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Character based language seems like such a wonderful concept; Instead of describing concepts in multiple symbols using an alphabet, and decode the symbol based on sounds(then throw in a bunch of context based exceptions, to throw us off and effectively make the words useless unless you already know them, so we end up reading them in familiar blocks anyway).

We can theoretically just encode the meaning into single characters and decode them at constant time from a single glance if we already know them, which is nice since we have a limited eye focus, and longer words take longer time to recognize and decode.

The benefits are obvious

  1. Less ink is needed to print text.
  2. Text takes up less space, so we need less page thrashing in the event that an idea gets split up across multiple pages and we need to look back/forward multiple times to make sense of it.
  3. The symbols are language independant, in that any language can replace any of their alphabet-words that they find they use too often, and end up taking too much space, with the character, and then people from any language can decode the symbol if they have learnt what it means. You don't need to know what it sounds like to know what it is. There's no reason in English that we can't replace the word "language" with 语, which definitely takes up less ink, and it's possible to simplify it further by finding another unique character that uses up less ink.

  4. The symbols are easier to recognize if you already know it, since our focal point is fairly small, so instead of having to take in multiple focal points of text, we can take up as much information as possible out of a single focal point of text.

Knowing these advantages, I have two questions(and a less relevant third one);

(1) why do many translators/dictionaries translate "语言"/language, "餐饮"/food, "随机"/random, "商业"/business, when there are single-character symbols for them already - 语, 馈, 乱, 勾 respectively?

(2) why are there some words that are really useful that are not in any online translator/dictionary I've seen so far, for example the color "cyan"/青色 is a very important color that is the compliment of red, yet does not seem to have a single-character chinese symbol for it.

(3) does there exist a character set that overcomes these limitations, or is Chinese the best we got so far?

I ask because I wanted an existing system of characters to encode some commonly used longer words(mostly colors, directions, terms), and due to these two reasons, it gets really tricky to do such mapping without getting into situations where I have to invent new characters(how would one go around inventing a symbol for cyan or magenta?), or decide which of the characters better fits what I want to encode.

Apparent Observations and side-questions:

  1. One part of the reason is that Chinese characters are not as language-independent as you think and do, in fact, represent Chinese pronunciation. That is why you have a "horse" 马 component in the yes/no question marker 吗 (which in itself shows that Chinese characters are also tied to Chinese grammar).

    [question 1]. Does 马 and 吗 have the same or similar pronunciation among all dialects, or is this a case of it only making sense at a radical level to the "primary/majority dialect".

    [question 2]. Is it known why the way the character sounds was emphasized by the character rather than its' meaning? Is there really no inherent relationship between 马 and 吗 other than sound hint?

  2. I would translate 乱 as disorderly or chaotic (with rather negative connotations) and cyan as 青 (but then 青 and 青色 can be anything between blue and green and 青 can also mean "young"). This is part of the reason why two-character words are also preferred in written Chinese - because single characters tend to be too ambigious.

    [question 1]. Is this negative/positive connotation preserved among different dialects, or do different dialects and regions using same dialect decide the connotation.

    [question 2]. Is this case of 青 meaning ambiguity of young/cyan/green/blue preserved among different dialects or regions using the same language, or does it vary?

    [question 3]. Is this ambiguity in meaning of single-character words based on phonetic collision, or overloaded/multiple meaning based on context?

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    Well, the first half of this question is describing some imaginary script, not actual Chinese characters. If you have an imaginary script, you can make it as good as you want, because they don't have to actually exist. But they don't explain real-world scripts. Learning a bit of Chinese (or learning about Chinese characters) might answer a lot of your questions. – jick Dec 21 '18 at 4:23
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    If you have follow-up questions that are not mere requests for clarification or elaboration, chances are you should post them separately. See How to Ask. – Nardog Dec 21 '18 at 5:59
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    I would like to add that saving ink has its merits, but nowadays many texts are created and used on a computer, where this is less of a concern. That said, the fact that Chinese uses less space is nice for UI translators. – Jan Dec 21 '18 at 11:09
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One part of the reason is that Chinese characters are not as language-independent as you think and do, in fact, represent Chinese pronunciation. That is why you have a "horse" 马 component in the yes/no question marker 吗 ma (which in itself shows that Chinese characters are also tied to Chinese grammar).

The reason that you get two-character responses is that this is how Chinese use their language (both written and spoken) nowadays - i.e. lots of two-syllabic words.

P.S. I would translate 乱 as disorderly or chaotic (with rather negative connotations) and cyan as 青 (but then 青 and 青色 can be anything between blue and green and 青 can also mean "young"). This is part of the reason why two-character words are also preferred in written Chinese - because single characters tend to be too ambigious meaning-wise.

As has been hinted at in the comments, the reason for the many two-syllabe words in spoken Chinese is probably that monosyllabic words would be to ambiguous phonetically.


Re. questions in the comments: Chinese characters were not really invented, but developed over several millenia. A reasonably recent and very large developmental step character simplification in the PRC in the 1950s. But also this step tried to preserve the internal logic of the script.

What apparently happened a lot is that there was a need to write down stuff that is not easily shown in simple pictures, like the question particle above or feelings. In such cases, it was easy to use phonetic helpers, e.g. fear pa as the feeling that sounds somewhat similar to bai white (怕 and 白). I would assume Japanese found this confusing and that is the reason why Kanjis have both Japanese and Chinese readings.


Disclaimer: I am writing this as someone who has spent some time lesrning Chinese - I am neither a native speaker nor a linguist.

  • Btw. the answer for (3) might be emojis. – Jan Dec 21 '18 at 2:29
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    Good answer! But your example could be made stronger with a bit more explanation (that in Mandarin, "horse" is and the question marker is ). – Draconis Dec 21 '18 at 2:30
  • Wow! 青 is spot on based on google images, yet is translated to "green" by google. Very strange. Are you saying the dominant faction using the language, injected 马 into 吗 to annotate the sound intended? Doesn't this confuse other factions where the two symbols don't sound alike, or do they force them sound alike, or did it start off alike and the likeness was preserved? – Dmitry Dec 21 '18 at 2:36
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    @Dmitry Han characters were invented for the use of a specific language, and have spread from there. If you look at how Japanese uses them, for instance, you'll see plenty of relics from Middle Chinese, along with plenty of innovations. – Draconis Dec 21 '18 at 2:41
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    Also, by ambiguous, do you mean in terms of phonetic collision with another word, or context-sensitive meaning of the character itself. – Dmitry Dec 21 '18 at 2:53

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