Romanized Chinese (was Simplicity of English)

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Tue Oct 3 16:52:08 UTC 2000

At 10:55 AM 10/3/00 -0400, you wrote:
>Douglas G. Wilson" <douglas at NB.NET> writes:
> >>>>>
>Obviously one doesn't speak in ideograms. Anything one can understand over
>the telephone in Chinese he can read in Romanized Chinese.
>I'm not so sure. Writing does not capture all the information available in
>speech, especially prosody. Punctuation is an attempt to get some of it,
>but really captures very little. This may be even more true in
>orthographies like Chinese that do not separate words. And prosody may
>provide much of the disambiguation between sentences that are
>segment-for-segment homophonous or nearly so.

I stand partially corrected. One who is acquainted with speech-recognition
software would be keenly aware of this point, and I should have been too.
Still, I think my assertion must be nearly true in practice with 'Chinese'
replaced with 'English', since transcribed speech is used extensively, not
only in fiction but also in legal proceedings. In Chinese, there may be a
larger problem (I don't know for sure). The problem with word-spacing would
be partly alleviated in Romanized 'Mandarin' by introducing spaces, by
hyphenating the disyllabic 'words' which make up a large part of the
lexicon, and perhaps by other measures, as we see in the Romanized Chinese
in character-free conversation primers. Of course the vast majority of the
homophony which causes trouble for the machine is clarified trivially by
context among humans, right?

Certainly a complex subject. My basic assertion is that full Romanization
of everyday Chinese would be technically feasible (although it is meant
only as a layman's hypothesis). This has been debated (no doubt mostly in
Chinese!) for decades if not centuries, but I would suppose that the debate
has been heavily 'contaminated' by politics, esthetics, etc.

Of course an important distinction exists between scholarly writing and
everyday popular writing. An advantage of ideograms in some exalted context
is no advantage to Zhou Citizen who can't read those ideograms anyway.

-- Doug Wilson

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