Posted by: rbbadger | March 23, 2009

How do Chinese characters represent sounds?

Chinese characters are indeed fascinating things.  Chinese, on its surface, is not a difficult language.  The grammar is extremely simple, quite unlike the difficult Korean grammar. But the writing system is, well, difficult.  And forget about trying to look them up in dictionaries!  Among my family, only my brother-in-law Tom, himself a former student of Mandarin, would understand what horrors you sometimes have to go through just to look up one character.  Anyhow, in many of the Chinatowns throughout the country, you will sometimes see street signs in English and Chinese.  In China, they do actually spell out foreign names in Chinese characters.  There are obviously sounds associated with each one of the five or six thousand characters in use.  But the pronunciation of those sounds differs greatly depending on whether the speaker is from Beijing, from Fujian, from Guangdong, or someplace else in China.

The first Chinese immigrants were from the southern province of Guangdong whose capital city is Guangzhou (once known as Canton to Westerners).  The Chinese spoken there is much different from the Chinese spoken in Beijing.  Cant0nese is also one of the two official languages of Hong Kong.  The other is, of course, English.  The Pinyin News blog put up a series of San Francisco Chinatown street signs with their accompanying Chinese pronunciations.  The pronunciations don’t make much sense in Mandarin.  But they do in Cantonese.

The Korean pronunciation of Chinese characters also differs considerably at times from that of China.  And there are no tones, the pitch contours of Chinese speech that give it a musical quality.  China has since simplified the characters.  They have become easier to write due to some language reforms the Communists spearheaded.  I don’t think, though, that they look nearly as attractive as the traditional set.  Japan has also simplified some of the characters and once tried to impose a limit of no more than 1,945 in use.  Korea has maintained only the traditional set of characters.  One of my Korean friends has told me stories about the struggles she had in school just trying to learn them, only to forget most of them later.  According to her, they also had to learn numerous classical Chinese idioms, too.  

One Korean Catholic layman in America has an interesting project.  He has been trying to translate the texts of the old Latin Mass from Latin into hanmun, the mixed Chinese character/Korean alphabetic script that used to be used commonly here in newspapers, government documents, and just about everything.  Now the alphabetic script has become the favoured way to write.  Anyhow, you can see the fruits of some of his labours here.


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