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I know both languages to a certain extent. By no means I am fluent; reading is still a challenge, especially in Chinese, thus I am not allowed to firmly stand by my opinion.

I often ponder on the big loss the Vietnamese Language incurred with the replacement of the Chinese-based Chữ Nôm writing system with the latin based script (chữ Quốc ngữ) by missionaries and French colonizers.

I know that Vietnamese have no problems reading the latin-based script, and I raised a following questions many times to Chinese people I know:

Could Chinese characters be totally abandoned and could children be
taught to only use the pinyin(拼音) instead? Would they still be able to read efficiently?

A standard Chinese answer to this hypothetical question is something like:

no, it's absolutely impossible.

The only "proof" I got until now is this which underlines the abundance of homonyms in Chinese.

It's not much and I still think it's possible to switch to pinyin for Chinese. I'm basing my opinion on the similarity of Vietnamese/Chinese, but would love to hear some more down-to-earth proofs/references.

[edited] Note that I am not into economics of such a hypothetical enterprise. I am strictly interested in the possibility of Chinese people to read in pinyin without being excessively exposed to ambiguity due to homonyms (pinyin is the same for many characters. Examples: 是 and 士).

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    I'm afraid, you will get no objective answer. It's because your question is purely hypothetical: "could it?" — yes, technically it "could", but you have to pay your price for that, linguistically. – bytebuster Dec 7 '16 at 23:17
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    @bytebuster: What new grammar are you talking about? Pinyin is just a writing system; to be able to read it one just needs to be familiar with the initials, finals and tone letters. – sumelic Dec 8 '16 at 0:31
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    What is your explicit question? Is it "Could Chinese speakers switch to pinyin entirely?'. Whatever your actual question, can you edit your post to make it explicit? – Mitch Dec 8 '16 at 17:09
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    @bytebuster - As far as I know, Chinese children learn pinyin first, and only then they start learning the characters, that's why all the literate Chinese already know pinyin. – Yellow Sky Dec 9 '16 at 5:03
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    And of language. A lot of other Chinese languages use hanzi besides Putonghua; and you can't write them in pinyin. Minority language speakers gain nothing from universal alphabetization except another language barrier. It's not a could so much as a would. – jlawler Apr 29 '17 at 13:24

10 Answers 10

21

Yes, it is possible to read texts that are written only in pinyin. This is pretty trivial in one sense: pinyin spelling indicates all of the segmental phonemic distinctions of standard Putonghua Chinese (it was designed to) and when used with tone marks and correct word division and punctuation, it indicates some of the suprasegmental and intonational aspects of pronunciation as well. So someone with a pinyin text can read the sounds out loud fairly well, and if you can do that, you should be able to understand what's being said about as well as you can understand something that you hear that is not written down.

In another sense, it's obviously difficult for people who are used to one spelling system to read something in an unfamiliar spelling system. /fɔr ɪgˈzæmpəl, aɪm ˈraɪtɪŋ ðɪs ˈsɛntəns ɪn ði ɪntərˈnæʃənəl fəˈnɛtɪk ˈælfəbɛt; ɪts ˈprɑbəbli ˈhɑrdər tə rid ðən ðə nɛkst ˈsɛntəns./ For example, this sentence is probably easier to read than the preceding sentence written using the International Phonetic Alphabet. But it is not impossible to read an IPA transcription of English; it just requires knowledge of the sound correspondences, and practice if you want to be able to read quickly. So this is a practical objection to replacing characters in pinyin; it doesn't mean writing comprehensible Chinese in pinyin is "absolutely impossible" in principle.

And in another sense, a non-phonemic writing system allows you to get away with things that would be confusing, or even incomprehensible, in spoken language (like the "shi" poem). I found a tract calling for English spelling reform that gives the following English example:

the words "attend to know understanding" might easily be read to convey the meaning "attend to no understanding"

A plea for phonetic spelling: or, The necessity of orthographic reform, by Alexander John Ellis

But as Ellis points out, such sentences can simply be reworded to make them less ambiguous in their spoken form. Furthermore, this isn't something that's only possible in post-reform spelling systems. Many native English speakers are familiar with sentences such as "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" or "James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher" that are technically grammatically "correct" but impossible to understand even when written down in the current English spelling system. This could be seen as a "flaw" of the current English spelling system, but in practice it is not a problem for English speakers because nobody needs to use sentences like this anyway.

Similarly, no one actually needs to be able to write sentences or texts composed entirely of variations on the syllable "shi" in Chinese (I say "variations" because the syllables are not actually completely identical; there are different tones which can be indicated in Pinyin with tone diacritics or numbers).

The "shi" poem is an extreme example, of course, and doesn't represent the real issues that would arise with spelling reform. The tendency to ignore the potential of confusing homophony when writing in characters may make it difficult to read some texts that were originally written in characters that are re-written in pinyin. (Furthermore, as michau points out, it means that some established specialized or technical terminology is currently disambiguated mainly by the spelling; something like a more extreme version of the distinctions in English between phonetically similar words like "prescribe" and "proscribe", or "alkanes", "alkenes" and "alkynes", or "hypothermia" and "hyperthermia".) This doesn't make it impossible to write texts in pinyin that are understandable. But, it does mean writing Chinese without characters may require some changes in word usage compared to writing Chinese with characters.

However, I think that language reformers in other places have made changes in word usage/vocabulary that are of comparable or greater magnitude. For example, in the transition from Ottoman Turkish (written in a form of the Arabic alphabet) to modern Turkish (written in a form of the Latin alphabet) many words of Arabic origin were more or less replaced with words built on Turkish roots. Likewise, it would not be impossible for Chinese writers to avoid overly ambiguous old vocabulary terms and devise some new standard replacements if it became necessary. Obviously, this kind of vocabulary replacement would have cultural impacts that I am not qualified to evaluate, but there is nothing inherently impossible about it from a linguistic point of view.

The linguist Victor Mair has written a lot about pinyin and characters and how they are used in modern Chinese writing. Here is a blog post he made that mentions the memoirs of Chang Li-ching (his wife) that were published in pinyin: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=27423 The article and comments mention that many native Chinese speakers find it hard to read the text fluently, but it is evidently not literally "impossible".

As many of the other posts on this page have mentioned, the details of standardized writing systems are more strongly influenced by political and cultural considerations than by whether it is literally "possible" or "impossible" from a strictly linguistic perspective to use any particular system for any particular language.

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    I would add that for the orthography to work well, pinyin would need to be correctly segmented into words, rather than syllables. For whatever reason, properly segmentation seems to be practised only by linguists these days, but it really improves pinyin's readability! (Note: I am aware that even Western writing was not segmented into words until recent centuries, but the fact that the West stuck to it seems to show it's a good idea!) – WavesWashSands Dec 8 '16 at 1:49
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    @WavesWashSands: Yeah, that's what I meant by "correct word division" – sumelic Dec 8 '16 at 2:03
  • Apologies, I must have missed that part! (I guess reading about suprasegmentals in the next sentence made me think the phrase was about tone marks too :P) – WavesWashSands Dec 8 '16 at 2:05
  • There are many important distinctions that would be lost if Pinyin was used: 硒 vs 锡, 检查 vs 检察 and so on. – michau Dec 9 '16 at 20:10
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It is possible only if you write in an informal way – the way you would say things out loud. The difference between formal and informal writing is quite large in Chinese, and the informal style may feel very awkward in many circumstances. With Pinyin it wouldn't be possible to write everything the way it is written now.

Some examples of clearly distinct word pairs that have identical pronunciation and can appear in very similar contexts:

  • Chemistry: Two chemical elements, selenium () and tin () are both pronounced in mainland China. Similarly, both sulphur () and lutetium () are pronounced liú in Taiwan.
  • Biology: The genus Anser (grey geese) is 雁屬 and the genus Hirundo (swallows) is 燕屬, both pronounced yànshǔ. Similarly, 鵲巢 quècháo means ‘magpie's nest’, while 雀巢 quècháo means ‘sparrow's nest’ (or the proper name Nestlé).
  • Law and politics: In mainland China, 检查机关 is a ‘censorship organ’ and 检察机关 is a ‘procuratorial organ’. Both are pronounced jiǎnchá jīguān.
  • Language: 詞典 cídiǎn means ‘dictionary of words’ and 辭典 cídiǎn means ‘dictionary of phrases’. The distinction is subtle, but clear.
  • Paleography: According to an important modern theory of classification of Chinese characters, 意符 yìfú is a category of character components (‘semantic component’), and 義符 yìfú (‘meaning component’) is one of subcategories of 意符 yìfú.
  • Geography: The Five Great Mountains list includes 衡山 Héng Shān and 恆山 Héng Shān. Writers would have to find workarounds to distinguish them if they could only use Pinyin.
  • Street names: Harbin has two Lìjiāng Streets: 莅江路 and 丽江路, despite the identical pronunciation. If they were written identically, the problem would be much bigger. Nowadays, you can say 丽江路,美丽的丽 “Lìjiāng street, as in the word mĕilì (beautiful)”. If Pinyin was used, it would make no sense, as every would look the same.
  • General vocabulary: 巨變 means ‘great changes’, while 劇變 means ‘sudden/violent change’. Both are pronounced jùbiàn. You can also take a look at a much longer list of Chinese homophones.
  • Puns: 向钱看 ‘look for money’ is a play on the communist slogan 向前看 ‘look towards the future’. It wouldn't work in Pinyin without additional explanations, as both expressions are pronounced xiàng qián kàn. And there are many more such puns, see Baidu 10 mythical creatures and joke names.

As you can see, conversion into Pinyin might remove some crucial information. Precision in scientific and official texts is obviously much more important than in everyday speech. But it would also restrict the creativity found in modern informal and humorous writing.

All in all, using Pinyin in writing would be possible only after making adjustments to the way people write. But then again, with enough adjustments you can make any language use any script.

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    I suspect that when chemists talk to each other, they need to have some means to distinguish between "let's add some sulphur into it" and "let's add some lutetium into it". The same way when you hear in the radio about the procuratorial organ and censorship organ, I suspect you do know what they are talking about despite the apparent homophony? With humour, I understand the point but I am sure new ways would arise with the new way of writing. – Eleshar Dec 10 '16 at 16:00
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    My point is that the form of writing is always secondary to the language and speech, thus while many cultural artifacts and experiences (like humour, poetry etc.) may be based on the way of writing, the fact that people are able to communicate with these homophones without having any knowledge of writing supports that conversion to pinyin should not impair communication either. – Eleshar Dec 10 '16 at 17:46
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    @Eleshar I doubt that there are any illiterate Chinese people who can effectively communicate the distinction between selenium and tin. That's certainly not obvious, so if you think that's the case, the burden of proof is on you. – michau Dec 10 '16 at 18:01
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    So the homophony affects only technical terms? I was under the impression it was more of a thing pervading the entire language... If this is not the case, then this is a non-issue in the first place. – Eleshar Dec 10 '16 at 18:29
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    As I wrote in my answer, there is no problem with homophony if you write in an informal way, that is, the way you speak. But this is not the way Chinese write formal texts, so it would require a substantial change of their writing habits, and it's hard to say how the effect would look like. And I don't understand how is precision of technical terms a non-issue. Ambiguity of a technical report is obviously a bigger issue than ambiguity of somebody's blog entry. Anyway, I also gave examples of non-technical terms with identical pronunciation, such as 巨變/劇變. – michau Dec 10 '16 at 19:08
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You have had some good answers to your question, but I would like to expand on what you say about Vietnamese writing traditions. The Chinese-based chữ nôm had a very marginal existence in Vietnam, being used almost exclusively for poetry and for “women’s literature” (basically translations - or imitations - of Chinese novels by and for women). The main written language in Vietnam until well into the colonial period was Chinese. The Portuguese-based chữ quốc ngữ writing system was also very much marginal, even among the Jesuits who invented it, who also did most of their writing in Chinese, until it was adopted by the nationalist movement in the 20th century.

  • The implication is the literacy was simply very low. Tangentially, one has to wonder whether the Latin based script improved literacy, which is a multifaceted problem if proficiency of Chinese in Vietnam is taken into account, too. It's a political problem, if literacy in higher registers so to speak serves as a gate keeper to higher status. – vectory yesterday
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Beyond other answers, I will add some examples of actual use of phonetic writing systems actually used for Chinese (or any Sinitic language, what is traditionally called Chinese dialects/topolects). These example show that it is linguistically possible to use a phonetic script to write Chinese; of course, doing so would be a major revolutionary change, rendering some poetic or technical texts totally unintelligible. Actually, any text which needs supplementary explanation of homophones when read alone would by definition pose problem.

In all examples below, a phonetic system is (or was) actually used by a sizeable community of people as a writing system for several generations, ensuring its actual usefulness. For them (except maybe for the medieval 'Phags-pa case), it is the main writing system, since they don’t have access to the usual Chinese characters.

If you are interested in discussions about phonetic writing of Chinese you can read this post by Victor Mair at LanguageLog and the links therein.

Historic use of phonetic scripts in China

Historically, China has been in contact with various phonetic scripts (Mogolian, Tibetan, among others) and I think several have been used to write Chinese. Notably, Phags-Pa (wiki ; more details by Andrew West) was commissioned by Kublai Khan for this use, and was an official way to write Chinese (and other languages of the Mongol empire) during almost a century (from 1269 to 1351 or 1352). However this was not popular among Chinese scholar and disappeared with the Yuan dynasty.

I have no idea about the balance of the political vs linguistic factors in this lack of popularity, but I think it illustrates well the difficulties a phonetic orthographic reform would face for Chinese. If a century of effort by a power as strong as the one of the Yuan dynasty didn’t manage to impose a phonetic spelling, in an era where only a minority of the population was literate, it seems unlikely to see such a reform ever happen.

Arabic script has also been used to write Chinese by Muslim minorities, and seems to still be in use but declining, according to the linked Wikipedia page.

Chinese Braille

Nowadays, a phonetic script is the main script for many Chinese blinds: three different systems are used for Mandarin and (at lest) one for Cantonese. I have no specific information about the actual use of this script, but I guess millions of Chinese read and write in it, and thousands of book are transcribed in it, with not much problem.

Dungan in Cyrillic

The Dugans are essentially Hui people who moved from Gansu to what is now Kyrgyzstan and Kasakhstan in late 19th century. Being form northwestern China, their language is closely related to standard Chinese. However, due to the Soviet policy on minority languages, it is fully written in Cyrillic script since 1953, with a perfectly functional orthography used by a community of 50,000 people. The implication of this fact on a reform like the one you have in mind is the subject of a paper by the sinologist Victor H. Mair, written in 1990 (html version; scanned original pdf)

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I would like to elaborate on this topic. Truth is the idea of pinyin or any other phonetic script replacing Chinese character writing is already more than a hundred years old. At the beginning of 20th century, when the Qing empire was collapsing, a lot of scholars came to the conclusion that it is because of China’s backwardness. They kept comparing China to the West and realized that in terms of technology, education and more, China was very far behind, therefore some of them insisted on reforms. Also some of them regarded Chinese characters as a perfect example of what was holding China back and the idea of either simplifying or abandoning them was born (the famous writer Lu Xun wrote: “汉子不灭,中国必亡”, “If Chinese characters are not destroyed, China will inevitably die”).

Long story short, at a conference in 1986 it was decided that the Chinese writing will not be replaced by a phonetic script, but will remain simplified. At that point, pinyin was already an international romanization standard recognized by ISO, and had replaced all of the previous ones in Mainland China. However, it had never replaced the characters themselves.

In addition to what had already been said, I would like to point out that Chinese characters are some sort of cultural heritage for Chinese. They are something more than just writing. That is why even the idea of simplifying them outraged some scholars and numerous slogans opposing the reforms were created, such as 没有心如何爱?, “How to love without a heart?” (traditional character for ‘love’ is written 愛 with a ‘heart’ component in it). If Chinese characters were abandoned, Chinese calligraphy would not be the same and all of the character riddles and jokes would become meaningless (谜提:这字没人不会 (打一字),谜底:云). All the other countries that abandoned Chinese characters need not worry about this, since characters were never originally theirs.

  • I though the quote "“汉子不灭,中国必亡” had only been attributed to Lu Xun, i.e. that there is no evidence that he really said or wrote this. – Christophe Strobbe Jan 18 '17 at 15:20
  • Christophe, it seems that you are right and he only might have said it in an interview that I cannot find. However, what is important is that Lu Xun was in fact very fond of the reform, he mentioned it many times in his essays, for example this one. – kash Feb 22 '17 at 15:31
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It would be possible to use pinyin even without the tone marks to write down Chinese and it will be correctly understood. Actually, a similar thing has been done in the Dungan language for decades already, the only difference is they use not the Latin, but Cyrillic alphabet, and absolutely no tone marks although thera are tones in the language. Dungan is a dialect of Mandarin Chinese used by Muslims, this orthography functions in all spheres of life – at school, in books, newspapers, etc.

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    I wouldn't be so sure it's possible to understand Mandarin Chinese without tone marks. Wo zai Lijiang zuochuan de shihou, renshile yi wei zhu zai Shanxi de Chaoxianren. Women yong Hanyu jiaoliu. Ta gei wo de lizi hen hao chi. Did I just write 麗江 or 漓江? Did that person live in 山西 or 陝西? Did we speak Chinese or Korean? Did he give me chestnuts, plums or pears? Dungan people surely had to adapt the way they express things to the restrictions of the Cyrillic alphabet, in order to avoid ambiguities. And I'm sure they have a lot of loanwords from Russian and other languages that help them do that. – michau Dec 17 '16 at 14:03
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    I don’t believe an oral language, especially from a rural community of 50,000, would be changed drastically in order to adapt a defective orthography. Usually, the changes happens the other way around. I guess ambiguities like the one you mention are rare enough not to really pose problems, and when they appear, I guess the tones can be spelled out, as are short vowels in arabic. The linked Wikipedia page says they are specified in dictionaries, so there is a well known way to write then down. An loanwords are a pure red herring: Modern Standard Mandarin also have loanwords, and these loanwor – Frédéric Grosshans Jan 17 '17 at 17:49
  • @FrédéricGrosshans Since you say that tones might be spelt out in cases of ambiguities, I think we agree on the main point of my comment: it is not true that "It would be possible to use pinyin even without the tone marks to write down Chinese and it will be correctly understood" (my emphasis). – michau Jan 18 '17 at 14:31
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    @michau of course it won't be understood in every cases, but it'll work for the majority of the situations, just like how IMEs guessing the characters when you type the whole sentence. In Vietnamese a lot of misunderstandings happens when people type without the tones, but in 80% of the time it works, although with a little bit more guessing effort on the reader – Lưu Vĩnh Phúc Sep 2 '18 at 14:13
1

Pinyin tosses out a lot of semantic information. Once Chinese characters are removed from the language, it becomes harder for Mandarin to coexist with different Chinese languages under the same umbrella.

If I learned history right, the French used the Latin script to do that very thing: cut off the Vietnamese from the Chinese sphere of influence. Nowadays, borrowed words there are even imported verbatim into the language instead of naturalized as English and French becomes trendy. I reckon most Latin-based scripts eventually run into the problem that English faces: words that retain the spelling of their originating language.

One way to address the problems is a language regulatory institution that has the backing of a government to do two things:

  1. Differentiate homophones with etymological spelling like French. The spelling should pose no problem to reading since it contains more information than what is spoken aloud. A reader will know to collapse the different graphemes (like the <m> and <n> nasal codas) into one phoneme or to delete silent letters (like <p>, <t>, and <k> in the coda position). However, speech cannot be written with etymologically correct spelling without knowing beforehand how the morphemes should be spelled.
    • 原因 “reason” (yuányīn) and 元音 “vowel” (yuányīnyuányīm)
    • 香蕉 “banana” (xiāngjiāohiāngziāo) and 相交 “cross over” (xiāngjiāosiānggiāo)
    • 目的 “goal” (mùdìkk) and 墓地 “burial ground” (mùdì)
  2. Promulgate spelling rules for transliterating foreign words into the native spelling rules that do not accommodate foreign phonology.

Whether it works or not, the use of Chinese characters is a very cultural/political issue. The use of Latin may be seen as kowtowing to Western civilization. There might be a happy medium like the use of Zhuyin which is indigenous but not too difficult to master for anyone. Zhuyin is already used to write some non-Chinese languages.

0

When syllables are assembled to form, especially, 2-syllable words, it's not sounds that are being concatenated, but ideas that are being combined. If you lose the ideograms, you lose track of lexical formation and word families. You'd be losing an essential part of the language's logic. Even if romanization became the mainstream written medium, you would still have to refer to ideograms to create neologisms and to teach or study lexical semantics.

0

While as a foreigner I am grateful for the Latin alphabet in Vietnam, I would be concerned about the loss of cultural information that would be involved in moving from Chinese characters to pinyin in China. Don't the characters contain etymological information that contributes to the meaning of the words? When I studied traditional Chinese medicine, understanding the names of acupuncture points included explicit knowledge of the structure of the characters. That would all be lost in pinyin.

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  • Hey, this is not an answer to my question. I asked specifically to disregard factors like these. – GA1 yesterday
  • Depends what you mean by 'efficient' then. If you believe form and meaning are independent, maybe the nuances I mentioned are irrelevant. I don't believe that. – mango 18 hours ago
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I think replacing Chinese Characters with only pinyin is absolutely stupid. Chinese writing has existed for more than 5000 years while pinyin only 100 years. One of the biggest problem with pinyin is that the syllables in pinyin gives you multiple words which is very ambiguous and confusing where as with using the Chinese characters the meaning of the word is accurate or concise and without ambiguity. Very poor thing to do.

  • 1
    -1: this post adds nothing comparing to the original question's mentioning of "abundance of homonyms". – bytebuster Jan 19 '18 at 5:54

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