Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Accommodating Chinese verbal universe by the written system

What is the implication for a written system being an axiomatic system? It must be a constructed and a designed system. That is, it cannot be a direct derivative from a verbal system. Thus, how to accommodate a verbal system by that designed written system became a major engineering challenge.  The merging of Chinese written and Chinese verbal systems is, indeed, a linguistics wonder. Now, we should look into what the Chinese verbal system is all about.

Chinese verbal system has, at least, 8 major subsystems  (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Northern Min, Southern Min, Hsiang, Kan, Wu, etc.) while each subsystem has a few more dialects. Yet, the Chinese written system must and did accommodate all those systems. This is a fact, and it becomes a major guideline for our analysis.

How can this be done? Yet, it becomes a non-issue if all those subsystems are completely isomorphic to one another although they are mutually unintelligible phonetically. And, this is, indeed, the case. I will provide proofs on this later. Yet, with this understanding, I will use Mandarin as the representative for the Chinese verbal system in our analysis of how the Chinese written system merges with the verbal seamlessly.

First, we should outline the Chinese verbal universe. How many phonemes are there in the Chinese verbal universe? The answer is 1,000 maximum.  And, every phoneme is a member of a 4-tone family.
That is, there are only a total of 250 (1000/4) 4-tones.  For the issue of 4-tone, please visit the webpage
Note: another way of counting the phonemes results in a number of 37, that is, 15 vowels and 22 consonants.  Yet, the combination of these 37 results in a total of 250 4-tones, that is, 1,000 distinguishable sounds.

Indeed, the entire Chinese verbal universe does not go beyond these 1,000 distinguishable sounds. As there are about 60,000 distinguishable written words, each sound must carry an average of 60 words (from 20 to 120). That is, every single Chinese word has, at least, 20 homophones or homonyms. How to resolve this tangled mess become a major engineering design challenge for the Chinese written system. And, this issue has three dimensions.
1. How to accommodate 60,000 written words with only 1,000 distinguishable sounds?
2. How to distinguish homophones or homonyms in the written forms?
3. How to distinguish homophones or homonyms in the verbal cases, without the helping of the written forms?

The solution for the first issue is to make the easily distinguishable words with an identical sound, such as,
(妻 、 悽 、 棲 、 淒 、 萋)

(志 、 誌 、 痣 ),

(貽 、 怡 、 詒 ), 

And  (撤 、 澈 、 徹 … ).

The words above in their group are having identical pronunciation. This way, indeed, provides a partial solution for the first issue. Again, these words with the same sound are composed of different radicals, and they can be easily distinguished with their written forms. Thus, the second issue is resolved at the same time. How about the issue three? Without the helping from the distinguishable written forms, how can homophones be distinguished in the verbal situation? This becomes a new engineering challenge, and I will discuss it later.

Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

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