The Evolution of Chinese Language and Characters

The Chinese character is the oldest continually used system of writing in the world, its early use dating back almost 5,000 years. Since that time it’s gone through a long period of transformation before it evolved into its present day form. For most of us, a Chinese character is indecipherable, its appearance more akin to a Rorschach test than the written word. Nevertheless, it’s evolved into the basis for a language that’s used by one-quarter of the world’s population.

Perhaps the earliest documented use of Chinese characters are the oracle bone inscriptions. Oracle bones are pieces of shell or bone used by diviners to submit questions to deities regarding future events – such as the abundance of a crop harvest, whether it’ll rain, etc. The diviner would carve the question into the bone or shell with a sharp instrument that was sufficiently hot enough to crack the surface. The diver would then interpret the cracks and also write his prediction on the piece. This, and characters appearing on ancient Chinese pottery, are the earliest forms of Chinese writing.

Writing continued to evolve over the centuries, but China was a big country and, prior to the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BC), it was a country that was fragmented by warlords and fiefdoms. There was no one supreme head of the country. Moreover, language and Chinese characters varied widely throughout the country and nothing was standardized. A person from one part of the country may not be able to communicate with someone from another region, by either the spoken or written word. However, all that changed with the Qin Dynasty which unified China for the first time and, subsequently, mandated a unified script to be used throughout the kingdom.

Unlike English letters, Chinese characters do not constitute an alphabet. Instead, a Chinese character represents one syllable of spoken Chinese. That syllable may be a word on its own or part of a more complex word. In addition, the character itself may represent a physical object, a notion, or even pronunciation. Consequently, Chinese is a script of ideograms, rather than an alphabetic language. While the English language contains 26 letters, ancient and modern Chinese characters number over 60,000, although even the average college graduate will only know between 4,000 and 5,000 characters.

Even though most Westerners haven’t the vaguest idea of what Chinese characters mean or how they’re pronounced, Chinese characters have continued to evolve and become more simplified and stylized throughout the long period of Chinese history. According to The Chinese Civilization Centre, the earliest use of Chinese characters are in pictographs, which is simply a representative drawing of an object. For example, the pictograph of a bird or fish would look like the outline of a bird or fish. While not all pictographs were perfect visual representations, they were suggestive of what they’re intended to represent.

The problem with a pictograph is that you can’t convey anything that’s abstract. In a pictograph, it is what it is. To address this, according to Du Feibao of the China National Travel Service, ancient Chinese would combine two or more elements, producing associative compounds, and thereby form an entirely new meaning. As examples: combining the written characters for sun and moon produced a new word – bright; placing the sun over a line representing the horizon formed an ideogram which meant sunrise or morning; the symbol for mother, “mu,” is made by adding two small dots above the symbol for woman, “nu,” to symbolize a woman feeding a child; and the character for thought would combine the individual characters for the brain and heart. However, while pictographs and associative compounds enabled people to better express their thoughts, it didn’t help them with how to pronounce what was written. That was accomplished by pictophonetics which combined one character for the meaning and another for the sound. Today pictophonetics constitute 90 percent of all Chinese characters.

From the beginning, Westerners had a problem translating Chinese to English, and vice-versa. Written Chinese represents both ideas and concepts, as well as sound, and therefore it has form, sound, and sense. English letters, on the other hand, only have form and sound. In addition, as if translating Chinese isn’t hard enough, the Chinese language is tonal where the tonal emphasis has to be placed properly in a word or the speaker will get the word wrong. With its use of numerous characters and various tones, providing a methodology for translation was an extremely difficult task.

Over the centuries there were a number of methods employed to use the Roman language to write Chinese but they all were, to some degree, inherently deficient. It wasn’t until Pinyin (short for Pinyin wenzi, or alphabetical writing system) was adopted in 1958 that a fairly reliable method for translating Chinese into the Roman alphabet came about. Pinyin essentially spells the sounds of the Chinese language. In Pinyin the emphasis is compensated for by the use of additional punctuation. Today pinyin is used to translate and teach Chinese. It’s also become the standard input method for entering Chinese characters into computers.

Memorization of Chinese characters and words is also a measure of literacy. Since today’s Chinese characters are way beyond the pictograph stage, memorization is essential. Therefore literacy in China is measured by both the number of characters and the number of words one knows. Moreover, literacy is irrespective of one’s dialect. China is a country of one language, but it’s also a country of various ethnic groups and many dialects. This makes it difficult, if not impossible at times, to understand people from various areas of the country. However, the standard written language within China is based on the country’s standard spoken language, Mandarin, and these various dialect groups are therefore able to communicate through the written word as these dialects are largely a spoken rather than a written form of communication.

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