The Woes and Joys of Being a Linguist (5)

But what distinguishes Chinese is its writing system, the characters. Two romanization systems have developed to express Chinese words phonetically. One is the Wade-Giles, invented in the west; the other is Hanyu Pinyin which the Chinese themselves created. Neither captures the richness of Chinese characters.

Characters consist of two elements, the radical and the phonetic. The radical suggests the meaning, the phonetic hints at the pronunciation. Chinese has 214 radicals varying from one to seven written strokes required to create them. Phonetics are limitless.

The Chinese communist government, early in its history, revised the Chinese writing system by simplifying the characters. The result is an easier system far less rich in history and meaning.

When I was studying Chinese, I spent countless hours practicing the inscribing of characters. The result was a crude competence in what is really an art form. Proper writing of characters is done with a small pointed paint brush and thick black ink that determines thickness or thinness of lines by the amount of pressure applied. The Chinese spend years perfecting their writing. Compare that with Americans, many of whom today have spent so little time on handwriting that they prefer printing to penmanship. We Americans, myself included, these days do all our writing on keyboards. As a child I was schooled in the Palmer method of hand writing. These days, I’m told, penmanship is no longer taught in schools.

In sum, much of what I learned from the study of Asian languages was the emphasis not on mathematical logic but on aesthetics—the beauty of life and people combined with an existence based on human relationships. In Chinese all that is expressed in a writing system that is, in itself, an art.

The learning of other languages, especially Asian ones, has immensely enriched my writing. It has greatly enlarged my understanding of how people think and act and the values they hold. It allowed me, for example, to create two diametrically opposed characters in Last of the Annamese, the American Chuck and the Vietnamese Thanh. The writing I used in sections of the book devoted to these very different people reflected my sense of them. Chuck’s texts are practical, down to earth. Thanh’s are serene and poetic.

Only through the knowledge of languages was any of that possible.

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