In the s Y. The One-Language, One-Nation concept is one of the major attributes of the modern nation-state. Your request to send this item has been completed. The Chinese language. Fact and fantasy Robert Saussure — In any case generalization itself is impossible without some understanding of the diversities among which general features are to be sought.
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What DeFrancis seeks to show here is that the Chinese character writing system is inefficient, unnecessary, and detrimental to mass literacy. DeFrancis begins with an introductory essay which he later revealed to be a joke about a World War II committee of Asian scholars attempting to design a character-based writing system for Western peoples once they were subjugated by the unstoppable Japanese.
In the second part, DeFrancis tries to reach a conclusion on what exactly characters are, as diverse terminology from "pictograph" to "ideograph" has been used. The third part, "Demythifying Chinese Characters" is the real meat of the book.
While hard to believe now, in previous centuries European intellectuals were enamoured with characters and even called them a universal writing system. DeFrancis slays the universality myth, and the closely related emulatability myth, mainly based on the fact that literacy is so hard to acheive, as well as on the fact that no phonetic information can be had. The idea that Chinese is monosyllabic is shown as a myth, since the spoken language has and depends upon polysyllabic constructions to avoid redundacy and only in the thoroughly artificial written language could one see monosyllabism.
The myth that characters are indispensable is revealed, since pinyin works well once the spoken language is used as a basis for writing, and only the use of an artificial literary language hampers alphabetization. Students of Chinese will already understand this, for reading a transcript of a conversation in pinyin presents little confusion.
Finally, if anyone out there really still believes that characters could be successul, DeFrancis shows how terrible their impact has been on mass literacy in China compared to Japan. The fourth and final part discusses historical steps for reform of the spoken and written languages. Some knowledge of Chinese, ideally Mandarin Putonghua is necessary to fully enjoy this book, although DeFrancis tries hard to make it accessible to a general audience.
DeFrancis was one of the great Western scholars of Chinese, and from a three-year sojourn in China in his youth he had a great love of the Chinese people and their culture. If he argues against the use of characters, his opinions are worth hearing out, and students and scholars of Chinese may be quite interested by this work. At the same time, I had Maria - whose native language is Mandarin but knows no Cantonese - do the same experiment. We were both more or less correct see my review of "The Story of Writing" for more details.
Later, when I researched the author and checked his sources, I learnt that he did not speak any of the Chinese languages and also was not a scholar of China, and had essentially just been parroting what he had read in a book called "The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy".
The author of this second book was he is now dead both a fluent Mandarin speaker and a professor of Chinese studies, meaning that he should know his stuff. I wanted to understand how someone highly knowledgeable with respect to Chinese indeed, this was his career could have arrived at a conclusion so at odds with my own thinking and the apparent results of my experiment.
Was there some flaw in my own reasoning? I decided the only way to find out was to read the book myself. Having now done so, I think that to write a proper, thorough critique, would require me to at minimum write the equivalent of a masters thesis on the topic, as well as do all the supporting research. Specifically, the author would "debunk" each myth by doing what amounted to a thought experiment. Whether or not I found the results of these thought experiments plausible is less important than the fact that thought experiments are not as good as real experiments, and in each case, there was an obvious real experiment that could easily have been done to clear up the matter.
Especially by someone with the resources of a professor of Chinese studies, who is not only in the fortunate position of having it be literally his job to perform this kind of research, but in addition has an essentially infinite supply of free labour in the form of graduate students. I would have been far more convinced by the solid evidence of real experiments, and I felt annoyed that the author chose not to do any, despite research in Chinese being his career choice and him having had literally decades he began his academic career in the s, retired from teaching in the 70s, but was still active in research up until the 80s of time with which to get these experiments done.
Now for some specific examples: The Indispensability Myth: This "myth" is the idea that Chinese characters are indispensable in the sense that they are required for writing Chinese down in an unambitious fashion, and in particular that any alphabet based on sound alone would be inadequate.
Writing Chinese in anything other than characters, therefore, results in a loss of information, potentially to the point of it becoming unintelligible. Before I get into how the author "debunks" this myth, I want to point out the very obvious experiment that would clear up the matter. You take a series of Chinese books, and you create for each an edition written only in pinyin. You then do an experiment in which people who have not read any of the books are randomly assigned to read either the original character version or the pinyin version, and you test them on their comprehension after reading.
You check to see whether or not the subjects given the character version scored higher. Instead of using his vast resources as a professor of Chinese including, as mentioned above, access to infinite free labour to do such an experiment, the author writes the following: "One way to answer this question is to consider it theoretically.
The answer must then be unequivocally in the affirmative. Such an answer is based on the simple observation that scientific linguists have repeatedly demonstrated in actual practice the validity of their thesis that the speech of any individual can be written in an alphabetic script. The overall approach in such an undertaking is the same for all forms of speech in that it involves direct observation and analysis.
The specific solutions vary according to the linguistic details phonemic; morphemic; lexical; syntactical, and so forth for each form of speech. Any student of linguists with a modicum of competence can create an alphabetic system of writing for almost any form of speech in the world. To deny this elementary truth in general or in specific application to Chinese is to reject science and to embrace mythology.
However, it is also true that I find the argument implausible. First of all, it is far too vague. The author appears to be citing a general state of affairs in linguistics as it applies to most languages, and then asserting that it applies to Chinese as well. If the mentioned experiments were actually done in regard to Chinese in particular, then this would be fine - however, this is far from clear, and no references are provided. On the other hand, if the author is merely asserting that things true of other languages must be true of Chinese as well, then this unscientific and deeply disturbing.
Second of all, the possibility that Chinese might really be a special case is not completely unreasonable. An important wrinkle here is that this poem is written in Classical Chinese - i. However, it remains true that the poem written in characters is understandable to someone who has studied classical Chinese, while the poem written in pinyin is not understandable to anybody.
However, it does demonstrate that such situations, while potentially rare and artificial, are nevertheless possible. Now, the author was not so bad a scholar as to be unaware of counterexamples such as the above, and he does address this. However, he does so by making another assertion without evidence, this time going in the opposite direction. First, he emphasizes that the crucial point here is that these poems are written in classical Chinese.
While he actually does present some plausible arguments for why this might be the case, my criticism remains the same - do an experiment.
Expand the experiment above to include a series of Chinese Classics written in the classical form , as well as modern books written in modern Chinese. Produce pinyin editions of both. Randomly assign subjects to the pinyin edition or the character edition. Test them on their comprehension after reading. Look for a difference in comprehension between characters and pinyin in the modern books. Do the same for classics. See if the gap in comprehension assuming it exists at all is bigger for the classics.
In order to debunk this "myth", the author did a thought experiment in which a pair consisting of a Cantonese and Mandarin speaker, as well as a pair consisting of a speaker of English and a speaker of French, are each given the task of learning to communicate in writing.
He argues that it will take more work for the Cantonese and Mandarin pair, and therefore the myth must be false. But second of all, and in this case more to the point, the author makes the rather bizarre hypothesis that each pair should be illiterate.
This is true but irrelevant. However, the existence of a bogus argument debunking a fact does not mean that the fact is true. Neither I nor Maria was able to understand the sample of writing Mei Ho sent us perfectly - both of us had some minor mistakes see my review for details. Similarly, Cantonese and Mandarin are not exactly the same when written down.
Example two: "Did you eat rice? Example three: "He is taller than me" koi kou kwo ngo.
The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy
His father, a laborer who changed his name from DeFrancesco , died when DeFrancis was a young child. His mother was illiterate. In , he accompanied H. Desmond Martin, a Canadian military historian,  on a several-thousand-mile trip retracing the route of Genghis Khan through Mongolia and northwestern China. DeFrancis returned to the United States in  and did not visit China again until In the s, at the request of John B.
JOHN DEFRANCIS THE CHINESE LANGUAGE FACT AND FANTASY PDF
What DeFrancis seeks to show here is that the Chinese character writing system is inefficient, unnecessary, and detrimental to mass literacy. DeFrancis begins with an introductory essay which he later revealed to be a joke about a World War II committee of Asian scholars attempting to design a character-based writing system for Western peoples once they were subjugated by the unstoppable Japanese. In the second part, DeFrancis tries to reach a conclusion on what exactly characters are, as diverse terminology from "pictograph" to "ideograph" has been used. The third part, "Demythifying Chinese Characters" is the real meat of the book. While hard to believe now, in previous centuries European intellectuals were enamoured with characters and even called them a universal writing system. DeFrancis slays the universality myth, and the closely related emulatability myth, mainly based on the fact that literacy is so hard to acheive, as well as on the fact that no phonetic information can be had.