John DeFrancis Idiot on Chinese

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John DeFrancis Idiot on Chinese Language

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Xah Lee, 2010-09-28

There's a linguist, dead, named John DeFrancis (1911-2009) . He's a well known expert specializing in Chinese language.

I've read parts of his article before, perhaps the most famous one, titled 《The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy》. It contains a section titled “Six Myths”. Quote from Wikipedia:

  • The Ideographic Myth: Chinese characters represent ideas instead of sounds.
  • The Universality Myth: Chinese characters enable speakers of mutually unintelligible languages to read each other's writing. (Also, to the extent this is possible, this is due to a special property that only Chinese characters have.) Furthermore, Chinese from thousands of years ago is immediately readable by any literate Chinese today.
  • The Emulatability Myth: The nature of Chinese characters can be copied to create a universal script, or to help people with learning disabilities learn to read.
  • The Monosyllabic Myth: All words in Chinese are one syllable long. Alternatively, any syllable found in a Chinese dictionary can stand alone as a word.
  • The Indispensability Myth: Chinese characters are necessary to represent Chinese.
  • The Successfulness Myth: Chinese characters are responsible for a high level of literacy in East Asian countries. (A weaker version of this myth is simply that despite the flaws of Chinese characters, East Asian countries still have a high level of literacy.)

I won't go into detail here, because i read i think only parts, and several years ago, and don't have access to the full article or book now. But my impression of his analysis in summary is that he seems to be a inflexible, impractical, academecian, who mouths things that are half truths but incompatible with the real world.

The real juice came today when i read one of his article in full, via a linguistic blog the Language Log, at

Apparantly, DeFrancis wrote a piece titled “Homographobia”. Basically, he is saying that when a phonetic system of english alphabets, is used as a Chinese writing system (e.g. pinyin), the result of significant increase of homographs, wouldn't be a problem, if such a pinyin system is to be the sole Chinese writing system. And he said this in a attacking style, worked it right into the title “Homographobia”. Here's the full article:

John DeFrancis appears to me like a academecic idiot.

He rants on in monotone, but his writing is unclear, gramar complex, hard to read, yet sans cogency nor humour.

In a scholarly piece on Chinese, why didn't he throw in some real Chinese characters to illustrate the point? For example, quote:

  • zhanzhang “station master”
  • zhanzheng “warfare”
  • zhengzhan “go on a campaign”
  • zhengzhang “badge”
  • zhuanzhan “fight in one place after another”
  • zhuanzheng “dictatorship”
  • zhuanzhang “transfer accounts”

I have a hard time reading his pinyin adorned with english explanations. Is the target of this piece to be non-Chinese speaking plebians??

In what seems to be deep research, why didn't he actually illustrate examples or cite statistics regarding Chinese homographs and homophones? instead, he borrows Hawaiian and Vietnamese to prove a point, by analogy?? Quote:

The relative simplicity of Chinese will become even greater if, as many advocate, tone indication is used only when necessary to avoid ambiguity. According to Yin Binyong (personal communication 2/7/85), tests made on written materials indicate that Chinese needs to add one of its four tone marks only on one word (cir) in twenty. According to my own count, French ...

Why didn't he actually give hard points instead of waving hands with his “personal communications” friends?

A rational approach along the lines indicated above will doubtless confirm the conclusion reached by Chao (1959: 10) that Chinese as a whole is “neither much more nor much less ambiguous than most other languages.” It would logically seem to follow from this that a phonemic writing system for Chinese on the whole would also be neither much more nor much less ambiguous than other phonemic systems of writing such as English, Spanish, German, and Russian. In other words, it seems to be an elementary truism that a Pinyin orthography that is truly based on speech (of course at various levels), and that is provided with a minimum number of judiciously determined special spellings to avoid attested occurrences of unacceptable ambiguity in realistic contexts, can function as a simple and practical orthography for Chinese. The implementation of such an orthography appears to offer the best possibility for curing all but the completely hopeless cases of homographobia.

The above conclusion, is so ridiculous that it just won't fly for any native Chinese in living in a Taiwan or China who were not born imbeciles.

About Pinyin

Note: the journal Xin Tang, where DeFrancis's article is published, seems to be a journal dedicated to promoting pinyin as a Chinese writing system. All articles in it are in pinyin. And the name Xin Tang (新唐) means New China. The journal is published in USA. Possibly it's politically backed publication.

The idea and desire for Chinese writing system to change to Latin alphabet system was common at the time during early 1990s among scholars and educators. Remember, China was devastated by World War 2 with Japan and civil war between its communist party and nationalist party Kuomintang (國民黨). The thought of modernization is strong. (See: 花样的年华 (Age of Blossom))

People's Republic of China officially introduced Pinyin in 1958, and Simplified Chinese characters also happened around the same time.

Pinyin was primarily a system for annotating pronunciation, but with the thought of using it to completely replace the character system. But it never happened. Instead, simplified characters remain the writing system. Pinyin is just used as pronunciation symbols in mostly education, and it is also widely used to input Chinese on computer today.

Here's some quote from Wikipedia:

Although most of the simplified Chinese characters in use today are the result of the works moderated by the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the 1950s and 60s, character simplification predates the PRC's formation in 1949. Cursive written text almost always includes character simplification. Simplified forms used in print have always existed (they date back to as early as the Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 BC), though early attempts at simplification resulted in more characters being added to the lexicon).

One of the earliest proponents of character simplification was Lufei Kui, who proposed in 1909 that simplified characters should be used in education. In the years following the May Fourth Movement in 1919, many anti-imperialist Chinese intellectuals sought ways to modernise China. Traditional culture and values such as Confucianism were challenged. Soon, people in the Movement started to cite the traditional Chinese writing system as an obstacle in modernising China and therefore proposed that a reform be initiated. It was suggested that the Chinese writing system should be either simplified or completely abolished. Fu Sinian, a leader of the May Fourth Movement, called Chinese characters the “writing of ox-demons and snake-gods” niúguǐ shéshén de wénzì (牛鬼蛇神的文字). Lu Xun, a renowned Chinese author in the 20th century, stated that, “If Chinese characters are not destroyed, then China will die.” (漢字不滅,中國必亡。) Recent commentators have claimed that Chinese characters were blamed for the economic problems in China during that time.[5]

In the 1930s and 1940s, discussions on character simplification took place within the Kuomintang government, and a large number of Chinese intellectuals and writers have long maintained that character simplification would help boost literacy in China.[6] Three-hundred and twenty-four simplified characters collected by Qian Xuantong were officially introduced in 1935 as the table of 1st batch simplified character (第一批簡體字表) and suspended in 1936. In many world languages, literacy has been promoted as a justification for spelling reforms.

The People's Republic of China issued its first round of official character simplifications in two documents, the first in 1956 and the second in 1964. In the 1950s and 1960s, while confusion about simplified characters was still rampant, transitional characters that mixed simplified parts with yet-to-be simplified parts of characters together appeared briefly, then disappeared.

Can Pinyin Practically Replace Chinese Characters?

It is a interesting question: to what degree the ambiguity of increased homograph in pinyin as a writing system, affect pinyin as a the sole writing system for Chinese. Another way of asking the same question is, if all Chinese characters of the same sound are replaced by identical characters, how would it affect the effectiveness of written communication?

Note that puns based on homophone happens daily in Chinese newspaper articles, which relies on the characters to see the meaning and the pun. Puns in shop names are very common too. If you walk around a busy street filled with shops and advertisements, you'll probably see tens of them. Many western fast food restaurants such as McDonald (麥當勞), Pizza Hut (必勝客), or products such as Coca-Cola (可口可乐), Pepsi (百事可乐), in Chinese are some sort of pun based on homophone. And person names, street names, much relies on different characters to differentiate. If we imagine that Chinese chars magically disappears in China and Taiwan and are replaced by pinyin, it will have a major impact on Chinese culture.

If you simply show a page of pinyin to a Chinese, what can be read in 20 seconds might now take 2 minutes. This is mostly due to unfamiliarity. But suppose if Chinese grew up with pinyin as the writing system, what would be affected or changed due to the increased homographs? (without spending time on this, i'd guess the homograph would increase at least 100 folds.)

DeFrancis's article doesn't provide any technical info, but only tries to mock the questioner.

Today, the China modernization crisis is gone, and the worry about the difficulty of Chinese characters for computer processing is also a thing of the past. There is no desire in China or Taiwan to replace Chinese writing system by alphabets. However, the pinyin as writing system is still a interesting linguistic question.

Japan also has the same problem. Japanese writing system is based on phonetic alphabets and Chinese characters (called kanji). Japan also had the desire to eliminate the cumbersome Chinese characters, facing pretty much the same problem as alphabetizing Chinese. However, Japan clearly have not adopted the elimination of Chinese characters.

Similar situations happens in Korean and Vietnamese. One would be interested to know how North Korea and Vietnam solved the problem, even though they are completely different languages. For example, to what degree are the increase of homographs in these languages. DeFrancis provides no info on this whatsoever.

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