Culture: Language: Universal
Universal Chinese   (+6, -9)  [vote for, against]
Use Chinese pictograms as the written form of other languages

<background>Chinese pictograms were created about 4000 years ago to unify written communication across a country that spoke different languages so that taxes could be collected.</background>

Create a standard description for each pictogram across languages and teach about word (pictogram) order, grammar and tenses so that anybody can write using Chinese pictograms, even if they don't speak Chinese.

<dangerous_streak_of_idealism>Suddenly the whole world can communicate in a written language that is extremely compact to display without having to learn a new language.</dangerous_streak_of_idealism>

Please feel free to correct my knowledge of Chinese history if you know better as it's a little flaky. :o)
-- st3f, May 10 2001

History of the Chinese Language http://www.paulnoll...inese-language.html
Including some details about the writing. [jutta, May 10 2001]

American vs. British Sign Language http://www.websterw...essays/asl_bsl.html
Very similar syntax, but different fingerspelling and handshapes - the "pictograms" of the language - rendering them mutually illegible. [jutta, May 10 2001]

Ling 001 Sign Language http://babel.ling.u...ling001/signed.html
Excellent introduction to sign languages, including some examples of differences between ASL and BSL, a comparison of the sign for "tree" in Chinese, Danish, and American SL, and even regional, gender-based, and racial dialects! While this may seem like a distraction, it's actually quite relevant to the idea, I feel, bringing up many of the issues you get when combining a new, designed, pictographic language with an existing "host language". [jutta, May 10 2001]

Japan Kanji Party http://yokohama.coo...njitou/kanjitop.htm
They want to strip the Japanese language of its kana, and promote Kanji (Chinese characters) worldwide. [juuitchan3, Mar 17 2002, last modified Oct 05 2004]

"Let's Learn Sign Language"
Japanese sign language website with animated gif pictures for characters, phrases, syllables... [Inyuki, Oct 04 2004, last modified Oct 05 2004]

Earth Language Homepage http://earthlanguag...g/english/ehome.htm
Proposal for a new common auxiliary language with multi-methods based on visual symbols to support a harmonious global society. [id3as, Aug 12 2007]

A sample text
That which has a little bit of everything in it. [id3as, Aug 13 2007]

The most widely spoken constructed international auxiliary language. [AllyAl, Aug 13 2007]

Universal road signs http://www.safetysi...m/road-symbol-signs
[pashute, Jun 29 2015]

The Chinese suggested this when the first German missionaries showed up; it didn't catch on then, and probably won't now.

There are two problems. The first is, simply, that learning to read Chinese takes a lot longer than learning to read an alphabetic language, because there are so many more things to memorize. Why should a Spanish-speaker, who has 29 symbols (at most) to deal with, and a straightforward mapping between sound and spelling, want to deal with 5000 instead?

The second problem is that different languages have different grammars, and writing them all with the exact same set of symbols would be limiting. Do you want to have to deal with [three woman] [eat][peanut] with no markers for singular and plural? Or quickly make sense of a sentence in vaguely familiar symbols, but with neither English word order nor the grammatical endings you're familiar with to help you sort out subject and object? What's the ideogram for "jumping bean"? "Purple marten"? "Gettysburg address"? "Internet browser"? "Underground map"?
-- Redbird, May 10 2001

Redbird: Interesting comments. I didn't know about the German missionaries and must admit that I'm more interested in playing with the concept of this than digging up the history.

Regarding your points:
1) Agreed. I didn't say it would be easy. I see this as something that people would learn as they would a second language. As to why? Communication. I think that it would be interesting to have a universal written language of which we all understand the core.
2) a) Grammar and Tenses. Languages differ in the word order of a sentence and the tenses that they offer. Japanese and Chinese imply singular and plural and (I believe) often imply tense. European languages express these explicitly. This would be something that you would have to learn along with the symbols. I feel that it would be rude to take the Chinese language and alter the word order.
2) b) Extending the ideograms. What do the Chinese use currently do when faced with new technolgy. They must have come up with something for "Internet Browser" by now.
-- st3f, May 10 2001

Some Chinese pictograms are quite funny - the one for "politician" is derived from a picture of a fat man asleep in a building somewhere. There's one of a person standing by a horse that conveys the sense of "conveniece" (how convenient to ride instead of walk) and "mail" (the mail was brought on horseback) and "excrement" (the guy is cleaning up after the horse).

It's heinously difficult, nearly every individual character is a compound of two or more "radicals" (even more simplified mini-pictures) and even with that the compound characters are usually used together in groups to convey the meaning of a single word.

Korean would probably be the most universal to pronounce - it is based on the shape of the mouth and tongue and so forth. Characters are grouped by syllables. You can literally learn to read it in one day - but, of course, you are just learning the sounds, not the meanings.
-- Duffi, May 10 2001

I'm in danger of killing this by over-annotating it but I want to take it clear that I'm not proposing a spoken language.
-- st3f, May 10 2001

"Suddenly the whole world can communicate ... without having to learn a new language."
No, you just taught them a new language. The fact that it's not a spoken language just makes it harder to learn and use, but it's still a language - with its own vocabulary, grammar rules, etc.

".. that's extremely compact to display."
And somewhat more difficult to read, same as using English with a smaller font.
-- jutta, May 10 2001

Thanks for the link Jutta. My original thought was that by using pictograms the written language could become independent of any spoken one. I'll still (probably foolishly) defend the claim that learning a different set of characters to express your language (and forcing you to change your word order and only use certain tenses) is not equivalent to learning a new language. Close, but not the same.

What kills it for me is a sentence from the page that Jutta linked, "However, perhaps 95 percent of the words in the dictionary are written with phonetic compounds." This means that only 5% are pictograms (and you can bet that "internet browser" isn't one of them).

I concede to Redbird and Jutta. I liked the concept, but the idea stinks. <fishbones_self/> [was marked to expire - removed 14/5/2001 as many interesting comments added after this point]
-- st3f, May 10 2001, last modified May 14 2001

It seems to me that this idea boils down to "adopt a universal ideographic written language independent of everyone's day-to-day spoken language". Chinese just happens to be an obvious candidate.

But in a sense we're already doing this, just not with Chinese. There are a large number of symbols --- ideographs --- which are in very widespread use, and are in fact managed by international organizations. Think of the play / pause / fast-forward / etc. symbols on a cassette or disc player. These are international, trans-linguistic symbols. The circle-and-line power switch symbol is another example. Computer interfaces, especially "intuitive" GUIs, use lots of non-linguistic symbols (which are essentially meaningless until you have some experience with the UI). Warning symbols, traffic direction symbols, etc. are less widely standardized, but they're getting there.

What this iconography lacks is any but the most rudimentary grammar. There is *some* grammar, in the form of combining symbols: the circle-with-slash, the diagonal cross, and the arrow-showing-direction can all be combined with other symbols (or with text). But most symbols stand on their own; you can't make complicated sentences out of them.
-- wiml, May 10 2001

so we'd end up talking like this:

me: "100010110101010"
wife: "001011010100101"
me: "10010"


or we could call it "fax" and end up communicating in a series of high-pitched squeals and hisses.
-- mihali, May 10 2001

I've also often thought about sign language in the terms described by st3f. Despite some of the problems mentioned by waugsqueke, I think it's closer to what st3f wants than chinese pictograms. Even the differences between different sign languages could be more easily overcome. But the real problem is that it's almost worthless in *written* form. This would be important when the world decided to adopt the global backup language for public signage.
-- beauxeault, May 10 2001

Prepare for your pummeling, waugs. (Is there a Canadian Sign Language?)
-- globaltourniquet, May 10 2001

ASL is widely understood, but there are also Canadian Sign Language, Langue des Signes Quebecoise, and Eskimo Sign Language.
-- jutta, May 10 2001


As a Chinese *speaker*, I think that Ideograms in general are not a good system. As Duffi mentioned, most characters are made up of multiple radicals. Radicals are freely re-used to associate a sound with a different word. So you might replace a boring radical with similar sounding extra auspicious radical when naming your product. Kind of like mid word capitalization, except it totally breaks pattern matching.

The huge problem in ideograph systems is dealing with loan words and names. Am I reading about a scientist named trustworthy sampler of data, or is that part of the article? The only solution is to give everyone their own ideograph like the former prince.

In answer to somebody's question, the Gettysburg address is probably the ge(brother) da(big) bu(no) er(ear) ge (brother) address. Any sophisticated Chinese speaker would be able to come up with a more felicitous arrangement of syllable words, but you get the idea.

Indexing and sorting Ideograms are a bitch to index. You have to index by stroke order used to draw the character, or by some other attribute you can see from the written form. If you don't know the written form, you have to limp there by way of a phonetic lookup, which begs the question of why you aren't using phonetics in the first place. Simple things like a telephone book become a nightmare.

Data entry. The Chinese are really looking forward to pen and speach input for computers. The fastest typest I ever met went at about 35 wpm.

Learning curve. While you can get by in a Chinese newspaper only knowing 3000 characters, you really need to know around 12K in order to be able to read without a dictionary. This is in addition to the standard linguistic problem that some words have strong connotations and are used rarely with specific purpose. Having one ideogram fraught with meaning such as "clear and present danger" can make a whole discussion almost impenetrable. (In all fairness, the high connotation words are usually the coolest in any language, it's just more fun if you can get the joke)

ideograms=bad. On the other hand, many parts of the world have done pretty well at developing romanization systems in latin1. An effective transliteration of Cherokee, Vietnamese, Chinese and German can all be made using the letters currently on your screen. Standardizing on one transliteration system would solve the problem for everybody. We wouldn't even need to put French words into italics any more. </rant>
-- tenhand, May 11 2001

Being an Australian-born Chinese married to a Hongkong-born Chinese, I know that many Chinese-type words (there are over 100 'Chinese' languages/ dialects) cannot be written at all in the official Chinese hardcopy. Chinse hardcopy is really Mandarin. Modern Chinese hardcopy is called 'Simplified', and is quite different from traditional Chinese hardcopy.

As already expressed, written Chinese is not just handicapped by poor verb-tense expression. Like French and other non-English languages, the major scientific/ technological advances are clumsily and illogically created from the original English terms.

It seems to me that most Chinese readers/ writers forget the 12k icons if they are not surrounded by them everyday. I prefer it when hardcopy icons are very closely related to softcopy icons (eg words, sign language, face & body expressions).
-- gz, May 11 2001

Boring radicals hardly get noticed.
I'm 85% deaf, only know 2 things in American Sign Language. Hello and Thank You. I overemphasize the signage of them. Try it for yourself and see why.
-- thumbwax, May 11 2001

Chinese grammar is much simpler than English. There are fewer exceptions. Technological words are sometimes quite logical combinations of two or more characters. telephone = electric talk airplane = flying machine The play, stop and record icons on buttons of a tape recorder are for very simple concepts. Making a whole language with such symbols to represent abtract concepts would be quite challenging.

More people in the world use Chinese than any other language. English is difficult to learn. Instruction manuals translated from Chinese to English by non-native English experts are usually incorrect if not comical.

Chinese is entered into computers with roman keyboards with a set of rules known an input technique. Phonetic input is tedius and would require knowledge of the spoken language. Input based on how the character (pictogram) looks or by a system representing subcomponents require more training. Other languages could be used as an input technique as well: English input techniques can be improved upon to include a larger lexicon of abstact terms.

Surnames and the two hundered or so special characters used by Chinese groups don't have to be used.

The idea is to create a universal written language based on Chinese characters. It can be a subset of Chinese and still work.

Chinese from Canton, Beijing, and Shanghai can use Chinese characters to communicate without a problem. Leaving out the idioms, surnames and special dialect characters Chinese readers will understand - it just won't be as beautiful.
-- NatStd, Jun 05 2001

Sorry, I shouldn't be in here. I thought this was about a Chinese meal that had a little bit of everything in it.

I've just had one you see...
-- Spidergoat, Jun 05 2001

Why not at least put a few kanji into English or other languages? Like the kanji for "person", "pieces" (when counting, as in "12 pieces" which might appear on a carton of 12 eggs), "month", "day",... You would get these on an English word processor by typing the word and then hitting a function key or something.

Ideograms are bad? You go to Japan and ask any Japanese man or woman if they would switch to all-kana.
-- juuitchan3, Mar 17 2002

Japan has three different alphabets to begin with. It would add complexity without usefulness to add non-English characters to the English alphabet.
-- StarChaser, Mar 17 2002

If that's what you think:

1) Who needs digits? We can spell out numbers as words. 2) Who needs the "at" sign, the dollar sign (or pound sterling sign), etc.?
-- juuitchan3, Mar 17 2002

Adding a totally dissimilar second alphabet will add nothing. Numbers are not letters, thus not an alphabet.
-- StarChaser, Mar 18 2002

Japan had no alphabet to begin with. They stole it a lot more recently than we stole ours - hence their willingness to use roman letters and arabic numbers. They just use whatever's useful!
-- sadie, Apr 18 2002

1. It would help solve the problem of trying to read the tiny letters on a faraway sign: the Chinese characters would need to be larger than English to be read, but there would be fewer characters required. The end result would seem to be a saving of space, or greater legibility.

2. There is, if not a need, a demand for ideograms. Look at a remote control, for instance.

3. Does "m" stand for minutes or meters? That again. Besides, I am seldom sure whether "bps" is bits per second or bytes per second. There are more hanzi / kanji / hanja available than Latin letters.
-- juuitchan3, Jun 13 2002

I'm with [spidergoat]. And what ever became of the three women eating peanuts.

Must go grocery shopping.
-- normzone, Aug 12 2007

[normzone], so you must be an advocate of Japanese, since it is the language that has "a little bit of everything in it", see the link.
-- id3as, Aug 13 2007

But we all speak and read Esperanto anyway, so what's the point?
-- AllyAl, Aug 13 2007

I think even if we had pictograms for everything, we would want to give the pictograms names. (because at some point, someone will draw the wrong pictogram and their friend will want to tell them "no, it's not this one, it's _____" and without a name it will be hard to describe).

Once the pictograms have names, then it's on its way to being a spoken language.
-- phundug, Aug 13 2007

Aha phundug, despite fishboning myself, my intent was to have you speak your own language but write Chinese. You might call one particular symbol 'apple', someone else 'Apfel', another person 'pomme' and yet another, 'pingguo' (or something like that). That way, we converse as we currently do, but can all read the same website, book and video setup instructions.
-- st3f, Aug 13 2007

Hey I fully support your idea, and in fact I just posted a similar idea about using Chinese characters as the written portion of a universal sign language. I have a degree in Japanese and so am at least somewhat familiar with Chinese characters. I think what would make it easier to swallow for people who aren't familiar with them is 1) Make it okay to write proper nouns in Roman (English) letters since most people in the world already know that alphabet. 2) Decrease the number of Chinese characters used. For instance, in my proposed language the spoken portion is made up of Native American words. Their word for alcohol was "fire water". So rather than using the word &#37202; which means alcohol, I would simply use the literal translation of fire water, which is &#28779;&#27700;, which are symbols you would have already known from learning the words 'fire' and 'water' before. Just my two cents.
-- deussean, Jun 28 2015

I was talking recently to a Chinese friend who grew up in Australia (but still speaks Mandarin).

He was adamant that the Chinese language is very restrictive, due to the difficulty in adding new words and phrases to it. For instance, he told me (and I have to assume he knew what he was talking about) that there's no good, uniform word for "mobile phone". It was initially called an "electric hand talk machine", but then variously abbreviated to "electric hand", "electric machine", or just "machine" - none of which is unambiguous, and none of which was universally agreed upon.

I do think that it's just not a good idea to have a language with 1000's of different symbols, which doesn't correspond to the spoken language. Objectively, it's not how you would design things.
-- MaxwellBuchanan, Jun 28 2015

Incidentally, I'd be interested to hear the views of any native Chinese speakers on the second paragraph of the above annotation.
-- MaxwellBuchanan, Jun 28 2015

Me No Get ??
-- pashute, Jun 29 2015

random, halfbakery