Friday 14 January 2005

Talking' n writin'

Incomprehensible, but prettyOn a freezing cold minibus, driving over icy freeways from Xi'an to the wondrous Hua Shan, the Chinese Vincent d'Onofrio lookalike sitting next to me is whiling away the hours like any Western teenager - ferociously texting on two phones simultaneously. As I watch over his shoulder, fascinated, he is filling screen after screen with Chinese characters using just a standard numeric keypad. I have no idea how he's doing it.

The spare and elegant efficiency of the Roman alphabet, with its tiny set of written symbols capable of supporting every word known to man and plenty more besides, can be fully appreciated when compared with the beautiful mess that Mandarin seems to be.

If I were running a project to design the written representation of a spoken language and my technical architect came back with written Chinese I'd be livid. Each morpheme has its own symbol or logogram, and by some counts there are 60,000 such logograms. According to the Lonely Planet, even the well-educated will only use or recognise about 10% of that ridiculous figure.

How on earth can it work? What do you do when you come across a logogram that you've never seen before? If I write the word 'flirble' you would at least have an idea at how to say the word. With written Chinese, while meaning might be apparent from the context or the symbol itself, the strokes contain no guide at all to pronunciation. And how could you look it up in a dictionary, an action which would require some form of ordering understood by all.

The ever excellent Wikipedia tells me I'm not the first to be baffled, and attempts have been made to Romanise the language in order to open up China to those of us weaned on the abc's. Historically, despite government support, Romanisations have failed to achieve widespread adoption amongst the population due to the difficulty of coping with the numerous homonyms and a lack of any real benefit in changing. But it turns out the chunky guy on the bus next to me is using pinyin, the current government endorsed Romanisation, to create the amazing strings of characters I can see building up on his screen.

Maybe Nokia and the non-stop thumbs of the latest generation will succeed where linguists and academics have so far failed.

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