Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Chairman Mao and the Oxford English Dictionary

This post over at Antagonistic Pots and Pans reminded me of a conversation I had the other day.

Someone had asked me to read something in Chinese, and my excuse for struggling with some of the characters was that they were in the traditional form, and I had learnt the modern form. Of course, that led to a little lecturette on the difference.

Writing systems are very tied up with national identity, and it's notoriously difficult to make any sort of change in the way a language is written - particularly as the people who have the most power are those who are educated and have already invested a significant amount of time in learning the existing system, so they have a vested interest in preserving it.

After the Communists took over in China, they wanted to spread literacy amongst the peasants. There's a fascinating museum in Yan'an (where the Communists ended up after the Long March), whose exhibits include small boxes of sand which would be smoothed over and then used to trace characters to teach them to farmers in the surrounding countryside.

The Communists, under Chairman Mao, decided that in order for literacy to become more widespread, the writing system should be simplified. The whole system of Chinese characters was very tied up in the Chinese identity, and served as a unifying factor amongst people in different parts of this huge country who spoke dialects which in many cases were not actually mutually intelligible. An alphabetic system would have been impractical and divisive, since it would have been necessary either to introduce more than one spelling system or to spell words in a way which bore no relation to the way they were pronounced in many parts of the country.

What they did was to retain the existing characters, but in simplified form. Two lists of official simplified forms were published, in 1956 and 1964. A further round of simplification was introduced in 1977 but did not catch on, and the 1977 list was withdrawn in 1986. The reason the characters used in Hong Kong and Taiwan look slightly different from those used in mainland China is that the simplification only took place under the Communists, and Hong Kong and Taiwan continued to use the old form of the characters.

Some of the simplified forms were of whole characters. Others were of radicals - the majority of Chinese characters are made up of two elements: a radical, which gives some clue as to the meaning of the word, and a phonetic, which gives a clue as to its pronunciation. There are only 214 radicals, many of which are used in hundreds of different characters, so changing a single radical can have a significant simplifying effect.

The main reason the 1956 and 1964 lists were widely accepted, while the 1977 list was not, is that the 1977 simplifications were artificially created for the purpose by the leftists, whereas the 1956 and 1964 lists were mostly of existing well-known abbreviations which were simply formally adopted. The fact that they were already in use made it much easier for people who were already literate to accept them.

And this is where we come to where I started this post - the friend to whom I gave this mini lecturette the other day said, "So it's a bit like the government adopting txt spk as the official spelling system for the language?"

I suppose it is, a bit - and it's already happening. The latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary recognises the increasing obsolescence of the hyphen in modern electronic communications by omitting it from 16,000 words in which it previously appeared, and there are dire predictions that the hyphen will soon become extinct.

I bet you never knew Chairman Mao and the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary had so much in common...


Colleen said...

That is fascinating! Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

diana said...

Very interesting!