I do not speak any logographic language, contemporary or otherwise, but I have students whose original languages are written logographically.

I was trying to imagine summarizing, rewriting and paraphrasing an original or secondary source in such a language. I supposed that there would be a limited vocabulary, and that syntactical rules might also be quite restrictive.

In English, I find it easy to cite the information in some source while using an extremely different phrasing. But would a logographic language afford the same flexibility?

Suppose you have an academic paper in front of you as your primary source written in a logographic language. If you're writing in the same language, do you even have vocabulary and grammatical alternatives to the phrasing in your source?

Does this differ among logographically-written languages?

Can Western definitions of plagiarism be applied fairly to academic environments in languages that use logographic writing?

With students for whom logographics are their native written language, do we in the Western academic environments have to train them in the sort or originality we expect of native Western students?

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    Chinese and Japanese as spoken languages are not of a substantially different nature than other spoken languages. Since a writing system is essentially a way of writing down the spoken language, why should it be any less expressive than spoken Chinese or Japanese? May 22, 2016 at 1:46
  • I am not knowledgable enough to know whether all languages have equal capacity to express an equal range of ideas and sentiments. May 22, 2016 at 2:11
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    This question makes little sense and sounds full of bigotry if I'm to be honest. It's quite lamentable that today, in year 2016, such incredibly partial perception of other cultures full of imagination still exists. It must be horrible to be a student of such a professor, or be somebody from a said culture communicating with such a person in general, as she'll first have to dispel all those nonsensical stereotypes in the first place to have basically functioning communication.
    – xji
    May 28, 2016 at 8:12
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    Imagine how you would feel like if somebody asked, "should we expect all American students to be taking drugs always and have no dedication at all?" You'd feel horrible as well. Sorry for sounding a bit harsh, but hopefully cultural exchanges happen more frequently and eradicate such phenomenon as much as possible.
    – xji
    May 28, 2016 at 8:13
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    "I supposed that there would be a limited vocabulary, and that syntactical rules might also be quite restrictive." You supposed wrong, of course. How can you say (even if you claim not to be sure) that a language you don't know is more limited than a language you know? What is limited there is your knowledge and skills in that L2, that's it. Besides, all languages can express basically all ideas, so limited how? Is English limited because it has fewer names for "snow" than other languages?
    – Alenanno
    May 28, 2016 at 9:10

2 Answers 2


There are no "logographic languages" in the sense that you seem to be thinking of (systems of pictures that represent ideas directly). As you seem to be aware, such a system would be very limited in its expressivity—it would not really be "writing" or "language" at all (or not human language as we know it), but some kind of cartoon or diagram.

Written Chinese, Japanese, Ancient Egyptian etc. are in fact written forms of spoken languages. These scripts are often inaccurately described as logographic, but in fact none of these writing systems (nor any known) are purely logographic. All of them have significant phonetic components, and morphological components (a "morpheme" is a linguistic unit of meaning, but it is not an idea—for example, the English morpheme "pseudo-" is distinct from the morpheme "fake" and the morpheme "ersatz" even though they all mean approximately the same thing. You can think of a morpheme as being a "word root"). In written Japanese, there are actually two approximately phonetic scripts that are used alongside the more morpheme-oriented characters. In written Chinese, there is almost always a one-to-one correspondence between a spoken syllable and a written character. So these scripts very closely represent specific sequences of words in the spoken languages. And all spoken languages have synonyms and alternative grammatical structures that can be used to re-word an idea.

Different definitions of plagiarism exist for cultural reasons, and are not necessitated by the nature of any particular scripts.

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    Absolutely agree that "logographic language" is nonsense, but I don't think it's true that writing systems involve "written forms of spoken languages". a they obviously involve forms, but the relationship between such forms and spoken language is messy, to say the least. they're really related but very different mechanisms of communication.
    – mobileink
    May 22, 2016 at 18:53
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    Well, I tried a few websites and they seemed to say that 'logographic' was a term preferred for scripts that were non-alphabetic. But I completely agree with @mobileink that there is a wide difference between spoken and written expressions of the same language. Here I am only asking about written forms, and I am not a linguist which is why I ask. I'm happy to be corrected about terminology. May 28, 2016 at 19:10

An interesting fact is that I find it is much more difficult to reformulate a meaning in different words and especially with slightly different tone (for instance, indicating the author's relation to the issue) in English compared to Russian. In some sense the Orwell's newspeak is the idea of English language taken to the extreme, but actual English language is not too far from it. A good side of it, it is very hard to make very emotional hate speech or good sarcasm in English compared to Russian or German. In English you have to explicitly write "I hate it", in Russian you can express hate directly using appropriate words and inflections, without needing any clarification.

Some say, English is similar to Chinese in this respect.

  • You have very well rephrased my question. How easily can you reformulate a specific meaning in different words? If it's very difficult in some language, how do you judge originality in research papers written in that language? May 28, 2016 at 19:39
  • "In English you have to explicitly write "I hate it", in Russian you can express hate directly using appropriate words and inflections, without needing any clarification." What does this even mean? How would expressing hate directly using appropriate words be substantially different than using the verb "hate"?
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 3, 2018 at 14:36

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