October 24, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)


Leibnitz in the seventeenth century and Sir Donald Ross in our time, dreamed of a system of written signs independent of spoken languages, free from their nationalist diversity and their variations in space and time, and capable, therefore, of expressing the ideas of different peoples in identical and mutually intelligible ways. But precisely such a sign language, uniting a hundred generations and a quarter of the earth's inhabitants, already exists in the Far East. The conclusion of the Oriental is logical and terrible: the rest of the world must learn to write Chinese.

Will Durant, 1935

Many years ago the Book of the Month Club offered the 11 fat volumes of Will Durant's The Story of Civilization for a ridiculously low price to new members. I joined, bought the set of books, and the few books that I had contracted for, and then resigned my membership. I browsed through a few volumes and, after that, they sat on my bookshelf. Two month ago, I resolved to read, or at least browse, the entire set; if I live long enough. So far, I have finished Volume 1, Our Oriental Heritage. The histories of the Middle East, India, China and Japan are continuous tales of wars, invasions, conquests, executions, murders and incredible stupidity on the part of the rulers of countries and their staffs, with an occasional rare exception. Some people were very rich and many more were very poor. In other words, the world was essentially the same as it is today. Of course we now have electricity, gas, complex machines, radio, television and the internet and their influence on the world is profound. We also have incredibly powerful weapons of mass destruction. However, people are still people and it seems as if their behavior hasn't changed much over millennia, if at all. Will those wonderful technical developments change people? I doubt it, although they can't help but change the way that people live..

I found the part about the Chinese written language to be fascinating. The languages that I am familiar with are all phonetic languages; each letter represents a spoken sound. This is true of all of the European languages as well as Hebrew and Arabic. In Chinese, each character represents an idea. "The man is in the house" may be said very differently in Chinese and Japanese, but the written character that says this is the same in both languages. This means that while a Japanese and Chinese may not understand one another's speech, both will interpret the characters for "The man is in the house" the same, as will members of any Oriental group that use the same characters. What are transmitted are not sounds, but ideas. There is no grammar, no phonics, no verbs, nouns, conjunctions, subjects, predicates and all of the rest of that crap. There are no debates about how to teach the written language. If you say "The man is in the house" in Europe it could be "L'homme est dans la maison," in France, a completely different sentence in Germany, and so on through a whole bunch of different languages. Russian, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic all have different scripts, but they are all languages where the written words represent sounds rather than ideas. In Chinese, it is a single character set. How wonderful!

People have speculated that because of this difference in language, that Orientals think in a different way from occidentals. A Chinese character can represent an idea directly, while a similar idea in English has to go through translating a sentence into sound and then to an idea. For most things this only takes a fraction of a second.

The written language of the Orient consists of some 40,000 characters, although most people do quite well with about 3 or 4 thousand characters. When I look at a Chinese character, not only is it meaningless to me, but I am amazed that anyone can understand it, much less learn to write it. Then I stop to think how many words in English I recognize instantly. I am sure that it is much more than 4,000 words.

A step toward a universal language is international road signs such as stop, curve, do not enter, etc.

Thanks to TV and radio and the perfection of the speech of newscasters and actors, even someone from rural Georgia or Maine can understand the American English language, as can people anywhere in the world who have learned basic English. The only people who have problems with it are the British, who believe that the only correct way of speaking is the way that it is done at Oxford or Cambridge. As a consequence, the BBC commentators sound quite different from those on NBC or CBS but, surprisingly, they too are quite intelligible.

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