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The Chinese Typewriter: A History (lrb.co.uk)
48 points by forapurpose 75 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 27 comments



The question why an alphabetic Chinese script was never developed is often asked, a good answer is here: https://www.quora.com/Why-does-China-have-no-alphabet-Why-di.... Non-Chinese speakers focus on the cumbersomeness of the script while overlooking how good it fits the tonal languages it's used for (not just Mandarin) and the benefits of radicals.

Western alphabetic supremacists weren't the first ones to suggest that an alphabetic script should be created, Chinese scholars also thought about this quite early but tradition was probably too string even at that time. A similar situation also applies to Egyptian hieroglyphic writing.

Another good writeup of Tom Mullaney's work with more details on early ways of writing Chinese characters using codes, etc. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/11/chine...


It seems to me (a native speaker of Mandarin) that the written Chinese is not closely tied to the phonetics or spoken Chinese. A person who could only speak Cantonese can write something that can be easily understood by someone who speaks only Wu. While an alphabetic writing system seems to be secondary to an underlying, spoken language, in which case the written language represents the way in which the language is spoken.

Such a perception might be the result of the divide between vernacular and written/literary Chinese that remained uncontested until a hundred years ago. An alphabetic writing system for Chinese would essentially unify spoken and written Chinese, which goes against the aforementioned perception. Hence the resistance against an alphabetic writing system.


> how good it fits the tonal languages

Chinese may not have been tonal when the script originally arose. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Chinese_phonology#Tones_an... and http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4906


> Non-Chinese speakers focus on the cumbersomeness of the script while overlooking how good it fits the tonal languages it's used for (not just Mandarin) and the benefits of radicals.

Can you really know the tone from a Chinese character or you have to learn categories of them one by one? Vietnamese seems much better in this aspect, you instantly know how to pronounce anything you see.


No, you can't. You have to learn each character individually.

That said, when I studied Chinese, I found it easier to learn the words and how to write them compared to other languages I had learnt before. Perhaps it's just me, but I find learning symbols easier than words made up from letters.


Yes but later Egyptian eras began using hieroglyphs as a syllabary then eventually an alphabet, with various mixed usage as one might expect.

We can also see a partial transition with Japanese hiragana and katakana.

The mystery to me is why China never took the next step?

Perhaps the two are related. Maybe if you don't switch to an alphabet before your society builds up too many traditions and too much structure, the weight of history (and the social status of using a complex script) tends to calcify many aspects of that society, including the writing?


Egyptian is the oldest written language. In its final stage (Coptic) Egyptian adopted a modified Greek alphabet.

Greek is the oldest written language still in use today. It was originally written in a syllabary (Linear B) but, 3000 years ago, adopted the Phoenician abjad, adding vowels. Like modern Chinese languages, Ancient Greek had word tones, indicated by accents.

Chinese is the oldest script still in use today in a relatively unmodified form.

One Sinitic language (Dungan), which is to a large extent mutually intelligible with Mandarin, is written entirely in the Cyrillic alphabet.


Japanese is no example. Actually you can refer to Wikipedia and you'll find Japanese and Chinese are totally different languages. Japanese "leveraged" some Chinese characters while building the writing system. There's really not a "next step" here.

As a Chinese, I've never had difficulty learning to recognize characters when I was a kid. Also they are not random stroke combinations, there's always logic inside and you get that easily after your Chinese reach a certain level. Just like when you see hydro- in Eng, you know it has something with water. Chinese may be difficult as a second language but I cannot find data to support it also difficult as a first language from personal experience. I began to read novels before 10yo anyway.


My Chinese colleague can't write the character for "sneeze" without looking it up. Anecdotally, that suggests that Chinese script is somewhat harder than others.


Chinese characters are way more difficult to learn than learning any alphabet. And a large part of Chinese Characters are already sort of phonetic. However I’m against alphabetizing Mandarin for the below reasons.

1. Chinese Characters just looks better than an alphabet with tons of diacritics. How many people tattoo Pinyin to look cool?

2. Knowledge of Chinese Characters is seen as a tool that is worth the effort - it gives a different level of understanding of the meaning and words of the language, something that is arguably not immediately available to speakers of English. Who can forget that “tomorrow” is made up of “sun” and “moon” rising and setting, or that “rest” is a “person” leaning on a “tree”?

3. Medical and scientific terminology is far easier to write and understand in Chinese than spell in English. The Chinese word also gives a better clue as to what a given term means, e.g., “肝硬化” literally translates to "liver hardening", ”眼科” literally means “study of the eye”, “儿科” literally means “study of children”, which can be understood even by a low-level, non-native speaker; without more context.

4. The gap between colloquial speech and formal writing can be quite large. For Chinese to be written in Pinyin, Chinese writers would just have to avoid overly ambiguous vocabulary terms and devise some new standard replacements if it became necessary. In addition, writers have to avoid writing in a terse and poetic style influenced by Classical Chinese and more in a informal speaking style. This kind of vocabulary and grammer replacement would have massive linguistic and cultural impacts, similiar to removing all the latin and greek vocabulary in English. It would almost make current formal Chinese writing unintelligible.

5. Chinese Characters allows the Chinese people to access their history and culture directly. Like most technology, backwards compatibility and not ease of learning is a good point for not switching to Pinyin. Switching to Pinyin would cut the Chinese people from thousands of year of culture and history. Every Chinese people is at least familiar with a few lines in ancient Chinese books like Art of War, Analects, Dao De Jing and Han/Tang/Song poetry in the written language. Can you think of a comparable piece of Latin or Greek writing that the average Westerner knows by heart? How many people can recite Virgil and Homer? Bonus if they can do it in the original Latin or Greek. Greek and Latin in the West have been the bastion of the Western civilization, and in this age, all but forgotten.

6. Chinese characters promotes national unity and cohesiveness. The stature of Han Chinese as the largest national grouping in the world can be explained partially by the writing system. All literate Chinese, even if they speak mutually unintelligible “dialects”, can read the same books and feel that Chinese Characters is their own language. If they had a phonetic writing system, they might have broken up into separate national groups, as did the Italians, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian.

7. Chinese characters are part of Chinese identity. From a western perspective it's difficult to truly understand the degree to which Chinese characters are interwoven into Chinese cultural identity. In the West, calligraphy is seen as a niche interest, while in China you have people studying and imitating the ancient calligraphy masters, students taking calligraphy courses, elderly writing characters in parks, families hanging proverbs outside their doors, decorating homes with calligraphic art etc. If Chinese characters were abandoned, Chinese calligraphy would not be the same, all riddles/ jokes/ puns/ poetry would become meaningless, Chinese names would become gibberish. Chinese characters are an extremely emotional issue and are something more than just writing. That is why even the idea of simplifying Characters outraged so many people.


3. Translating into Greek, Russian, Portuguese, and Turkish, you get:

    肝硬化 Κίρρωση цирроз cirrose siroz
    眼科 Οφθαλμολογία офтальмология oftalmologia oftalmoloji
    儿科 Παιδιατρική педиатрия pediatria pediatri
So you could go into a hospital in Athens, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, or Ankara and, without learning the local languages, find the opthalmology or paediatric departments. Plenty of other technical vocabulary is shared between different languages in Europe and beyond.

5. Modern Standard Chinese is about 100 years old and even the script has changed. Before that, with a few notable exceptions, Classical Chinese was used and that's quite different to the modern written language. You would have to learn it to be able to read it, just as you have to learn Classical Greek or Latin, neither of which is a close relative of English, to be able to read them.


3. Not to mention, ophthalmology is literally "study of the eye" and pediatrics is literally "child doctors". Those are made of very common greek and latin words that are in common usage today among many medical terms, so it's not like people don't learn and know them. I'll grant GP cirrhosis though, that's "weirdly off-coloured", which can be any number of conditions. Those words are sometimes locally translated as well, but almost everyone will understand the common latin/greek terms.

5. I really would be interested in seeing how comprehensible Chinese texts older than 100 years are to a modern reader. While the characters may have remained the same, pronunciation and grammar have surely changed in that time. Even if you can read it, the meaning might not be apparent e.g. Shakespeare's

And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe. And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot; And thereby hangs a tale.

relies on "hour" and "whore" sounding the same, which is lost on modern readers.


Cirrhosis, ophthalmology, and paediatrics are all derived from Classical Greek. English, Russian, Portuguese, and Turkish all have the option of borrowing technical vocabulary from Greek (or other languages), but because of its syllabic structure, borrowing into Chinese is more problematic as it's difficult or impossible to render foreign words phonetically.


> 1. Chinese Characters just looks better than an alphabet with tons of diacritics. How many people tattoo Pinyin to look cool?

I'm not sure it's a good argument to keep the current system just to make cool tattoos

> Who can forget that “tomorrow” is made up of “sun” and “moon” rising and setting, or that “rest” is a “person” leaning on a “tree”?

All of those second meanings are arbitrary so I don't get your point here, any other combination could have been picked up instead.

> 5. Chinese Characters allows the Chinese people to access their history and culture directly. Like most technology, backwards compatibility and not ease of learning is a good point for not switching to Pinyin. Switching to Pinyin would cut the Chinese people from thousands of year of culture and history.

That is maybe the best side of the Chinese Characters but again I doubt people can read ancient Chinese easily nowadays, they still need some small training, a lot of things changed during that time. And nothing of Latin or Greek is forgotten, the texts are studied in school.

> 6. Chinese characters promotes national unity and cohesiveness. The stature of Han Chinese as the largest national grouping in the world can be explained partially by the writing system. All literate Chinese, even if they speak mutually unintelligible “dialects”, can read the same books and feel that Chinese Characters is their own language

Does that even works properly in practice or do people have to specifically chose characters based on their mutual understanding?

> 4. The gap between colloquial speech and formal writing can be quite large. For Chinese to be written in Pinyin, Chinese writers would just have to avoid overly ambiguous vocabulary terms and devise some new standard replacements if it became necessary.

That's not really a great point because when people speak, these non-ambiguous spoken terms already need to exist anyway.

One point you might have not considered is giving up the characters might open-up a whole new world of internationalization of Chinese which would have a status similar to English nowadays, keeping the characters is preventing that.


>One point you might have not considered is giving up the characters might open-up a whole new world of internationalization of Chinese which would have a status similar to English nowadays

On the contrary, using Chinese characters makes the language more accessible to other Asian learners, due to many having some degree of formal study of the writing system. And in countries that don't use the latin alphabet, pinyin is no more useful than chinese characters--and if a person actually devotes time to studying, likely worse.

Having learned Japanese, after about a year of study, it's quite easy to guess the meaning of a word just by knowing the meaning of at least one character. As a native English speaker, there are still words that I encounter from time to time and I can't possibly guess what their meaning could be even with context.


> On the contrary, using Chinese characters makes the language more accessible to other Asian learners, due to many having some degree of formal study of the writing system

That's because you picked Japanese as an example. If I pick Vietnamese that's the opposite, the Chinese characters are hiding the similarities of both languages to a non-initiate Vietnamese speaker. Japanese is maybe the only language which benefits from the current writing.


And had Vietnamese used Chinese characters to this day, learning Chinese and vice versa would be easier for those with a full education.

Not using hanzi makes learning language at the elementary level much easier, and many countries dropped use of them to improve literacy rates during their process into developed countries. But once your country is developed and education is good, hanzi has the advantage in that its fairly uniform and lets readers quickly understand new words even in different language.


I spent the last 4 years in Taiwan, although I also lived in China for 5 months before that.

Traditional characters are easier to read, in my opinion. There's more radicals to guess the meaning. I can also use my program https://pingtype.github.io to decompose the character if I write it wrong.

Simplifying the number of strokes made it faster to write. This helped literacy because the education system is built on copying characters by rote - a terrible method, in my opinion. I prefer reading in parallel, with the pinyin and literal translations below (also in Pingtype).

What Chinese really needs, and doesn't contradict the history, is spaces between words. Imaginehavingtoreadenglishwithoutanypunctuationandyoullsurelyrecognisethatitsabarriertolearning.


For your last point, you can probably check with your Chinese friend and I'm pretty sure they don't buy the idea.

Basically our brain already has built-in text segmentation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Text_segmentation). I tried to think how I actually do that. It's more like prefix matching over a moderate large dict. It's not complicated and worked pretty well for Chinese. For your particular example, maybe the difference lies in word lengths. Most Chinese words are under 2~3 characters, makes prefix matching way more efficient.


Lack of punctuation is not the same as lack of spaces, though.


English needed spaces because the graphemes are of variable length, so without spacing there is no telling in any quick way where one meaning unit ends and another begins. The idea that Chinese "needs" spacing is a little like a UTF-16 advocate saying "what UTF-32 really needs is surrogate pairs". No, spacing is not some kind of high tech invention by English, it's a necessity that follows from the its special design (also think the use of null characters to terminate strings)


This talk goes into some detail about the history of Chinese typewriters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdT-oFxc-C0 -- the presenter claims that a form of predictive text first originated for Chinese typewriters.

This is a video of someone using an electromechanical Chinese typewriter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRKAUDHk_MM -- it's hard to appreciate the topic without seeing one used.


TFA says the same thing about predictive text.


"TFA" is one paragraph long. BTW your usage of "TFA" can come across as rude.


I've never considered that about "TFA" (I could see how 'RTFA' could be rude); no rudeness intended. The article as my browser displays it is a couple dozen paragraphs long; just in case you can't access it, here is the relevant section:

The spectre hanging, however genially, over every attempt to create a Chinese typewriter is Lin Yutang. While others repackaged Japanese machines, the Tsinghua and Harvard-educated Lin was inventing his own. A brilliant and congenial figurehead with two English-language bestsellers in the 1930s, in the 1940s Lin came up with his MingKwai (Clear, Quick) typewriter. Roughly the size of an English-language typewriter, and equipped with a recognisable keyboard, the MingKwai’s appearance belied its complexity. Its compact chassis concealed 43 rotating cylinders, and featured a viewfinder (‘the Magic Eye’) that allowed users to select characters by depressing keys marked with character components – some radicals, some strokes, and some bold and intuitive groupings of Lin’s own devising. IBM and Remington expressed their interest, and Lin’s typewriter was celebrated in dozens of newspapers across the US, from the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune to the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek. But it was never mass-manufactured: the plans were undone partly by the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, which didn’t seem to bode well for patent rights, and partly by the invention of the phonetic system Pinyin, which briefly threatened, at least in the eyes of American manufacturers, to make Chinese typewriters obsolete. Today if you open a laptop or unlock a phone to type in Chinese, the first thing you’ll notice is how intent the software is on doing all your work for you. The letters typed on your keyboard trigger the on-screen display of several dozen likely possibilities, arranged in order of frequency. This seems so obviously computational it is a surprise to learn that it originated with the actuating keys Lin devised for his typewriter, and with the fervour of the typists in the early days of the Revolution.

In 1951, typesetter Zhang Jiying shattered speed records by arranging characters in associative clusters, which he called lianchuan – ‘chain’ or ‘free-association’, later adopted as the term for what is now called predictive text. Zhang recognised how much of language is cliché. ‘Liberation’ (jiefang) was likely to be followed by ‘army’ (jun), ‘American’ (Mei) by ‘imperialist’ (di). While it is true that grammar and word-order impose certain expectations on form in every language, it is particularly true of Chinese, where collocations influenced by tone, metre and rhythm have, by a centuries-long process, migrated towards one another. Typists and typewriter manufacturers rejigged their keyboards in the wake of Zhang’s discovery. And so while typewriters became more attuned to the language of people generally, they became less like people personally.


Loved Thomas’s quick sketch on that same topic last month: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/07/16/1-billion-people-100000...


What about Japanese typewriters? Kanji is similar enough to Chinese characters.




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