, emphasizing the views were personal and not those of his employer, the U.S. government.
They do this by making readers do two things: breaking syllables into sound segments and clustering these segments into bigger, abstract, flexible sound units.
Chinese characters don’t do that. “The symbols map to syllables — natural concrete units. No analysis is needed and not much abstraction is involved,” Mr. Hannas wrote.
But radical, “type 2” creativity — deep creativity — depends on being able to match abstract patterns from one domain to another, essentially mapping the skills that alphabets nurture, he continued. “There is nothing comparable in the Sinitic tradition,” he wrote.
Will this inhibit China’s long-term development? Does it mean China won’t “take over the world,” as some are wondering? Not necessarily, Mr. Hannas said.
“You don’t need to be creative to succeed. Success goes to the early adapter and this is where China excels, for two reasons,” he wrote. First, Chinese are good at improving existing models, a different, more practical type of creativity, he wrote, adding that this practicality was noted by the British historian of Chinese science, Joseph Needham.
Yet there is a further step to this argument, and this is where Mr. Hannas’s ideas become explosive.
Partly as a result of these cultural constraints, China has built an “absolutely mind-boggling infrastructure” to get hold of cutting-edge foreign technology — by any means necessary, including large-scale, apparently government-backed, computer hacking, he wrote.
For more on that, see a hard-hitting Bloomberg report, “Hackers Linked to China’s Army seen from E.U to D.C.”
Non-Chinese R.&D. gets “outsourced” from its place of origin, “while China reaps the gain,” Mr. Hannas wrote, adding that many people believed this was “normal business practice.”
“In fact, it’s far from normal. The director of a U.S. intelligence agency has described China’s informal technology acquisition as ‘the greatest transfer of wealth in history,’ which I regard as a polite understatement,” he said.
Mr. Hannas has co-authored a book on this, to appear in the spring. It promises to shake things up. Watch this space.