Monday, May 01, 2006

Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese

Lots of Taiwanese laugh at this picture because when they see the romanised letters on a sign they have already assumed that these were designed for foreigners. However, foreigners won't understand what it means unless they know the transcription system, Hanyu Pinyin, and know how to translate the script into English which will be "electric shock hazard". So Taiwanese make fun of the translation ability across the ocean. But what Taiwanese don't know is that these letters are not designed for foreigners but for those Mandarin speaking people who can't read Chinese. Mandarin is the formal language used in China, however, there are many tribes scattered all over China, each of them have developed a unique vernacular and writing, thus a national trascription system is needed to convey information between tribes. Not knowing this background, Taiwanese set a bad example of accusation.

The United Nations has been using simplifed (and not traditional) Chinese characters since the 1970s. Despite the political issue, not knowing the evolution history of Traditional Chinese and appreciating its creation, people are making the same mistake as Taiwanese did on the sign above. Scripts are the most important tools to record languages, and the change of a written language is in favor of simplicity. However, a complication is the methology in creation of a written language. When a character isn't able to give a straight forward meaning even more cause for confusion, complication is the simplest way to solve the problem. Traditional Chinese is a product of thousands of years of creation. It's in a perfect dynamic balance between simplicity and complexity. Each character is complex enough to be traced back to its origin of creation yet have been trimmed as much as possible to be used in writting.

The simplified Chinese is a product of recent decades, and the purpose is to make Chinese easier for users in writting, reading and studying. However, in the process Simplified Chinese has lost its embeded information. For example:

The word Noodle in ChineseTraditional: 麵 = 麥 + 面 (wheat + surface); Simplified: 面 (surface/face/noodle)

The Traditional form has two parts which helps to identify it as noodles. Simplified character only provides the pronouciation so the reader would be unable to determine the meaning without it's context.

(quoted from Say NO to United Nations' abolishment of Traditional Chinese in 2008.)

The Clarification of the petition:

The UN has been using simplifed (and not traditional) Chinese characters since the 1970s. That's when the official Chinese representation here switched from Taipei to Beijing.

Since Beijing used simplified characters in its official communications, that's the form that was adopted by the UN.

The UN never used both forms simultaneously. So these reports about a switch to simplified characters that will happen in 2008 are not correct. We already use simplified characters.

If you have any further questions, feel free to call me.

Best regards,

Brenden Varma

Office of the Spokesman for the Secretary-General United Nations, New York

The existence of two systems have their own backgrounds and purposes. They have been coexisting for decades and both scripts are ongoing an inevatable process of blending: Taiwanese are using simplified characters in writing, on the other hand, linguists in China are proposing complication to clarify the confusion caused by simplification. It's better off keep politics away, eventually allowing the two systems to find their own balance in a Unified Chinese Script.

6 comments:

cp22 said...

Wow, I didn't know that the U.N.'s planning to do that. I agree w/ your sentiments on that.

As a Taiwanese, though, I didn't have that misunderstanding when I read the sign. I figured it was because people also use pinyin in the mainland. Maybe I'm in the minority, but that seems quite an over-generalization.

Hanjie said...

Well, I don't actually know how many people have that misunderstanding when they read the sign. All I know is that this picture has been forwarding as a joke via email for a while.

There are lots of different voices on this issue, the fact is that the UN has been using simplifed (and not traditional) Chinese characters since the 1970s. That's when the official Chinese representation in the UN switched from Taipei to Beijing. So those reports about a switch to simplified characters that will happen in 2008 are not correct.

The purpose of this article is not asking readers to sign the petition but to arouse Chinese users' awareness of the existence of Traditional Chinese and appreciating these ancient characters. Maybe I should clear that up in my writting. Sorry for any confusion it might have caused.

Mark said...

I don't think people who laugh at pinyin on signs really understand what internationalization is. Back when I was at Shida, I had several Spanish and German speaking classmates who hated the way Taiwan mixes English with (frequently non-standard) pinyin on signs. They couldn't understand the English.

On the other hand, learning pinyin is pretty quick, and foreigners from any country can learn to read enough of it to understand signs like that above within their first year in China. Actually, having pinyin on the signs speeds up everybody's Chinese learning, thus making it easier for international people to adjust to life there. That's what internationalization is.

Sure, lots people speak English in the Philippines and they don't tend to in France, but who would argue that the Philippines are more international than France is?

Hanjie said...

I agree with your points partly, Mark.

It's not Cool mixing both traslation, the English, and transcription, the pinyin, on signs. Because of the romanized letters, you can almost guarantee that it's going to be confusing. Also, the confusion comes from the fact that in Taiwan there is no rule for sign making. So you might see a sign written "TaiLuGe", pinyin, in HuaLian whereas a sign written "Sun Moon Lake", English, or even "Sun Moon Tan", English plus pinyin, in NanTou. The simple way to solve the problem is to unify the system and implement it nationalwide.

I also agree with you that having pinyin on the signs speeds up the Chinese learning process, thus making it easier for international people to adjust to life there. However, internationalization is not only for foreginers from any country who wanna learn to read enough of it to understand signs like that above within their first year in China but also for a tourist from any country who doesn't understand Mandarin and doesn't plan to spend a year in China getting to know what those romanized letters stand for. So, an English traslation on signs has the same importance as the pinyin when speaking of internationalization. A better way to deal with is to seperate the sign into two different sections, one in Chinese and the other in English with pinyin showing the pronunciation in Mandarin. At least that's what I think.

maggie said...

It's said that the abolishment is just a joke, isn't it?
Most people found they were cheated for a long time because of the fake issue....

That was just what I got on BBS...
I don't know the details...

Maggie said...

As majoring in linguistics or linguists, one of the jobs is to translate those in traditional/simplified Chinese into something into pinyin strange for us.
Most of the papers about Chinese data are in pinyin...
It's really a challenge for a traditional Chinese user to distinguish those "alien" letters without any space for a "word", even find out the tones on your own.

I wonder how foreigners learn Pinyin...@ @??!

No master Chinese idioms, usages...
how could they make a tone?