forum SignWriting List Forum
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From:  Wayne in Maine
Date:  Wed Jan 26, 2000  5:14 am
Subject:  Re: Is SignWriting like Chinese?

>QUESTION: Is SignWriting like Chinese?
>ANSWER: No. Although SignWriting symbols are visual, and sometimes we
>write signs down the page in vertical columns, from a linguistic
>standpoint, SignWriting is different than Chinese. SignWriting is
>In simplistic terms, Chinese generally writes concepts and some
>sounds. Mandarin Chinese is ONE writing system for several different
>languages and dialects in China (I believe).

Valerie -
I guess this one is for me, considering that I am fluent in Chinese
and am now learning SignWriting.
Obviously when someone says "Is SW like Chinese?" they're thinking of
the Chinese written language. Certainly SW has nothing to do with the
Chinese spoken language. So perhaps it could be better phrased: "Is SW like
Chinese characters?"
The term "Mandarin" or "Mandarin Chinese" is the name given to one of
the many dialects of spoken Chinese. Mandarin Chinese is not, per se, a
writing system, but a spoken language. Alongside Mandarin in the same
language family are other spoken languages such as Cantonese, Hakka, Min
(Taiwanese and Fujianese), Wu (the dialect of Shanghai), and (some would
include) Xiang (Hunanese). These are the major language groups, and they
are all essentially mutually UNintelligible. They're only called dialects
because they're all spoken within one political entity: China (although
many, including myself, prefer to think of Taiwan as a separate entity now).
Now, back to what they meant to say, not what they said. Is SW like
Chinese characters? Valerie, your answer is essentially accurate.
Mandarin, unlike most writing systems, is "logographic", i.e. what is
written is not sounds (phonemes) but ideas, concepts, meanings. True, there
is a phonetic component to many Chinese characters, but it is not a phonetic
writing system, like SW is. For one quick example, the character for
"invite", pronounced qing3 (the 3 means it's pronounced on the 3rd tone
which is a low-falling-then-rising tone; the "q" is pronounced like English
"ch"), is written in two parts. On the left is the character "yan2" which
means "speech" or "speak", and on the right is the character "qing1"
(pronounced on the first tone, a high level tone) which means
"azure-colored". The left side of this particular character is the
"significant", i.e. the part of the character that hints at the meaning:
inviting is usually done with speech. The right side of the character is
the "phonetic", i.e. the part of the character that gives a hint as to the
sound of the resulting character. The idea is that the character qing3
(invite) means "something that has to do with speaking, and sounds something
like the word qing1".
This principle underlies about 80% of the characters is written
Chinese. I would dare say that there are no truly phonetic characters
anywhere in the language, unless it be the borrowing of Chinese characters
purely for their sound values, such as in writing foreign proper names. The
character combinations are sometimes ridiculous, but the sound conveys the
intended meaning. For example, the characters "sesame"+"add"+"older
brother" seems meaningless, unless you consider the sounds of the three
characters taken together: "zhi"+"jia"+"ge" (or in Cantonese:
"shi"+"ga"+"go") which is the standard transliteration into Chinese of the
city of "Chicago". Similarly "jaw"+"take"+"horse" ("ba"+"na"+"ma") gives
you "Panama".
I guess the short answer is: "No, SW is not like Chinese characters."
It's probably more accurate to say: "SW is like written Spanish" (which is
the most phonetic language I can think of off hand -- mmmmm, maybe I should
have chosen Swahili!).
OK, that's my three yuan's worth.
- Wayne Smith

  Replies Author Date
2613 Re: Is SignWriting like Chinese? Valerie Sutton Wed  1/26/2000
2619 Re: Is SignWriting like Chinese? Joe Martin Wed  1/26/2000

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