In a previous blog post, we discussed the fact that Chinese has two writing systems: Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese. We also gave tips on which one to choose for a translation. But how come Chinese has two writing systems, especially given that it has ten different spoken dialects?
A symbol for a word
The first thing to realise about the Chinese writing system is that instead of having a symbol for a sound, and combining those sounds to make a word, which is what we do in English, they have a symbol for a word. This system has a major drawback, which is that there are a lot of different symbols to learn. The average Chinese person needs to know about 3000 of them to get by. Compare that with the 26 letters in our alphabet, and you will understand that Chinese children have a somewhat harder time at primary school!
Very basically this means (and this is something I think is really cool) that it does not matter how you say a word in order to be able to read it. For example: an English person says “house” and a French person says “maison”. An English person who does not speak French will never understand the written word “maison”. But if two Chinese people from different regions who speak different dialects meet, they may not be able to understand each other when they say the word house, but when they write the symbol 舍, they will both understand.
For this reason Chinese people, who speak ten different dialects, only need one writing system.
Of course, it isn’t quite that simple… Over the centuries, the Chinese realised that having one symbol per actual word is too much work for anybody’s memory (imagine if English did that – the Oxford English dictionary has 171476 entries, so that’s how many symbols you would have to learn!) so what happened is that symbols were combined. Sometimes this makes sense to us, so teapot is 茶壶 which is the symbol for “tea” and then the symbol for “pot”. Sometimes they make sense to us after they have been explained, in fact, this can be quite entertaining! For example, train is 火车 which means “fire car”, computer is 电脑, which means “electric brain”, and conversation is 谈话 which means “chat talk”.
Why have two writing systems?
So the Chinese have this really clever writing system which means they only need one system even though there are many different dialects. But wait, then how come there are two writing systems? That’s because mainland China decided in 1949 that the Traditional Chinese writing system was too difficult for people to learn easily, so they made an easier version, which was then aptly called Simplified Chinese.
The other regions that used Traditional Chinese as their writing systems, Taiwan and Hong Kong, did not change to this system, which is why the world now has two systems side by side.
Can people who can read Traditional Chinese figure out Simplified Chinese?
Yes, though it might cost them a little trouble, but they will be able to recognise many symbols which are still very similar to the Traditional variant that they have learned, and then the ones that are not as similar can explain themselves in the context. Also, especially in Hong Kong, there are lots of advertisements in Simplified Chinese so people are used to seeing and deciphering these symbols.
Someone who knows Simplified Chinese might also be able to read Traditional Chinese, but the Chinese people I have spoken to agree that it’s a lot more difficult that way around.
What about Mandarin and Cantonese?
Some people incorrectly believe that all Mandarin speakers read and write in Simplified Chinese and all Cantonese speakers read and write in Traditional Chinese. This is because the biggest dialect in China (which has the simplified writing system) is Mandarin, and the biggest dialect in Hong Kong (which was given back to China by Great Britain in 1997, but has kept the traditional writing system) is Cantonese. But the spoken and written languages really are separate, as you can see in the table below.
|Country||Written system||Spoken language|
A symbol for a sound
After explaining that the spoken and the written Chinese languages are not correlated, now the time has come to say “well, actually, perhaps they are, a bit…” just to make things more complicated.
Though the system was imagined to have a symbol per word, so each symbol had a meaning, it also became normal to use the symbols for their sounds. A great example of this is that in Cantonese, the word for “film” is pronounced “fei-lam” (they took the English word and made it Cantonese) and so in Hong Kong many people write the word by combining the symbol for the word that sounds like “fei” (which can mean a number of things, one of them is “humble”) with the symbol for the word that sounds like “lam” (which can mean, among other things, “forest”) and end up with 菲林, fei-lam, film. The official way of writing it in Traditional Chinese, however, is 膠卷, which looks really different.
If you have ever had your name transcribed in Chinese you will also know that the symbols can also be used for their sounds. The person transcribing will take the sounds of your name, in other words the syllables, and find Chinese symbols that sound a bit like that. But there are multiple Chinese symbols that sound very alike, so one Chinese person might transcribe your name differently than another.
Chinese has a problem
The Chinese writing system now has a problem. Though at one point it was very cleverly based on meaning, resulting in people with different dialects being able to use the same written system, it now has more and more words which are based on sounds, which means a Mandarin person will not understand the writing of a Cantonese person.
It’s mostly a “problem” in Hong Kong, where people are devising a lot of written words based on their pronunciation, resulting in other Chinese people not being able to read Chinese from Hong Kong. Mandarin, the biggest Chinese dialect, has the most overlap between the sounds they use when they speak and the way the language is written. Consequently, they have it the easiest.
Interestingly, most Chinese people will say “people from Hong Kong cannot write proper Chinese” and their solution is that Cantonese speakers should learn to speak Mandarin. There are also some Chinese people who believe it is time for a writing revolution, and some even advocate the use of the Latin alphabet! That would be a huge change, though, involving tons of money and a gigantic cultural shift. I don’t think we will see anything like this in our lifetime.
Heddwen Newton is a project manager and translator at Interlex Language Services, a translation company that specialises in creative translations: translations that run smoothly and are just right for the target audience.
Interlex language Services provides quality translations into both Traditional and Simplified Chinese for a reasonable price. Request a quote now and find out for yourself!