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 »  Articles Overview  »  Language Specific  »  Chinese  »  Pinyin or characters?

Pinyin or characters?

By Krzysztof Achinger | Published  03/2/2009 | Chinese | Recommendation:
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Krzysztof Achinger
Da Cinese a Polacco translator

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Pinyin or characters?
For most of the subject specialists the answer is unequivocal. Sinology students will learn the answer in the first week of study. Anyone who comes into contact with Chinese language asks the same question: Why do they need those characters when it can be written with pinyin?
For me, there are three main reasons that do not allow to give up characters and introduce pinyin instead. The most interesting one is the last one.
Cultural factor. Chinese characters derive from pictographs. The first attempt to write the Chinese language was several thousand years ago. Chinese characters keep evolving from the moment they were created up to now. The changes are especially visible in the fields associated with the continued simplification of characters/words and in the fields associated with word-formation (the emergence of a number of new words in particular related to the IT industry). Do you imagine the uproar in case that the Chinese government announced the transition of the characters on the pinyin? Would China retain its character and taste?
Economic factor. 1/6 of the Word population use Chinese characters. Despite the enormous economic growth, China would simply not afford such a step. All documents should be re-written, as well as electronic devices interface, labels and road signs . There would be no problem with the electronic documents, since there are special converters replacing characters with pinyin. The whole project seems to be impossible to realize. It would take years to perform it, and it would swallow up the sum of money, which probably no one can precisely specify.
Linguistic factor. Well-known linguist, Chao Yuanren, wrote a short story about the poet that likes to eat lions. With excellent knowledge of the language, he managed to write a coherent text using only characters that read as shi. Chinese language has a huge amount of homophone, and shi is probably the most common. Only because of the context and… characters, we are able to understand the meaning of shi as well as any other homophones. Chao Yuanren’s story:
Here is the pinyin version:
« Shī Shì shí shī shǐ »
Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.
Translation into English:
« Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den »
In a stone den was a poet Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
At ten o'clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.
He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that those ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this matter.
Pay attention to the pinyin version. Can you guess the meaning of the text? I don't think so. I suggest you play the translation game. I assume that the result of the play will give us as the equal number of stories to the number of translators involved.
Homophonic of the Chinese language is therefore, the main reason why no one seriously thought about changing characters into pinyin. I assume that translators’ brotherhood does not have those who still consider this type of ideas. Text dedicated to all those who have asked me the question: Why the hell there is no alphabet in China?

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