Pronouncing Chinese Ideographs

The Chinese and Japanese languages use ideographs in their writing system. Ideographs are ideas represented by graphic symbols. Ideographs is a linguist word and they are sometimes called “ideograms” or “pictographs”. The Chinese and Japanese call them “the characters of the Han people”: “Hanzi” in Chinese and “Kanji” in Japanese. Their ideographs have a problem: they contain only meaning and no hint of pronunciation. To illustrate this I created the diagram below of a hypothetical English which uses a combination of ideograms and letters. Note that the ideograms pronunciation depends on its context in the sentence. Compound words combine smaller symbols on top of one another. See if you can see the flexibility of the ideographs.

As you realized, if you worked through my diagram on your own, in this diagram:

  • the heart-symbol can be read: “love” or “heart”
  • the water-symbol can be read: “water” or “hydro”
  • the head-symbol can be read: “head” or “cephalic”.
  • the wall-symbol can be read: “wall” or in compound with water is simply “dam”
  • the bolt-symbol can be read: “electric” or “power”

Japanese has a similar writing system to my above hypothetical English that uses both letters (kana) and pictographs (kanji). Chinese, on the other hand, uses only pictographs (hanzi). The obvious burden for a language that uses pictographs is the task of learning the pronunciation of each ideograph. Chinese has only one sound for each picture, but Japanese has several sounds for each picture — just like my hypothetical English above.

To help children learn the pronunciation of characters each country has developed their own system. Each system puts little pronunciation letters (alphabets or syllabaries) next to the characters to show how to pronounce them. At each new grade level, the pronunciation letters are slowly left off and the children are expected to remember the pronunciations. My diagram below shows China, Taiwan and Japan’s three different system to teach character (pictogram/ pictographs) pronunciations, Japan uses kana (their phonetic syllabary), Chinese in Taiwan uses bopomofo (their phonetic syllabary) and Mainland Chinese used to use bopomofo but switch to using a Roman alphabet system under Mao Tse Dong called “pinyin”.

As I have learned from Jin Tsu’s book that prior to Mao’s Chinese revolution in 1949, the Chinese literacy rate was only about 10%. One of Mao’s goals was to modernize China which necessitated a more educated populace for which he felt language reform was critical — learning the characters was too difficult. Pinyin was part of his successful solution. Many of Mao’s other solutions for China were of course horrible, but PinYin did help modernize China.


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