Forgotten characters

As software obviates the need for Chinese to sketch by hand the characters that make up their written language, they are coming to realize that those characters are being erased from their memories. Barbara Demick recently reported on this “long descent into forgetfulness” in the Los Angeles Times:

This is a strange new form of illiteracy — or, more exactly, dysgraphia, the inability to write — that is peculiar to China … The more gadgets people own — cellphones, smart phones, computers — the less often they go through the elaborate sequence of strokes that make up Chinese characters. Whether on their computers or texting on phones, most Chinese use a system where they type out the sound of the word in Pinyin, the most commonly used Romanization system — and presto, they are given a choice of characters to use.

Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at Penn, calls it an epidemic of “character amnesia”:

Because of their complexity and multiplicity, writing Chinese characters correctly is a highly neuromuscular task. One simply has to practice them hundreds and hundreds of times to master them. And, as with playing a musical instrument like a violin or a piano, one must practice writing them regularly or one’s control over them will simply evaporate … Unlike aphasia, a type of language disorder that usually occurs suddenly because of physical injury, the impairment brought about by frequent cellphone checking is gradual. Nonetheless, the attrition that results is just as real as that brought about by dysphasia (limited aphasia).

Some of the many commenters on Mair’s post suggest that the complex, character-based system of writing is cumbersome and ill-suited to our efficiency-hungry world. Its eventual replacement by a simpler system of Roman letters, they argue, would be an example of progress. Others worry about a loss of one of the foundations of Chinese culture: “Is it worth throwing out 3,000 years of knowledge and literature for some amount of greater efficiency?”

The shift in Chinese writing practices, and the cognitive skills that underpin them, may be particularly dramatic, but it is just the latest instance of a recurring pattern in human history: the arrival of a new tool for reading or writing changes language, which in turn (as Walter J. Ong, among others, pointed out) changes thought. We adopt the new tools for various good reasons – efficiency and convenience being prominent ones – and the changes in language and thinking come as side effects, unplanned and usually unanticipated.

8 thoughts on “Forgotten characters

  1. alex brooks

    I was visiting Japan 3 years ago and this was a problem there too. With almost all ‘writing’ now being done on computers and cells, they are forgetting how to actually write the characters by hand. But the Japanese have long used Roman Characters alongside Chinese Kanji (and hiragana & katakana), so I don’t think they would ever consider replacing Kanji with Roman characters. I am not a Japanese speaker, but know enough about the character system to believe that Kanji are integral to the way native speakers think, and that they would not be eager to let a western mindset obliviate their linguistic culture. It would be like suggesting to Europeans that they should all just learn to speak English; offensive to them, and a loss to culture in general.

  2. Kevinmarks

    I never understood why pen-based computng didn’t win out in china. Even touch screens should be well suited to stroke based writing.

  3. Kevinmarks

    I never understood why pen-based computng didn’t win out in china. Even touch screens should be well suited to stroke based writing.

  4. James Mastin

    I have found that among the multitude of mobiles and handheld data devices being produced in China (for in country use at least), a great many feature a pen/stylus or touch text entry system that works most efficiently. These systems allow for character entry by stroke, and much like predictive text for western mobile devices, can autocomplete characters through a combination of character frequency in the language and context based frequency of use in tandem with preceeding text. Even more devices include the base strokes on the keypad alongside numbers and latin letters for stroke order character input. Largely do to substantial variance across Chinese dialects for the phontic values of characters as pronounced in local dialect, such input systems are used by a large portion of Chinese people, and I should think this to be an extremely viable option for bucking the trend toward dyphagia in Chinese character based language users. In regards to the notion that written Chinese could eliminate traditional characters in favor of an alphabetic script such as the Latin one, the constraints present in the language that gave rise to the use of a non-phonetically based writing system from the beginning virtually ensure its continued use.

  5. Seth Finkelstein

    “Penmanship” is gone from Western world. I can’t remember the last time I did any cursive writing. And I’m glad to see it go.

    And what about that newfangled “ballpoint” anyway – it CHANGES THOUGHT by taking away the frequents moments of reflection which come from dipping the goose-quill into the inkwell. Oh, our rushed modern world, which does away with the quiet of re-inking. Studies have shown that brain-patterns of activity of ballpoint-pen users are in a constant motion, without the refreshing rests and breaks of goose-quill calligraphers.

  6. Charles

    Ah, now this is my particular specialty since I have a degree in Japanese linguistics and have spent many years learning (and forgetting) kanji. I’m also a fairly good calligrapher, my writing in Japanese is much better than my English handwriting (which is barely legible).

    I assure you, this problem of forgotten characters has been around for centuries. There is one huge Sino-Japanese dictionary, the “Morohashi,” that attempts to demonstrate every kanji ever used in the Japanese language, around 50,000 characters. Almost all of them came from Chinese originally (with the exception of a few native mutations). There are ancient Classical Japanese language forms that seem more Chinese than Japanese, so these languages are somewhat intertwined.

    However, in current use today, there are only around 2000 kanji in common use in Japanese. However there are advanced kanji exams for scholars that test the ability to write around 6000 kanji, the extra 4000 are uncommon but not terribly rare, especially if you read pre-WWII texts. Before an official “orthographic reform” movement after WWII, more than 6000 characters were in common use. There have been similar reforms in China, reducing the number of commonly used kanji to under 4000.

    Of course such a huge number of kanji is a terrible burden to learners (even native learners) and reduces literacy. So this sort of reduction in numbers of kanji has been going on for thousands of years. There are official reforms, which are deliberately intended to reduce the burden on learning, and are implemented by the Ministry of Education, which officially “controls” the language. I find that terribly interesting, AFAIK there is no other country that has a government level bureau with official powers over the language.

    Unofficially, characters undergo trends of fashion, so to speak, and enjoy popularity and then fall out of favor. Alex Kerr writes about this in his book “Lost Japan,” as an amateur calligrapher he studies orthography, and located what he calls “hapax legomenon” in the Morohashi, kanji that have only been used once in the history of the written language.

    Orthographic reforms often have the coincidental side effect of a cultural disconnection; today most Japanese people educated after WWII cannot read texts that were written before WWII, due to the vast quantity of kanji they’ve never seen before. It takes extensive advanced education to read these early 20th century texts, not to mention truly ancient texts hundreds of years old, which are like an entirely different language. Just as an example, modern writers often prove their skills by producing a “translation” of The Tale of Genji from Classical Japanese to Modern Japanese. There must be a hundred of them.

    Anyway, to get to the point here.. Kanji is considered a culturally distinctive feature of Japanese (and Chinese of course) precisely because it IS inefficient. I often see this associated with the controversial topic of “nihonjinron,” (theories of specific Japanese uniqueness). The linguist Haru Yamada posited that the use of Roman characters in Japanese texts is intended to force the reader to realize their alien feeling, and emphasize the “Japanese-ness” of their native characters. There have been movements to drop kanji before, most notably around 1900. These have met with incredible blowback. One famous literary work, “Romaji Diary” is a work written in Japanese, but in Roman characters. Officially it served as a sort of “substitution cipher” so his wife couldn’t read it, but more literarily, it was intended to strip off the cultural references contained in the kanji themselves.

    And that is what it all comes down to. Each kanji evokes thousands of years of cultural associations. This is not often apparent to the casually educated Japanese user, but is often used to great effect in higher literary forms. It is as if there are multiple levels of evocative meaning possible within the language, I don’t know of any western language where this is possible. Ask a Japanese person to give up kanji is like asking them to give up their identity as Japanese, their writing is believed to be a major source of their uniqueness. They pride themselves in the fact that their writing is difficult, and it is consequently difficult to be Japanese. They even believe that it is impossible for foreigners to ever master their language and writing system.

    Well, I am rambling, but let me get to a couple of points. Kevin Marks’ remark about how pen computing should have been more popular in Asia is typical of people who have never studied the language. Pen input of kanji is has complex rules, typically it is based on what order the strokes are written and where they cross, which is a rather oblique approach. Pen input only works if you write the kanji absolutely perfectly according to classical orthographic rules. Many people do not. It is much easier to type it out in roman characters and then choose from an offered selection of homophones. Most Japanese computers offer a “kana keyboard” as well as a conventional QWERTY keyboard, almost nobody ever uses the native kana keyboard layout, they all prefer writing Japanese as romaji and then converting. I don’t know much about the Chinese input system, but I understand it is similarly based on roman keyboards.

    Finally, I think I take great offense at these comparisons of forgetting kanji to aphasia. This is probably Too Much Information, and I hesitate to publish too much of my personal medical information on the internet, but I will blunder ahead anyway. I once suffered from the exceedingly rare syndrome of Bilingual Aphasia, after suffering a brain injury due to a difficult surgery on my left ear, which required a craniotomy. I suffered damage to Broca’s Area, which totally disrupted my language skills. I had terrible difficulties, I would be speaking English and then without realizing it, switch to Japanese. I could not understand some English words, while I could speak them in Japanese, and vice versa. But more to the point, my difficulties were primarily not in recognizing Kanji or Japanese vocabulary, but in producing them. I think this aphasia experience (now mostly healed after 15 years) has given me a special insight into this issue of memory recognition of kanji. And most of my Japanese friends (and Japanese second-language scholars) will tend to agree, it is much easier to recognize kanji than to produce them from memory. I can read far more kanji than I write, regardless of how many times I commit them to “muscle memory” (ooh I hate that neuromuscular memory theory). This is true of everyone who uses kanji. This theory has now been incorporated into language instruction, the current pedagogy is based on “four skills,” placing equal importance on reading AND writing, listening AND speaking. Many earlier pedagogies were based solely on reading and listening comprehension, with the assumption that students would only need writing and speaking if they ever moved to Japan and immersed themselves in the native language environment, in which case they would learn it by osmosis. Dumb theory.

    Well anyway, to wrap it up, there has been much said about how computers and keyboard inputs have reduced the ability to produce kanji from memory. But I will disagree. In fact, there has been an exact opposite effect. With computer devices, even casual writers have instant access to a vast library of kanji. Those infrequently used characters are often easily recognized but difficult to produce. But you just pop in some phonetic notation and a list of many obscure variants will pop up. Sometimes this has lead to objections from the pre-computer generation, who can’t read these obscure characters. I thought that was terribly amusing. So ultimately, I think this keyboard input is just another variant of the Guitar Hero-style abstraction of inputs. You may recall I previously wrote that the buttons on the Guitar Hero instrument are sufficiently abstracted from a real guitar that they might as well be buttons attached to a toy xylophone and drum them with mallets to play the notes. And that is what it is like today with kanji input. The keyboard text inputs are quite distantly abstracted from the written language, but the output is the same pure written kanji as before. Many people have more advanced proficiency with the abstracted input methods, far more than the written tools like pen or brush. That leaves the written forms as elevated as artforms for the traditional calligraphers, who can still be artistically evocative, and those nuances will still be understood.

    Well sorry to go on at such length. But it is so rarely that my obscure language studies are of any relevance.

  7. Mark Nelson


    Don’t be so fast to discard old methods of writing. Ballpoint pens and pencils are out of the question for me due to a wrist injury that makes it painful to write if I need to apply pressure to the tool. Fountain pens were my solution: they may be “outdated” or “antiquated”, but to put it bluntly, they need neither pressure nor batteries. A trick, though, with fountain pens, is the fact that you almost need to write in cursive or you’ll destroy the nib.

    Just a fun fact.

  8. Amiram Carmon

    The Hanzi characters of the Chinese language [ called Kanji in Japanese] are there because of the language. Chinese spoken language does not use combination and order of syllables to create more and more words, as is common to most other languages. But, rather, each syllable is a word by itself, and moreover, same syllable can have many, even over 120 meanings, that is a plethora of homophones. While intonation can discern between different words sharing the same sound, there are only 5 different tones. At the same time, each character depict a unique word. This is the reason for the multiplicity of characters. It is also the reason why PinYin, phonetic expression in Latin letters is a method that is good for WeiGuoRen { strangers ] and is causing dysgraphy for Chinese.

    Chinese must keep the knowledge of writing Hanzi if they want to keep their linguistic ability. With the advent of touch screen on tablets, this can be done. I have developed over 25 years ago a multi approach system that enabled the easiest and yet most comprehensive input system for Chinese, but the hardware available at that time was too expensive to make it a mas market item.

    [P.S. Japanese {Yamato} is a multisyllabic language but before i=t had a script it was “invaded”in the 6th century A.D. by Chinese monks who imported into Japan the Chinese script and language.]

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