What on earth is the Chinese language | 中文到底是门什么语言

What on earth is the Chinese language | 中文到底是门什么语言

What on earth is the Chinese language | 中文到底是门什么语言

Oct 17

 

(English follows. 英文在次.)

真相

让我们把一件事情说出来, 以减轻各位的迷惑或是被迷惑. 那就是: 我们通常认为的中文不是一种语言, 而是两种. 我尽量简述. 

何为语言

语言是意义的表达形式(即信息编码). 意义自身可以实现认知, 但意义必须以某种形式表达, 才可以实现交流, 这个表达形式就是语言. 比如: 

哑语用视觉所能识别的手势来表达和交流; 

盲文用触觉所能识别的纹样来表达和交流; 

英文用听觉和视觉所能识别的语音来表达和交流 - 等一下, 为什么英文 "语音" 是用 "视觉" 来识别? 

关于英文

因为英文的书写文字是直接用来拼出语音的, 把听到的语音一个个地写下来就是英文的文字, 语音到文字的转换过程是自然的, 跟照镜子一样如影随形 (transliteration). 

 

关于中文

上面英文的照镜子过程听上去不错, 于是我们就依葫芦画瓢把听到的中文语音也一个个地写下来, 那么写下来的结果就会是汉字的横竖撇捺吗? 显然不是, 我们能写下的只是拼音(或注音或反切). 中文的书写文字其实跟盲文一样, 自成一套无声语言; 而中文的口语加上拼音系统在一起就变得跟英文一样, 成为另一套"语音和书写自洽"的语言. 如果要在中文的书写文字和它的语音之间作转换, 我们必须查手上或脑中的字典 (translation), 而没有一个基本的拼读规则可徇. 这个转换实际上是从一个语言到另一个语言的翻译. 

归纳起来说

拉丁语系中, 语音和文字二者是镜里镜外的连动兄弟亲密无间. 相反在中文的情况下, 语音和书写文字之间不存在基本逻辑关系, 语音和文字的转换须借助字典来翻译, 中文的口语和文字是两门不同的语言. 

二外的学习者们可能早就觉得这个语言有些难以言说的奇怪. 这就是关键. 因为通常他/她以为自己在学地球上的又一门语言. 

还说件小事

照上面这么说来, 老祖先为什么就设计出了中文书写文字这种 "吃力不讨好" 的东西? 

当我们再看一眼汉字, 象形, 会意, 指示, 形声. 汉字作为表意文字不易因为口音而起变化, 从而这三千年来保持了坚挺的延续性, 使得我们今天在这个摩登城市里还处处操着这门古老的语言和它承载的文化. 真是酷到发抖. 

从这个点上作些延伸: 我们通常所谓的中文实指大陆的普通话(或台湾的国语, 新加坡的华语等), 而普通话只不过是中文(或确切地说是汉语)的众多方言之一. 中文方言之间差距可以大到像英文和法语的差异一样. 想像一下广东人跟上海人聊天, 那就是鸡同鸭讲. 当然, 拼音系统也只不过是中文普通话的罗马化拼写而已. 如果各个方言发展一套基于语音的拼读书写系统, 那么中国早就分裂成了欧洲的样子. 而我们看到实际的情形是, 所有方言都对应到几乎同样的汉字书写系统, 于是它们依然只是作为方言而不是多门语言来存在. 我们继而将空间视角折叠到时间线上, 中文在历史长河中的语音的巨大变迁不亚于英文, 我们难以阅读500年前的英文作品, 但东方的小学生们却在用现代语音诵读2000年前的中文作品. 这也是源于如上同样的原因. 中文语音总是"强制地"对应到汉字, 汉字之不易变缘于其字形反映真实世界. 这是一个重要的因素, 导致强健而统一的中华文化得以形成, 维持, 存续. 

(English. 英文)

The Truth

Let's state it to eliminate confusion: the so-called Chinese language is not a language but two. Let me try to be brief.

What is a Language? 

A language is a method to express meaning (aka encoding of information). Meaning itself does realise knowledge, but meaning can only be communicated when it is expressed. The expression is language. For example, 

Sign language can be used for communication with visually recognizable gestures.

Braille can be used for communication by touching recognizable patterns.

The English language can be used for communication visually and aurally - wait, why is English "audio" using "vision" to distinguish it?

The English Language

This is because text in English is used directly to write the sounds. By writing down the English speaking sounds one-by-one, written English is formed. This conversion process is natural. The spoken voice and written text are simply mirroring each other like a reflection in a mirror.

The Chinese Language

The above English system is attractive for its simplicity so we also mimic it for Chinese by writing the Chinese sounds. It turns out that what we write down can only be phonetic annotations such as pinyin, not the actual written Chinese characters. As with Braille, written Chinese itself is an unvoiced language; and like English, spoken Chinese together with its phonetic spelling system becomes another language. Conversion between the spoken and written Chinese is not natural. We need the help of a dictionary on hand or in our brains to look them up. This conversion is actually a translation from a language to another language.

To Sum Up

Spoken and written English (or any phonological language) mirror each other like Siamese twins. On the other hand, there is no logical or natural relation between spoken and written Chinese. Spoken and written Chinese are two different languages.

Yes, you may have already felt that this language is strange in an inexplicable way. This is the key: you've been thinking you are learning yet another language.

One Minor Matter

We may be wondering why the ancient Chinese people designed such an illogical language without consistency in its spoken and writtem components. The answer simply lies in that Chinese characters are ideographs which explains their own meanings. This largely results in the consistency of the Chinese language and all the great works written in it over the millenia. Isn't it a wonder that we speak an ancient language everywhere in this modern city?

Let's expand this point further: Mandarin Chinese which we usually generally refer to as 'Chinese' is merely a dialect of Chinese (more specifically Han) language. Imagine a Cantonese person and a Shanghainese prson speak to each other, akin to a chicken speaking to a duck. As you know the pinyin spelling annotation system applies to Mandarin Chinese only. There are numerous Chinese dialects that varies drastically to each other phonetically like English and French. If there had been a phonetic spelling system for each of the dialects, China would have split into something like Europe already. The actual story is all Chinese dialects map to almost the same writing system so that they remain as dialects instead of languages. Furthermore, let's turn our view from the space dimension into the time dimension: spoken Chinese has also changed so much just like English has over the millenia. We find it difficult to read English written 500 years ago while on the other hand pupils in China are reading Chinese written 2000 years ago. That is because no matter how much spoken Chinese has changed over time, they always map to the same writing system whose patterns reflect the physical world. This is the main reason how the strong and consistent Chinese culture has formed, maintained and survived.

Acknowledgement

My sincere thanks to my friend Keh Han 格汉's hours of professional work to transforms the English write-ups from readable to wonderful.