I know of at least 3 countries in the Sinosphere that have historically used the Chinese script (or scripts derived from it) - Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.

So how did it work? Did they use it to read and write their native languages phonetically, or did they just read and write in Chinese instead of their native language?

Edit - Also another thing - did the nature of the Chinese script lead to massive vocabulary borrowing from spoken Chinese to spoken Korean/Japanese, which would not have otherwise happened had it been a phonetic script?

  • In classical Japan, they did both. Especially, they had to resort to the first solution for grammatical words which did not exist in Chinese. That said, I think you should clarify what you mean by "read and write in Chinese" if you want a more precise answer: the feature of an ideographic system is that a certain symbol does not belong to a particular idiom as long as it remains unpronounced. I mean, in which language is 中 written?
    – Olivier
    Jan 11, 2014 at 19:34
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    What about languages with more complex morphology, for example Sanskrit - cases/gender/tenses/compound words/etc. You could use ideograms and discard syntax, I guess, but I wonder if it would be a 1-to-1 correspondence for each word.
    – sashoalm
    Jan 11, 2014 at 20:51
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    which would not have otherwise happened had it been a phonetic script when two cultures become closely related, there will be lots of vocabulary borrowings even with phonetic scripts. This is evident in countries that used to be in former European colonies. How much phonetic vs ideographic system affects the rate of borrowing is quite hard to measure because there are many different confounding factors and we only had one history.
    – Lie Ryan
    Jan 11, 2014 at 23:32
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    Strictly speaking, Chinese is logographic, not ideographic. Ideograms stand for ideas; the closest thing to an ideographic script we have is mathematical notation. Chinese characters stand for morphemes in a particular language, and contain useful clues to pronunciation, owing to the use of the rebus principle found in all known logographic scripts. For a fun look at how Chinese logograms work, check out zompist.com/yingzi/yingzi.htm As for how Chinese characters can be used to transcribe other languages, check out Japanese writing, as mentioned above. Jan 12, 2014 at 3:21
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    In Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, before Chinese characters were adapted to the local language all writing was actually in Classical Chinese, much like writing was in Latin in much of Europe for a long time. Jan 12, 2014 at 4:08

4 Answers 4


Apart from the three languages you named, I know of at least three additional major languages that have used the Chinese script; which are, Thai, Zhuang, and Mongolian. Several minor ones that have also used it include Miao, Yao, Bouyei, Kam, Bai, and Hani.

Thai used to use the Chinese script until the 13th century, when it was abandoned in favor of an Indian Brahmi-family script. Aparently, it used the Chinese characters to mean what they meant in Chinese, but they were pronounced in Thai, in a similar way to Vietnamese.

Zhuang used the Chinese-based characters in the same way, which in Zhuanh is called Sawndip and which means "immature characters". Just like in Vietnamese, Zhuang uses many characters which were created especially for Zhuang, according to the models that the rest of the Chinese characters are built after. The characters which are the same in Chinese and Zhuang mean the same, but in Zhuang they are read using the Zuang words. Sawndip is still used to write Zhuang, along with the official pinyin-style Latin alphabet.

As for Mongolian, the story is markedly different. Mongolian is likely the winner of the title of the language that used to use the greatest number of different writing systems over the course of its history. The most significant book in Mongolian is "The Secret History of the Mongols", written in the 14th century in Chinese characters used solely in their phonetic reading for transcribing the Mongol text, irrespective of their meaning.

Apart from Mongolian, which used the Chinese script to read and write their native languages phonetically, the rest of the languages that used it used to use each character of that script to mean roughly the same it means in Chinese, only they pronounced it the way the concept was named in their language.

There is a rather good Wiki article, "Chinese family of scripts" that can serve as an introduction into this area.


Of course it can be used to record lots of other languages and you can find the complete list here

For Vietnamese a new type of script called chữ nôm based on Chinese characters is created. There are many ways to construct the new characters:

  1. Borrow the whole Chinese character and meaning with its Sino-Vietnamese reading. Sometimes it's also used to represent a Vietnamese reading, in this case a diacritic is written to indicate that it should be read with the Vietnamese sound.
  2. Create completely new characters. Most will consist of a radical for meaning and a radical for the Vietnamese sound, just like how most Chinese characters are formed. For example the character for number 3 𠀧 ("ba") is composed of 巴 for the phonetic part and 三 (three) for meaning. Some characters are created by combination of multiple characters like the character 𡗶 (giời/trời "sky", "heaven"), which is made from the Chinese character for sky 天 and 上 ("upper"). Some others are simplication forms of the Chinese version.

You must know Chinese before learning chữ nôm, which make it even more complex than Chinese characters, hence less people can understand it.

In the below example which means "My mother eats vegetarian food at the temple every Sunday", the newly created Nom characters are written in brown whereas characters borrowed directly from Chinese are shown in green. The blue ones are the modern Vietnamese alphabet.

sentence with Han and Nom characters


For Japanese at least, both happened: sometimes the characters are used semantically, others phonetically - either according to their Chinese pronunciation (which can come from either a Northern or Southern, earlier or recent form of Chinese) or to the Japanese reading.

For instance, one of the Chinese readings of the char. "origin/beginning/birth" is "hon". Now then, the Japanese word for "book" is also "hon" (don't know if its native or a Chinese/Korean borrowing). So instead of adopting the Chinese char. for "book", the Japanese use "birth/start" phonetically most of the times when they want to write "book".

When char. for "now, immediately, contemporaneity" appears right before the char. for "sun/day", that specific case is a semantic usage: both together are meant to be read "kyô" (today).

That for isolated chars. themselves. Japanese nowadays uses the chars. according to its own structure (SOV), in the very first examples of Japanese writing there's vascilation between trying to follow the S-V-O structure of Chinese or the native one. There's a lot of vacillation also regarding how to phonetically encode words in the vernacular.

In A. C., Moorhouse's book "History of the alphabet" I read that something similar happened when Babylonians adopted cuneiform writing from the Summers, and then again when the Hittites adopted cuneiform from the Babylons. So, in a Hittite sample of writing, a set of chars. can be read in Hittite, in Babylon or in Sumerian, depending on context!!!

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    About the borrowings, I believe that's normal but was more due to the very high prestige of Chinese culture than because of the writing per-se, so the borrowing would've happened even if using a phonetic writing because the court and high classes were using Chinese words by the score
    – Joe Pineda
    Jan 11, 2014 at 21:55
  • IMO The vacillation was not on grammar but on what constitutes a word. (a)ひと(b)に(c)しらえず would be written as (a)人(b)尓(c)不所知 .しらえず which is the verb here is transliterated as 不所知 which is a Classical Chinese sentence that would be read as しらえず by the reader. The sentence itself is clearly following Japanese grammar rules. The context is that, earlier, people would write in Classical Chinese but read it out as Japanese.
    – user17171
    May 26, 2017 at 4:49

I'm not sure if I should really call this an "answer", but I've conducted thought experiments in the past on rendering English in an ideographic writing system. The strategy I used was to break up words into morphemes, and use one character per morpheme (and a lot of morphemes of the same meaning were collapsed into single characters, e.g. -tion, -ment, etc.; morphemes were often also collapsed into normal words with similar meaning). As English has a lot of agglutinative tendencies (particularly in derivation), this was generally very straightforward. For the sake of efficiency, though, I chose not to represent nonessential morphemes, such as verb agreement conjugates. I also chose to not have any orthographic contrast between contractions and their full forms. In any case, this strategy requires a bunch of simple characters for derivative and inflectional morphemes, as there can be many of them per word; Chinese characters could be used, but would be cumbersome due to the number of strokes.

To pull a few random words from this post and how they would be represented (I actually would often use words to represent morphemes, but you get the idea):
Really: real -ly
Conducted: conduct -ed
Morphemes: morph element -s
Agglutinative: agglutinate -ive
Nonessential: non- essence -al
Their: they -'s
Inflectional: in- flex -tion -al

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    Seems like you could use Chinese ideograms for the roots and use, say, Korean alphabet for the morphemes. For extra points, you could base your experiment not on modern English but on proto-Germanic, now you can use same char. for both "like" and the "-ly" suffix
    – Joe Pineda
    Jan 12, 2014 at 3:28
  • I myself have done similar experiments in using kanji for writing in Spanish, though I use some chars. to encode tenses, number, mode, sex, etc. for in Romance languages such information goes encoded within words. E.g. the char for "I" to indicate 1st person conjugations, for "male" to indicate male endings (suffixes e/o) and "female" to indicate female endings (usually a/e), etc. Cumbersome, yes, but usable - and has the advantage you can then read it in mostly any modern Romance.
    – Joe Pineda
    Jan 12, 2014 at 3:31
  • I'm really not a fan of hybrid writing systems. I know the Japanese system, and I find it quite horrible. Jan 12, 2014 at 5:15
  • The way Japanese mixes several writing systems is not very good but it really helps reading. Looking at a sentence full of Hiragana or Katakana and you're realize how much easier/faster you read using both Kanji and kana. Anyway, it still has much better looking than the old Korean-Chinese character mix, it's really horrible IMHO, when I look for some examples in the internet Sep 4, 2014 at 8:55
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    @LưuVĩnhPhúc part of the reason why Kanji and Kana together look more aesthetically pleasing to the eye than Hanja and Hangul is because Kana is derived from Kanji (Hiragana is a variation on cursive-type Kanji, and Katakana are direct adaptations of Kanji radicals based on a Kanji that is read by the sound the Kana makes), but Hangul is deliberately different from Hanja, and put together they do look distinct, almost like putting Sanskrit and Arabic script together
    – psosuna
    Feb 16, 2018 at 1:15

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