Annals of the Great Hanzi Debate: Handel’s response to Unger

Here’s one more contribution on the DeFrancis/Ungerian proposal that all writing systems are fundamentally phonographic: Zev Handel, Logography and the classification of writing systems: a response to Unger (2015).

I think we can all agree that the DeFrancis research programme has successfully proved that hànzì and kanji are not ideographic, that they represent language, and that they (also) encode phonological information and are decoded (also) into sounds. The remaining question is largely a matter of emphasis: do we think that this phonographical component is so important and fundamental that hànzì, or even kanji, should be understood as, ultimately, a kind of phonography (and a poor one at that)? Or, is it productive to consider its non-phonographical components important enough so as to classify them as “another kind” of writing (and perhaps not so poor at all)?

Handel above reviews psycho- and neurolinguistic studies, and argues for the latter position.

6 thoughts on “Annals of the Great Hanzi Debate: Handel’s response to Unger

  1. I liked this and tend to be sympathetic to Handel’s position. I can’t help seeing Unger and DeFrancis’ as a n overreaction to decades or even centuries of solemn nonsense about Chinese in particular. A totally understandable reaction, and they deserve credit for doing the hard work necessary to beat that nonsense back… but I’m still not convinced that there weren’t any babies in all that bathwater.

    On the other hand, it would be good if Handel could come up with some good reason why it matters. Like, I agree that “Slightly different parts of the brain light up” looks like a valid basis for a categorical distinction, if we are accepting MRI results as scientifically valid. But unless you can show some real consequences of this it doesn’t really rise far beyond the level of “argument over terminology.”

    What we really want is some kind of observable effect in purely spoken language that has arisen independently in a couple of “logographic” languages, is not seen in “phonographic” ones, and is best explained by logographicity itself. I have no idea what this might look like, though. The thing about 警察 priming for other 警- words but not homophonous ones might be it, but not necessarily, maybe priming is partly semantic in all languages (so that in English “four” does not prime for “fore”).

  2. maybe priming is partly semantic in all languages (so that in English “four” does not prime for “fore”)

    From my limited experience I’m sure that’s the case.

  3. @Matt: Re: overraction: That’s about the position I’m arguing for in my thesis, yes. I mean, they aren’t wrong. What’s more, I’m an actual fan: I’ve learned a great deal about writing systems, Japanese and Chinese writing through their work. But I still think that to call Chinese writing “just another kind of phonography”, or Japanese kanji “just abbreviations for strings of kana”, isn’t a productive model at all, and miss a lot of interesting phenomena. And I think the whole thing is related to paradigm battles in linguistics: to insist kanji is phonographic is to reaffirm writing as derived from speech, which supports important structuralist/generativist proposals; but to give a first-order place to morphography means to recognize that writing can access language, not just speech, which is what functionalists (Vachek, Halliday) were saying all along (>cf. also).

    Re: consequences: the first thing that comes to my mind is Terry Joyce’s psych studies on the Japanese mental lexicon (here). Particularly interesting to me is the fact that kanji readings prime for other readings. I’ve had Japanese tell me that, for example, they’d misremember someone else’s name by calling them with a on-reading instead of a kun one. This means that kundoku, those ad-hoc, messy translator’s glosses, ended up shaping the organization of the lexicon. That’s a far cry from ideography as it was originally fantasized; but it’s also a far cry from graphical abbreviations for strings of kana.

    But I can’t make psych- or neuro experiments, so what I’m arguing for in my thesis is from a literary angle. Subjectively, I believe that reading kanji text just feels different than reading phonographic(-er) text. This for me is “incontrovertible subjective experience”, but the problem with subjective facts is that we can’t argue with them. One piece of objective evidence is the count of word types—I think I’ve shown you studies on how Japanese writing uses about double as much kango as speech. This implies that Japanese has some degree of diglossia, and also that Japanese writing has more homophony. The DeFrancis-Unger take on this is that kanji only solves a problem that kanji creates: the overuse of homophones. I concur. However, from a literary frame, you could also say that kanji allow people to write with more homophones, which implies that they’re not purely representing speech after all, isn’t it? Now I quite agree that it’s possible to write Japanese phonographically very well—we have Heian literature to prove it—and Japanese literature could only enrich itself from more experiments with this. But it’s also possible to create æsthetic effects in the other direction, like, say, Natsuhiko Kyogoku does with his liberal use of furigana-ed rare kanji (which reminds me of Edo pop-lit).

    To abandon kanji would mean to convert all existing literature to phonography, and I posit that, if the author composed the work assuming kanji as a mode of expression (and furigana, which I find particularly interesting—), then to phonographize it means to lose something. I think this is part of the reason why the Japanese stick with kanji: when they try to read a work converted to kana or rōmaji, they feel like something was lost. The last time I argued this on languagelog, someone said: “but there are audiobooks in Japan”. That struck me as such a “linguist” thing to say!… As long as the message goes through, it’s all good? But for literature, we care a lot about how the message is conveyed. There are audiobooks of Sir Terry Pratchett, too; but without his footnote-play, the æsthetic experience is just not the same.

  4. Yes, I agree with your last comment more or less entirely. Obviously there is a language commonly referred to as “Japanese” that could be written with kana or romaji or whatever. But there are works of Japanese literature that could not – not without losing something. Something minor, perhaps, but still there – and not necessarily minor depending on the author. (Whether this something is best considered from a linguistic angle is a literary one is debatable.)

    In my opinion, a more reasonable question is: is it worth it? For example I’m sure we can agree that a printed copy of a book is lacking _something_ when compared with a hand-written illuminated manuscript. But we’re OK with that most of the time, because in exchange for that something we get affordability, portability, mass production, etc. etc.

    So the argument for Japanese is: maybe if Japanese writing switched to an all-kana mode, something would be lost. But that would be made up for by the fact that less schooling time would be devoted to kanji study, books would be truly accessible to more people, etc. etc. enabling us to unlock more human potential. I find this argument entirely unconvincing in the case of Japanese, but not flawed in and of itself (for example, it sounds quite plausible that the _something_ that would be lost if China switched to all pinyin all the time would be a fair trade for the gains in literacy, etc., because of the difference between the Chinese and Japanese writing systems.)

  5. Yeah, Unger doubts Japanese claims of near-perfect literacy, but I only have to take a look at a newsstand or crowded train to see how much more readers they are than Brazilians, who have a pretty regular and simple phonographic script. If the writing system has any weight in the quest for literacy, then the lack of food and safety weights a million times more. Kanji is undoubtedly an excess: I don’t dispute that they take a lot more effort to learn, and they’re probably harder to process, etc. But I like that there is at least one country in the world with enough material and cultural wealth to sustain a living culture of reading in such an exuberant script, and if there’s a culture that’s good to pursue things to æsthetic extremes, it’s the Japanese (cf. tea ceremony).

    At the end of the day it’s also a matter of emphasis, of how much we value the somethings. I don’t think kanji are such a weight that they’re involved in student suicides, like Unger suggested (cf. South Korea), or that they stifle creativity and scientific progress, like Hannas (cf. Brazil). And I seem to care a lot about expressive effects, so perhaps I have a personal bias. But what we care is a minor question; a more interesting question is what will the Japanese choose, and so far they have still chosen kanji, despite the Korean/Viet precedent. The next question then is: why? Unger presents a picture of top-down manipulation by the elites; I find that hard to accept, when the typical Japanese reaction to me describing my thesis is a heartfelt “thank you so much for standing on the side of kanji!” Matsunaga, after proving that kanji aren’t necessary, says that they only stick around due to “such factors as social, cultural and emotional attachments”; that’s all well and good; but aren’t social, cultural and emotional factors the most important of all? Why is the “attachment” there? My position is that it isn’t just governmental pressure, inertia or nationalism, but an attachment to the, let’s say, particular taste of kanji, which I think is what’s reflected in the psych- and neurolinguistic studies mentioned by Handel, Dehaene etc. So, at the end of the day, I’ve gone full circle and chosen for my epigraph the very epitome of embarrassing/delightful Orientalism, Lafcadio himself:

    And finally, while you are still puzzling over the mystery of things, there will come to you like a revelation the knowledge that most of the amazing picturesqueness of these streets is simply due to the profusion of Chinese and Japanese characters in white, black, blue, or gold, decorating everything,―even surfaces of doorposts and paper screens. Perhaps, then, for one moment, you will imagine the effect of English lettering substituted for those magical characters; and the mere idea will give to whatever aesthetic sentiment you may possess a brutal shock, and you will become, as I have become, an enemy of the Rômaji-Kwai,―that society founded for the ugly utilitarian purpose of introducing the use of English letters in writing Japanese.

    In the case of China I wholeheartedly agree with Mair’s arguments for digraphia—pure hanzi has no simple fallback like kana, and given the socioeconomics, they must have much to gain from the growing acceptance of pinyin everywhere. I wish they had gone with zhuyin or something else more graphically consistent with hanzi, but oh well (at least they’re already writing hanzi horizontally, so it’s easier to insert romanized words between them).

  6. The word “culture” is an interesting one because it’s hard to pin down. “Culture” is arguably the process of investing value in the elaboration and elevation of ordinary items or activities that have no great intrinsic value in themselves. There is a “culture of wine”, a “culture of tea”, a “culture of coffee”, a “culture of funny-shaped rocks”, a “culture of classical music / rock music/ rap”, a “culture of soccer”, etc., all of which ascribe great value to things that don’t necessarily have much intrinsic value beyond the utilitarian (drinking, decoration, physical activities, stimulation of the emotions). It seems to be this aspect of “culture” that China and Japan prize in their writing systems. From a purely functional viewpoint, a writing system that gets the job done efficiently is ideal. From a non-functional viewpoint, the intricacies and subtleties of the “ideographic” writing system are what gives them their great cultural value. This is something that the surrounding society inculcates into each and every people in the process of education — the intrinsic cultural value of that which is subtle and elaborate beyond the pure functionality of the script. Perhaps that is why Japanese prize the written word more than Brazilians with their easier, more functional alphabet…

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