The following online article has been derived mechanically from an MS produced on the way towards conventional print publication. Many details are likely to deviate from the print version; figures and footnotes may even be missing altogether, and where negotiation with journal editors has led to improvements in the published wording, these will not be reflected in this online version. Shortage of time makes it impossible for me to offer a more careful rendering. I hope that placing this imperfect version online may be useful to some readers, but they should note that the print version is definitive. I shall not let myself be held to the precise wording of an online version, where this differs from the print version.

Published in Linguistics 32.117–32, 1994.






Chinese script and the diversity of writing systems





Geoffrey Sampson




University of Sussex







DeFrancis (1989) claims that all writing systems are similar in being phonetically based.  Chinese script, commonly cited as an exception, is according to DeFrancis essentially a syllabic phonographic system.  The present article argues that this claim confuses diachrony with synchrony.  It may be correct that the creation of a script always involves phonetic considerations, but subsequent evolution of script and spoken language can remove the phonetic basis of a writing system.  It is difficult to agree that modern Chinese writing is essentially phonetically-based; and it is certain that phonetic motivation is not a necessary feature for a script.



1.  Introduction.


John DeFrancis (1989) has argued at length that all writing systems used now or in the past are essentially similar in being based on a phonetic principle; and, in particular, that the Chinese script does not represent a fundamentally different type of system from scripts generally recognized as phonetically-based.  DeFrancis’s argument has been widely reviewed and discussed not only by Sinologists but by many commentators on the comparative study of scripts and on the psychology of literacy, and to date the clear consensus is that DeFrancis has successfully made his case for the universality of a phonetic principle in writing systems:  see for instance Krippes (1990), Wrenn (1990), Daniels (1991: 838), Tzeng (1991), Burling (1992: 423), Carello (1992: 212), Coulmas (1992: 254), Coe (1992: 31, 292), Liberman (1992: 168-9), Mattingly (1992: 18).  King (1991), while disagreeing with DeFrancis on certain specific issues, accepts that ‘it would be unsurprising if DeF[rancis]’s thesis proved to be correct’.


DeFrancis constructs his argument largely by taking issue with various points made in Sampson (1985).[1]  I am puzzled to know why DeFrancis attacks my exposition so vigorously, since it seems that on the issues that concern him most deeply DeFrancis and I are explicitly arguing on the same side.  Both DeFrancis and I have independently taken pains to rebut the idea, which continues to be put forward periodically by various writers, that Chinese script is a primitive or intrinsically inferior vehicle for intellectual communication by comparison with alphabetic European writing (see e.g. DeFrancis 1989: 221, 244-5; Sampson 1985: 160-5; Sampson 1991).  And both of us have stressed that ‘Chinese characters represent words (or better morphemes) not ideas’, as DeFrancis put it (1984: 145):  compare Sampson (1985: 149).  Nevertheless, I believe that there are real and linguistically interesting typological differences between scripts which DeFrancis blurs, and that the consensus identified in the previous paragraph is misguided.


Sampson (1985: 32) drew a (by no means original) set of distinctions among scripts or script-like systems, between what I called semasiographic and glottographic systems (the former relating visible marks to meaning directly without reference to any specific spoken language, the latter using visible marks to represent forms of a spoken language), and, among glottographic systems, between logographic and phonographic systems (the former representing a spoken language by assigning distinctive visible marks to linguistic elements of André Martinet’s ‘first articulation’ (Martinet 1949), i.e. morphemes or words, the latter achieving the same goal by assigning marks to elements of the ‘second articulation’, e.g. phonemes, syllables).  These are ideal types, and it is likely that actual, complex writing systems will commonly display at least some characteristics of more than one type.  Nevertheless I believe that many scripts can appropriately be viewed as predominantly exemplifying one rather than another type, and I do believe that modern Chinese script is a fairly good example of logographic writing, whereas the written forms of many European languages are fairly good examples of phonographic writing (though written English is too mixed to be described confidently as clearly phonographic or clearly logographic).


DeFrancis, by contrast, argues:


(i) There is no such thing as semasiographic writing the examples often quoted of direct visual representation of ideas, such as the American Indian pictorial messages discussed e.g. by Gelb (1963: ch. 2), are primitive, limited affairs which do not deserve even to be regarded as forerunners of full-scale writing systems.  Any full-scale script capable (as a spoken language is capable) of expressing whatever can be thought must necessarily do so by representing the elements of a particular spoken language; ‘... all forms of partial writing [by which DeFrancis refers to semasiographic writing], other than ... specifically speech-related examples, ... do not properly belong in a discussion of writing at all.’ (DeFrancis 1989: 57).


(ii)  A fortiori, Chinese script is not semasiographic.


(iii)  Any script which represents a spoken language does so chiefly by symbolizing phonetic units of that language, in other words there is no such thing as logographic writing; ‘the heart of all writing systems is its [sic] phonetic base’ (DeFrancis 1989: 56).


(iv)  A fortiori, Chinese script is not logographic.  It is essentially a syllabic phonographic script, though one of a rather elaborate, irregular kind:  ‘Chinese and other so-called logo-syllabic scripts are not a separate type but a subcategory of syllabic’ (DeFrancis 1989: 253).


To my mind, (i) is largely a matter of definition; (ii) is true; (iii) is false; (iv) unavoidably involves an element of subjective judgment, but if it cannot definitively be regarded as false it is at least a surprising way to think about Chinese writing.



2.  Semasiography. 


It is indisputable that there exist systems of communication by visible marks which are independent of any particular spoken language.  One example is the road sign system, which, for instance, uses the contrast between circular and triangular shape to distinguish command from warning, and displays a red and black car side by side to signal ‘No overtaking’.  Some of these signs (such as the one just cited) are partly iconic, others (e.g. the white horizontal bar on a red disc for ‘No entry’) are wholly arbitrary, but almost all of them are entirely independent of spoken language.  It makes no sense to ask whether the first sign cited should be read as ‘No overtaking’ or as ‘Overtaking is forbidden’, or whether it should be read as an English or as a German phrase.


I agree with DeFrancis that no semasiographic script ever used in practice has approached the degree of generality and flexibility possessed by all spoken languages.  Each such system has been limited to expressing messages relating to some narrow, limited domain, such as traffic discipline.  Whether this makes semasiography so different from glottography that the word ‘writing’ is inapplicable to the former, or whether rather one should call existing semasiographic systems ‘writing’ of an unusual, limited type, is purely a question of how one chooses to use the word ‘writing’ and as such, surely, is not worth many moments’ discussion.[2]


In Sampson (1985: 30-2) I speculated about whether there might ever be a semasiographic system comparable in expressive power to a spoken language.  I gave reasons for thinking that in practice this is unlikely to happen, but argued that ‘logically speaking such an outcome seems not absolutely excluded’.  DeFrancis is unwilling to admit that a ‘full’ system of semasiography could be even a logical possibility.[3]  He believes that those examples which do occur are necessarily limited to expressing very simple ideas concepts that would be expressed in speech by a word or short phrase rather than a multi-word sentence.


DeFrancis’s argument to this effect turns on examination of an example quoted in Sampson (1985: 28‑9) of purported complex semasiography, the ‘Yukaghir love letter’.  I had taken this example from a well-known book on writing, Diringer (n.d.: 35), and I retailed Diringer’s explanation of it without trying to check this.  DeFrancis has done the discipline a considerable service by investigating the history of the example in detail, and it turns out to be something rather different from what Diringer and I described, and arguably not an example of ‘communication’ at all.


If I had known the facts about the Yukaghir love letter which DeFrancis has brought to light, I would probably not have used it in my book.[4]  However, loss of this particular example does not establish the generalization that semasiography can never be used for logically complex messages.  Sampson (1985: 31-2) illustrated a second example, a set of instructions distributed with a Ford Escort car in 1982, in the form of two rows of six stylized pictures expressing a message that is admittedly less complex than that allegedly expressed by the Yukaghir example but is still fairly complex, requiring several clauses to express in English.  (I suggested the translation ‘When starting from cold, turn on the ignition without touching the gas-pedal; if the engine is warm, press the gas-pedal halfway down as you turn the ignition key’.)  In this case, I know the provenance at first hand, and the document remains in my possession (I should be happy to show it to enquirers).[5]  Whether it would be possible in principle to develop this kind of writing into a full-scale script, capable of expressing everything that can be expressed in speech, remains to my mind an open question.



3.  Chinese writing is not semasiographic. 


In the seventeenth century it was supposed by a number of European philosophers (cf. Knowlson 1975: 25) that Chinese script was a real example of the kind of full semasiographic system discussed as a hypothetical possibility in the preceding section.  One still sees this concept expressed by misinformed writers today.  It is quite wrong:  Chinese script was created as a means of representing visually a particular spoken language, the Chinese language as it existed at the period when the script was developed.  No-one familiar with the language and script could doubt this.


In Sampson (1985: 149) I list various considerations which demonstrate the point, such as the fact that (as with any other natural language) the morphemes of spoken Chinese are often polysemous and have ranges of meaning which are arbitrary and idiosyncratic, and these meaning-ranges will normally be common both to a spoken morpheme and to the written graph (or ‘character’) which represents that morpheme.  Occasionally, it is true, a single polysemous spoken word will have alternative graphs for separate subsections of its meaning-range, rather as the single spoken English etymon /metl/ has alternative spellings metal and mettle for separate subsenses and, as in the English case, the alternative writings are perceived as distinct vocabulary items.  For instance guo meaning ‘fruit’ and hence also ‘result’ has distinct graphs for the ‘fruit’ sense and the ‘result’ sense.  But even in such cases the alternative Chinese graphs will between them cover the identical meaning-range that is covered by the single spoken Chinese word; we do not find meaning-boundaries between written Chinese graphs and meaning-boundaries between spoken Chinese words overlapping and cutting across one another, as one finds with meaning-boundaries between Chinese words and meaning-boundaries between words of English or another spoken language.



There is, admittedly, a special consideration in the case of written Chinese which might seem to put its glottographic status in doubt.  Once a spoken language has acquired a written form, the two linguistic systems may evolve independently so that the relationship between written and spoken languages becomes increasingly remote.  With Chinese this happened in a way for which I know no parallel:  during much of recent history, before the reforms in written usage associated with the May Fourth Movement initiated in 1919, the standard written language of China (wen yan, or literary Chinese) was a language which when read aloud in contemporary pronunciation could not be understood by a hearer, irrespective of how learned he might be, because the spoken equivalent of a written text did not contain sufficient information to determine the identities of the morphemes of which the text was composed.  There were two reasons for this.  Sound changes during the long period since the creation of the script had removed many phonological contrasts and thus introduced an extremely high incidence of homophony among morphemes;[6] and developments in literary usage had created many possibilities of meaningfully combining morphemes in writing in ways that would never have occurred in spoken Chinese at any period of its history, thus reducing the chance of determining the intended morpheme among a set of homophone candidates by reference to its morphemic environment.[7]  Therefore literary Chinese not merely did only function but could only function as a written and read language, not as a spoken and heard language.[8]  This might seem to bring literary Chinese within the definition of semasiography.  But any literary Chinese text has a perfectly specific spoken form, composed of morphemes many of which occur in modern spoken Chinese and all of which are etymologically identifiable with morphemes that have occurred in spoken Chinese at some historical period:  there is a well-defined way of reading a literary Chinese text aloud (morphemes which are obsolete in spoken Chinese are given the pronunciations that result by applying subsequent sound-laws to the pronunciations the morphemes had when they were current in speech), even if this activity achieves no communicative purpose.  The situation is very different from a case such as the Ford starting instructions, where one has to invent some form of words to express orally the message of the text, and independent readers could reasonably select different spoken word-sequences to express the ‘written’ message.  Chinese script is glottographic.



4.        Is Chinese writing logographic? 


People with limited awareness of linguistic concepts sometimes talk as if the statement that a script represents a spoken language necessarily implies that the units of the script must represent phonetic units, such as consonants, vowels, or syllables:  that is, they overlook the logical possibility that a script might be logographic.  But linguists know that any natural language has units at many levels, and in particular that all human languages exhibit a ‘double articulation’ into units carrying meaning, on the one hand, and phonological units whose function is to serve as perceptually-distinctive building blocks out of which meaningful units can be assembled, on the other.  This feature is universal in human language:  it applies as much to languages having no written form as to languages which have scripts.[9]  It is at least logically possible, therefore, that a glottographic script might assign distinctive symbols to elements of the first rather than of the second articulation.  DeFrancis accepts, I think, that this is a logical possibility, but he does not believe it is a practical possibility or that Chinese writing should be regarded as such a script.


Consideration of the status of Chinese script in this respect is complicated by an unusual property of Chinese as a spoken language.  In European languages there is commonly little regular relationship between the position of boundaries of units of the two articulations.  The spoken English word analysed, for instance, comprises two morphemes, one of which is realized by two complete syllables and part of a third, while the other is realized by just the final consonant of the third syllable.  In Chinese, by contrast, phonological syllable-boundaries (which are always clearly marked Chinese phonology lacks ‘interludes’ (Hockett 1955: 52) such as the /t/ of English butter, which belong equally to the preceding and the following syllable) almost always coincide with morpheme boundaries:  each morpheme is represented by exactly one spoken syllable.  (There are marginal exceptions, such as, in modern Mandarin, the nominal suffixes -z, -r, and, in all varieties of Chinese, a set of disyllabic morphemes for unusual flora and fauna, the classic example being shanhu ‘coral’ mentioned by DeFrancis (1989: 259); but these cases are few enough not to be significant in the present context.)


Because, broadly, each Chinese morpheme is realized as a syllable, one might suppose that for this particular language there could be no distinction between a syllabic phonographic script and a morpheme-based logographic script.  Conceptually, however, there is a clear distinction, because of the high incidence of homophony in Chinese already mentioned.  The great majority of phonologically-possible Chinese syllables each represent several etymologically distinct morphemes with unrelated meanings.  (The standard dictionary of modern Chinese Xiandai Hanyu Cidian (Peking, 1981) lists on the order of 10,000 morphemes, and about 1280 distinct isolation-form syllables, giving an average of about eight morphemes per syllable.)  Suppose English were written in a script whose graphic units corresponded to word-sized units of the spoken language:  there would be a clear conceptual distinction between a script which used a given graph for all occurrences of words pronounced /s  n/ irrespective of meaning, and a script which assigned unrelated graphs to /s  n/ ‘male child’ and /s  n/ ‘star which our planet orbits’.  If English had numerous homophones and if one of these two alternative principles were adopted consistently in each case, we would call the script phonographic if homophones were written alike, and logographic if each etymologically distinct word had its own written form graphically unrelated to the written forms of its homophones.


The case of Chinese script is certainly not as clearcut as either of these two hypothetical cases.


Chinese graphs come close to standing in a one-to-one relationship with morphemes, so that etymologically distinct morphemes will normally have distinct graphs.  There is a significant incidence of distinct morphemes sharing a common graph in some cases the morphemes written alike are homophones (e.g. bie ‘other’ and bie ‘don’t’), in other cases they have distinct (but usually similar) pronunciations (e.g. qi ‘wonderful’ and ji ‘odd number’); and sometimes it is impossible to know whether alternative senses associated with a particular graph/pronunciation pairing represent polysemous evolution of meaning within a single etymon, or represent historically-unrelated homophones.  But even when a single graph clearly stands for two or more homophonous morphemes, the set of morphemes written with that graph will virtually always be a minority of the total set of morphemes sharing that pronunciation.  If one were to consider Chinese graphs as atomic units lacking internal structure, the script would rather clearly be basically logographic, though with occasional ambiguous assignments of graphs to alternative morphemes which are phonetically identical or related.[10]


However, most Chinese graphs are not simple forms but contain internal complexity, and the nature of this complexity is such that a graph often includes a more or less precise clue to its pronunciation.  This feature of the script may be (and is, by DeFrancis) used to argue that it is fundamentally a syllabic phonographic script with logographic accretions.


The internal structure of Chinese graphs is best explained historically.  On the order of a thousand morphemes are represented by simple graphs which originated as pictures corresponding to their meanings (though at an early date the iconic quality of the graphs was lost through stylization of their shapes).  A morpheme X having no simple graph was written by borrowing the graph for some morpheme Y that already had a written form and that was pronounced similarly to X (though, commonly, X and Y were not pronounced identically); and usually a distinguishing element was added to differentiate the written form of X from that of Y, in the shape of a simple graph for a morpheme related in meaning to X (‘hand’ for verbs of action, ‘water’ for words connected with liquids, etc.).  There appears to have been a very early stage at which the system of borrowing graphs by reference to similarity of pronunciation had not yet come into play, but only through that principle did Chinese script become a full-scale writing system capable of representing everything in the spoken language.  Thus the bulk of all graphs in the system which emerged are compounds containing two parts, a phonetic and a signific, and of the two the phonetic component is unquestionably more important:  there are on the order of 1400 different graphs used as phonetics within phonetic/signific compounds (some of the 1400 are themselves phonetic/signific compound graphs), but only about 200 graphs used as significs, and in the early history of the script there seems to have been some flexibility in the use of significs they might be omitted, or a single morpheme might be written with alternative significs whereas a morpheme was only rarely represented by alternative phonetics.


I shall use the term ‘compound graph’ for a Chinese graph that can be analysed into phonetic and signific.  (There are also graphs which might be called compound because they combine two simple graphs to represent a word whose sense is connected with the senses of both components, but for present purposes graphs of this sort are not interestingly different from simple graphs, and my use of the term ‘compound graph’ will exclude them.)


It might, then, be reasonable to describe the Chinese script during an early phase of its history as fundamentally phonographic, although phonetically imprecise (a phonetic element was associated not with a fixed syllabic pronunciation but with a range of related pronunciations), and having important logographic features (the use of significs, and the fact that a morpheme lacking a simple graph was written not with the graph for any similar-sounding morpheme but with that of one particular conventionally-fixed near-homophone).[11]  To this extent I accept DeFrancis’s view of the nature of Chinese script.  However, since Saussure it has been accepted among linguists that the structure of a linguistic system at a given time is a separate issue from the question of how the system evolved historically.  The evolution of Chinese script and spoken language over some three millennia have brought about changed relationships between script and speech, which make the script now more logographic and less phonographic than before.


Thus, sound-changes have in many cases caused syllables which used to be phonetically similar to diverge in pronunciation.  The morphemes for ‘two’, ‘grease’ were pronounced in Middle Chinese nzi-, ni- respectively, so it was reasonable for ‘grease’ to be written as a compound graph combining ‘two’ as phonetic with ‘flesh’ as signific; but, through the operation of regular sound laws, the modern Mandarin pronunciations have become respectively er, ni, making the rationale of the ‘grease’ graph quite opaque.  Furthermore, the massive loss of phonemic contrasts which has been a marked feature of the history of Chinese phonology means that a given absolute degree of difference between the pronunciation of two syllables constitutes a much larger relative difference, in the context of the impoverished modern phonological system, than it did in the richer phonological systems of Middle or Old Chinese; this again reduces the perceived phonetic homogeneity of a family of morphemes written with the same phonetic element.  It often happens that a morpheme X is written with a compound graph in which the element that is historically the phonetic seems quite inappropriate with respect to its modern Mandarin pronunciation, although there are several graphs standing for words that are perfect homophones of X which are used as phonetics in other compound graphs. (For instance, di ‘place’ is written with the phonetic ye ‘also’ and the ‘earth’ signific, but there are at least two simple graphs pronounced di and used as phonetics in other compound graphs.)  Sometimes a morpheme which remains current is written with a compound graph, the phonetic element of which when written independently stands for an obsolete morpheme, so that the phonetic element plays no part in the average reader’s understanding of the compound graph (for instance, cha ‘insert’ is written with the phonetic cha ‘pestle’ and the ‘hand’ signific, but cha ‘pestle’ is thoroughly obsolete).


These factors relate to developments in the spoken language; but developments in the written forms have also tended to change the nature of the script/spoken-language relationship in the same direction.  The written representations of morphemes have become more fixed:  a minority of morphemes do still have recognized alternative graphs, but there is no general freedom to omit or vary signific elements (where variant forms exist, commonly the difference between the alternatives is limited to different spatial arrangements of the same phonetic and signific elements).  The shape of a graph used as a phonetic element in a compound graph has sometimes diverged from the shape used when it occurs as an independent graph, so that the historical identity of the two is no longer recognizable.  (Thus feng ‘envelope’ was originally written with a compound graph containing the phonetic element feng ‘gracefulness’, but within the ‘envelope’ graph this element was given an extra stroke changing it into the graph gui ‘sceptre’; the graph for cha ‘inspect’ began as a compound containing the phonetic element qie ‘moreover’ the phonetic relationship between these syllables is not very close,[12] but this relationship is in any case irrelevant to the modern reader since a slight alteration in the writing of the phonetic element within the ‘inspect’ graph has made it appear to derive from dan ‘dawn’ rather than qie ‘moreover’.)


The net effect of such developments is that modern Chinese script, as a writing system for modern spoken Mandarin Chinese, is one in which many graphs contain recognizable clues to the pronunciation of the morphemes they represent but many others contain no such clues, and where there are such clues they are often very vague.  From a knowledge of the pronunciation of a morpheme and the information that its graph is a phonetic/signific compound, it would only rarely be possible to predict the identity of the phonetic (one would more often be able to predict the identity of the signific from the meaning of the morpheme).  From the point of view of a present-day Chinese-speaker learning to read and write, the phonetic element of a compound graph is often just an arbitrary part of the graph’s overall shape to be learned, and its historical role as phonetic is as opaque and irrelevant to his task as is the derivation from Greek ana and luein to an English-speaker learning to use the word analyse.


Whether one regards such a system as essentially logographic with elements of a phonographic principle, essentially phonographic with elements of a logographic principle, or as too mixed to assign to either category, must depend on a subjective judgment as to how close and regular the relationship between pronunciations and written forms needs to be before one treats that relationship as the central organizing principle of a script.  I tried to give readers of Sampson (1985: 157-8) an impression of the situation by discussing the analysis of ten graphs chosen at random, and I used this discussion to support my own judgment (shared with many other commentators) that modern Chinese script is essentially logographic though with limited phonographic features.  DeFrancis makes the opposite judgment, and supports it with numerical statistics (DeFrancis 1989: 99-113).  But DeFrancis reaches very high figures for the degree of phoneticity of Chinese graphs by counting a graph as phonetically motivated if there is any resemblance at all between the pronunciation of the graph and that of its phonetic element, and even (in the case of the highest figure quoted, on p. 113) by counting all graphs that were historically phonetic/signific compounds as phonetically motivated irrespective of whether sound-changes have destroyed that motivation.  While in general I favour the use of precise numerical methods rather than impressionistic approaches in linguistics where possible (cf. Sampson 1992), I am not persuaded that the question of how far Chinese script is phonetically motivated for its present-day users is one that can be addressed statistically:  it is not clear what we ought to count.  We have no accepted measure, for instance, of phonetic distance between linguistic forms that would allow us to specify how appropriate on average the phonetic element of a compound graph is to the graph’s current pronunciation.[13]


I continue, then, to regard modern Chinese writing as essentially logographic; although subjective judgments cannot ultimately be disputed, it is surprising to me that someone would make the opposite judgment about the script as it now exists.[14]  However, the script was certainly more phonographic at earlier stages of its history.  There would be nothing surprising in a judgment that Chinese script at the period when it first developed into a full writing system capable of representing the whole spoken vocabulary was an essentially phonographic system (though many would prefer to classify it as too mixed to assign to either type, and, as DeFrancis rightly points out (1989: 99ff.), the facts as well as their appropriate interpretation are quite debatable in this area).  Part of DeFrancis’s thesis may be a diachronic claim, that full-scale writing systems capable of expressing everything expressible in speech must always develop through heavy use of a phonographic principle, whether or not their phonographic status is compromised by subsequent evolution.  This is a conjecture which seems likely to be true:  it is hard to imagine a script with separate symbols for all the thousands of elements in the lexicon of a natural language being created without any exploitation of phonetic similarities for the task of generating the symbols.  It can be no more than a conjecture; to date too few writing systems have been created independently in the history of Mankind to test it adequately, and the cultural integration of the world means that future independent creations are now unlikely.



5.  Can a script be less phonographic than Chinese writing is?


DeFrancis uses his interpretation of the Chinese writing system as an essentially phonographic system in order to support the more general thesis that no script can be logographic.  But even if one accepted DeFrancis’s interpretation of Chinese script, the more general point would not follow.


There is in fact another example of writing which is much more clearly logographic than Chinese writing:  namely the use of Chinese graphs to write Japanese words.  Japanese uses a mixed script in which grammatical suffixes and particles are written phonographically while stems of lexical items are written with Chinese graphs.  Many modern Japanese lexical items are Chinese loanwords, and in these cases the function of the phonetic element within the Chinese graph (if it is a compound graph) remains what it is with respect to the Chinese language except that the Japanization of morpheme pronunciations introduces a further layer of distortion into the relationship between graphs and their spoken forms.  But Japanese also retains a stock of native lexical items, which are written with graphs for Chinese words having the same or similar meanings.  Since Japanese and Chinese are genetically unrelated, this means that the synchronic relationship between the pronunciation of a native Japanese stem and the phonetic element within the Chinese graph used to write it, if this is a compound graph, is totally random.


The very complex Japanese writing system contains more than the writing of native Japanese lexical stems, but this is an important subpart of the writing system as a whole.  In the 1946 codification of officially-sanctioned current graph-uses, graphs used for native stems accounted for 1116 out of a total of 3122 morphemes written with Chinese graphs.  This establishes that a method of writing which does not exploit phonetic relationships is possible, whatever one’s view of the status of modern Chinese script.



6.  Conclusion.      


I conclude that the diversity of the world’s writing systems, viewed as synchronic systems, is greater than several recent writers have supposed, even though practical considerations may lead to somewhat less diversity than is hypothetically possible, and scripts may be less diverse with respect to their historical origins than with respect to their current functioning.





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Wrenn, James (1990).  Review of DeFrancis (1989).  Journal of Asian Studies 49.102-3.




            [1]I would prefer to cite the 1987 edition of this book as its standard version, since the original 1985 edition (together with all American printings) contained a number of errors due to the fact that I was not shown complete proofs before publication.  But I believe none of the errors corrected in the 1987 edition, which were concentrated in chapters 5 and 6, are relevant to DeFrancis’s disagreements with me.

            [2]DeFrancis urges (1989: 57) that a discussion of semasiography is as out of place in a survey of writing systems as would be an introductory section on ‘Oxcarts of the World’ in a history of the motor car, suggesting that it is self-evident that these two things have nothing to do with one another.  But, although the ox-cart in particular was not a direct forerunner of the car, vehicles drawn by animals certainly were:  one could not hope to understand the early evolution of motor-car design without knowing about the structure of horse-drawn carriages from which cars were developed.  Such questions about relevance must be settled empirically rather than aprioristically.

            [3]In discussing my views, DeFrancis is selective in his use of quotation.  He describes semasiography (DeFrancis 1989: 34-5) as ‘writing that Sampson would have us believe might be capable of evolving into “a full-fledged semasiographic language rivalling English, French, and German in expressive potential” (Sampson 1985: 32)’.  What I wrote at the place cited was ‘Doubtless it is hardly likely to lead to the evolution of a fully-fledged semasiographic language rivalling [etc.] ...’.

            [4]As DeFrancis points out, Diringer eliminated the questionable material from the third (1968) edition of his book.

            [5]Since the matter has become unexpectedly contentious, I should add that the document does include some writing of the ordinary kind.  The whole message is headed ‘TO START’, and the two rows of pictures are respectively captioned ‘COLD’ and ‘WARM’ (in ten languages in each case).  But these fragments of glottographic script add up to far less than is conveyed semasiographically.

            [6]This point follows straightforwardly from the standard account of the history of Chinese phonology, as represented in Karlgren (1957); and, with respect to the differences between modern pronunciations and those of the Middle Chinese (Karlgren’s ‘Ancient Chinese’) of ca A.D. 600, this account is solidly based on several different categories of evidence.  With respect to the reconstruction of the Old Chinese or ‘Archaic Chinese’ pronunciations of ca 1000 B.C. the evidence is less solid, and there is a risk of circularity in relying on the standard reconstructions in connexion with a discussion of the nature of Chinese script, since the forms of the written graphs are a chief category of evidence used in reconstructing Old Chinese pronunciations.  But the point above about relative lack of homophony in earlier forms of spoken Chinese requires only acceptance of the Middle Chinese reconstructions.

            [7]This second point is harder to establish irrefutably, since we inevitably have little direct evidence of linguistic patterns in the speech of learned Chinese at early periods.  But consider for instance the gu wen (‘old style’) literary movement initiated by Han Yu ca A.D. 800:  this represented a revolt against a prevailing literary style that seems to have been perceived as artificial because it lacked the organic quality of writing which followed spoken norms.

            [8]Modern spoken Chinese uses a smaller stock of morphemes than literary Chinese, its vocabulary has developed in such a way that it uses a longer sequence of morphemes to express a given proposition, and it is less flexible than literary Chinese with respect to permissible ways of combining morphemes:  these factors between them explain why spoken Chinese is comprehensible while literary Chinese read aloud is not.

            [9]My use of the term ‘double articulation’ leads DeFrancis (1989: 253ff.) into a discussion of André Martinet’s individual theories about linguistic structure.  But the concept is, so far as I know, shared by linguists of all theoretical persuasions.  I used Martinet’s term in Sampson (1985) not to imply allegiance to one individual’s theories but because it is the classic label for an uncontroversial idea.  An American term for the same idea is ‘duality of patterning’ (Hockett 1973: 106).

            [10]Chinese dictionaries give long lists of subsenses for many graphs, without making any differentiation between cases where alternative subsenses are polysemous extensions of single etymological senses, and cases where historically unrelated homophonous etymons have been assigned the same graph.  The distinction between polysemy and homophony is not a clear one in the Chinese philological tradition, because the written graph is felt to be the essence of a morpheme if two homophones are written with the same graph then they are regarded as the same word.  In English, ear of corn is popularly taken to be a meaning-extension of ear as organ of hearing; experts can use comparison with other Germanic languages to go behind the spelling and establish that the two senses are in fact a case of accidental homophony, but comparable evidence is almost entirely lacking for Chinese.  One strategy available to someone wishing to interpret Chinese writing as predominantly phonographic might be to argue that more of the subsenses listed for individual graphs are accidental homophones and fewer are cases of polysemy than is commonly recognized (so that graphs would not be in a one-to-one but in a one-to-many relationship with morphemes).  However, although this may well be true, it would not do much to establish that the present-day synchronic functioning of the system is phonographic, since typically when a graph has a long list of subsenses in a large dictionary most of these are obsolete.  And I would add that in any case unanswerable questions about the prehistory of etymons 3000 years or more ago must surely be irrelevant to judgments about the synchronic properties of a linguistic system:  if Chinese speakers in the historical period have regarded the various senses associated with a single graph as subsenses of the same morpheme, then that fact alone perhaps requires us to say that (provided there is no pronunciation difference as in the ‘wonderful’/‘odd number’ case above) they are subsenses of one morpheme.

            [11]The reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology is too uncertain, I believe, for us to determine whether the phonetic selected for a target morpheme was commonly predictable in terms of some measure of least phonetic distance from a morpheme already having a written form.

            [12]The spellings ch, q both represent aspirated affricates, respectively retroflex and alveolopalatal.

            [13]Robbins Burling has pointed out to me that any method for quantifying the degree to which a script is phonographic would need to give separate figures from writer’s and from reader’s points of view.  Suppose the phonemes of a spoken language were in a one-to-many relationship with the letters of an alphabet, in such a way that the spelling of any word was a perfect predictor of its pronunciation, but the choice among alternative letters to represent a given phoneme had to be learned for each word individually.  Such a script would be 100% phonographic for the reader, but only somewhat phonographic for the writer.  Intuitively it seems true that Chinese script is more phonographic for reader than for writer; and it may be that scholarly discussions of script-types have tended to give undue emphasis to writer’s rather than reader’s point of view.  Even from the reader’s viewpoint, though, I would judge Chinese script to be ‘not very phonographic’.

            [14]I shall not attempt to claim that the essentially logographic status of Chinese script can be demonstrated from experimental psychological evidence, such as that of Sasanuma & Fujimura (1972);  DeFrancis argues (1989: 240) that the extant evidence is in fact inconclusive, and I am not qualified to challenge that.