Asia's Orthographic Dilemma by William C. Hannas

By William C. Hannas

This paintings examines using chinese language characters in East Asia. It tackles the problem from many various views, alongside the way in which deflating numerous renowned fallacies.

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In 1715, Arai Hakuseki (1657–1725), an official of the Tokugawa government, wrote a book praising the alphabet based on information he obtained from an Italian missionary. Although Arai stopped short for political reasons of endorsing the romanization system used by missionaries in Japan, he could appreciate the connection between these foreign phonetic systems and Japan’s own kana syllabaries. The monk Monno (1700–1763), whose work Waji daikansho (Survey of Japanese Writing) appeared in 1754, was another early supporter of an all-kana script.

Although ambiguities remain in some areas of vocabulary, they are being resolved as China’s pinyin writing takes root and expands its conventions, and as the language adapts to the new system’s requirements. For Japanese speakers, however, the same problems Chinese face are compounded by the fact that, when the Sinitic vocabulary was introduced to Japan, the attenuated, phonetically impoverished forms were further reduced in the process of adapting their sounds to Japanese phonology. Since distinctions are not added artificially to a borrowed word’s sound, borrowing often results in words that are phonetically less distinct than they were in the original language.

In Japan the immediate problem was not how to write Japanese, but how to read Chinese texts in a way a Japanese could understand. As a consequence, two distinct practices emerged for writing in Chinese characters. The first of these, known as kambun, was based on conventions associated with this former requirement. The other arose from the need to record the indigenous elements of Japanese. Both practices made use of Chinese characters for their semantic and phonetic values, and both led ultimately to the same mixed script used to write Japanese today.

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