The simplification of Chinese character-based writing

William Carl Hannas, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation addresses the simplification of Chinese character-based writing systems in East Asia. Orthographic conventions presently used for Chinese, Japanese and Korean are examined to determine the linguistic effects of designs intended to reduce their complexity. Vietnamese, which used the characters historically and bears their legacy, is also taken into account.^ Since there is no general agreement on how Chinese characters function with respect to the languages using them, linguistic science is used to ascertain the salient features of this unique type of writing, as a prerequisite to dealing with techniques aimed at its reform. An integrated theory of the structural and psycholinguistic relationships among Chinese characters, speech and language is formulated, which guides the analysis of four particular simplification techniques. These include measures that aim at simplification of the units themselves, proposals that deal with Sinitic vocabulary, those that involve writing style and those that suggest replacing the characters with phonetic scripts. The first three categories are found to produce results that are insignificant, or inimical to the goals of reform. It is argued that only the last technique--use of phonetic orthographies--offers a genuine solution to linguistic problems associated with the use of Chinese characters.^ The success of reform depends on what positive aspects of the system are being sacrificed for simplicity. This study maintains that every advantage attributed to Chinese characters derives from effects which they have had on the languages using them. Hence the characters are useful only in the sense that they solve problems that their own use has created.^ Other chapters address the evolution of character scripts in East Asia, and the history of movements to effect their removal. A summation of arguments for and against Chinese characters is provided, to remind the reader that there are cultural and historical aspects to this problem, in addition to those linguistic issues that the study treats. Sources are used from seven languages, including materials in Russian not cited elsewhere. ^

Subject Area

Language, Linguistics|Literature, Asian

Recommended Citation

Hannas, William Carl, "The simplification of Chinese character-based writing" (1988). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI8908337.