Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bitten Again

Yes, I've been bitten by the China bug again. Every few years an overwhelming desire to be able to read and write Chinese characters comes over me, and I learn a couple hundred Chinese words, and drill myself endlessly on a couple hundred characters. Then I realize that I'm never going to be proficient in Chinese in this life and give it up, and move on to scrape the rust off one of the languages that I actually do know well enough to read reasonably easily. But Chinese continues to tease and haunt. The characters are so wonderful. The poetry is so old, and so good. Or so I hear. You never really know, with translation, do you? But the dream of being able to read Tu Fu and Li Po in Chinese never really dies.

I love Chinese characters in spite of myself. There's a lot of mystical nonsense still batted around about Chinese, and the nature of the writing system is often badly misrepresented, even by people who ought to know better. People put about the idea that there's a character for every word, which is nonsense. Such a writing system would be beyond most people's capacity to learn in a lifetime. Learn 50,000 symbols, or even 10,000? Even people who have a bump for that sort of thing would find that a tall order. Chinese writing is actually a diffuse, inefficient, and redundant syllabary, with semantic or phonetic hints jumbled in at random. Characters represent syllables, not words. (Except, of course, that some syllables are words. In Chinese, which doesn't have a lot of syllables, most syllables are also words: but of course, most words are not -- and don't let anyone convince you that they are -- single-syllable.) It would have been much better for Chinese literacy if the language radicals had won out, in the 1950s, and an alphabet, or a logical syllabary (in which one syllable gets one and only one representation) had been adopted at the time of the revolution. But I'm selfishly glad they didn't. I love Chinese writing: it's baroque and illogical and inefficient and supremely un-modern.

I expect I'll spin out on it eventually, again, and be ignominiously driven from the field again. But I'm having a great time.

(No, I haven't abandoned the 18th Century and classical music. More on that anon.)

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