The Unbearable Heaviness of Learning Chinese
Note: Ever since the Chinese incursions became a frequent theme along the Indo-China borders, the thought of what if started spooking those of us who live alongside the Himalayas. This post was written after yours truly’s repeated efforts at learning Chinese, all of which, sadly, went up in smoke.
There are two ways of rendering speech into writing. One is with an alphabet, such as in English, and the other is with a pictographic-ideographic system, such as in case of Chinese. The basic unit of the Chinese written word is the radical. The radical for earth is 土 and for small is 小. All words in Chinese are formed from these and 212 other radicals. Radicals can stand alone or be combined to form other words. For instance, eye and water make teardrop. Mouth and bird make song. Two women means quarrel and three women means gossip. Pretty sexist, right?
A typist’s nightmare
Since every word requires its own symbol, Chinese script is immensely complicated. It possesses 50,000 characters, of which about 4,000 are in common use. Chinese typewriters are enormous and most trained typists cannot manage more than about ten words a minute. But even the most complex Chinese typewriter can manage only a fraction of the characters available. If a standard Western typewriter keyboard were expanded to take in every Chinese ideograph it would have to be fifteen feet long and five feet wide.
Dictionaries, too, are nothing short of a nightmare. Without an alphabet, how do you sensibly arrange the words? The answer is that in most dictionaries the language is divided into 214 arbitrary clusters based on their radicals, but even then you must hunt randomly through each section until you stumble across the spelling you seek.
Life without alphabets
Life without alphabets is difficult. When you try to learn a new language, you don’t necessarily do it in a classroom. You play games like Scrabble, solve crossword puzzles, etc. You won’t find any of this in Chinese. Even Morse Code is not available, due to which, the Chinese had to devise a system where each word in the language was assigned a number. Person, for instance was 0086. This process, as you can see, was cumbersome… but it had an advantage. Translation becomes relatively easy with this approach. Once you have the number you can easily find its meaning.
To this day in China, and other countries such as Japan where the writing system is also ideographic, there is no logical system for organising documents. Filing systems often exist in people’s heads. If the secretary dies, the whole office can fall apart.
What does it mean for us?
When the British Empire conquered the world, we had no other choice but to learn their language. With America’s rise as a superpower, its growing cultural influence and dominance in technology, people moved towards the American brand of English (although some of us still hold on to the colonial roots). Now, if the 21st century is going to be that of Chinese supremacy, then (at least) some of us will have to learn their language as well. And trust me, learning Chinese isn’t going to be hunky-dory. How does one even say hunky-dory in Chinese? Damn!
Originally published at https://kalampedia.org on April 25, 2022.