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Posted December 5, 2002
John DeFrancis's book The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy is the best book I have read on the Chinese language. It explains in great detail what the Chinese language and its ancient writing system is all about. It is also great fun to read. Based on his profound understanding of the language and its teaching methods, Mr. DeFrancis, in this book, contradicts all misconceptions, myths and fantasies that people may have about the subject matter. And there are lots of them. He begins the book by telling a long-winded joke about a Chinese Language Committee that was founded during the world-war. Its task was to prepare for changing the writing systems of all major world languages into using the Chinese language writing method in case the Chinese emerge victorious and become the rulers of the world. This way, by comparing the two writing systems Mr. DeFrancis makes it abundantly clear that most ideas people have about the Chinese language and its writing system lay on a very shaky foundation. I'll try to mention some points here although it has been a while since I read the book. For a Western person, it is very difficult to say anything even remotely meaningful about the Chinese language before he has spent a good number of years studying it. We are told, for example, that there is such a thing as the Chinese language, and that it is universally spoken and understood, written and read by all Chinese-speaking people. This is one of the misconceptions Mr. DeFrancis attacks: most of the so-called dialects of the Chinese language are in fact completely separate languages with mutual differences as great as those between English and German, or French and Spanish. Mandarin Chinese has four tones, whereas Cantonese and Shanghaihua have six and nine, respectively. All of these languages use different words for the needs of the basic daily life and, when they do use the same word for a specific purpose, it is pronounced differently. In Pinyin, it is difficult to see whether we are talking about the same word or not, but still, in the Chinese character writing, the same character will be used. This makes it look, for a Western person, like Chinese was a single language that is used universally by all Chinese-speaking people. Why is it, then, that Mandarin Chinese writing is understood by all Chinese-speaking people all over the world? It isn't, quite simply. Mr. DeFrancis goes on to show how much more difficult it is for a school child in China to learn to read and write as well as most school children using Indo-European languages. He illustrates his point by going through Chinese literacy statistics and expresses his doubts on whether these statistics are true or false. Another explanation for the "easiness of universal understanding of the Chinese character writing" is the use of ideographs. Allegedly, each character describes its object so vividly that it is possible to understand what a Chinese character means - just by looking at it. Mr. DeFrancis takes it upon himself to do this point quite thoroughly. The "one character - one word" -fallacy is also given a good going-over by Mr. DeFrancis. He shows, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Chinese language is in fact constituted of syllables, and that these syllables are written using characters. There are dozens of quite different characters that are pronounced identically. The characters representing each syllable of a word may be selected quite arbitrarily. This is one of the works on the subject of the Chinese language that will really take you beyond myths and fantasies into the real world of facts. Read it and see for yourself. As I said, it has been a while since I read this book and I wanted to read it again to refresh my memory, but I had forgotten the name of the book. I was looking for it on the internet to actually buy it instead of getting it from a lending library when I found this site.
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