The Cultural Identity Within Asian Writing Systems
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The Cultural Identity Within Asian Writing Systems
The style of Asian writing seems to be completely different from that of the western writing systems. For starters, many western languages are phonetic: words are spelled out with symbols that represent sounds. The way that a word looks has nothing to do with the meaning of the word. On the other hand, the most recognized form of Asian writing, Chinese characters, are completely pictographic. A single character is correlated to one sound or meaning. To convey more complicated meanings, pictographs are either combined into new pictographs, or multiple characters are simply used in succession. The meaning of words is depicted through pictographs, but for the most part, there is no information about their pronunciations. Asian and western languages appear so different because they had evolved in isolation from each other for hundreds of years. However, the evolution of each group of languages is similar. Whether Asian or western, languages borrow from each other and evolve together when they are in close quarters.
Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are perfect examples of languages that have evolved together because they are spoken in countries that are so close together. Their cultures are also arguably similar when compared to western cultures. All three have used Chinese characters exclusively as their writing system for a period of time and parts of the Korean and Japanese vocabularies are actually derived from Chinese. Up until a few hundred years ago, the three written languages have developed quite closely. But in the present day, the three systems appear to have taken very different evolutionary paths. The Korean language has developed a phonetic alphabet system for use in addition to Chinese characters, the Japanese language now utilizes two phonetic systems as well as Chinese characters, and Chinese language is still completely written in Chinese characters. The obvious reason for the divergence of these three languages seems to be completely out of necessity: no matter how similar the spoken languages are, the three languages still are in fact, three different languages belonging to three different countries that have spoken languages that have evolved three different ways. However, an underlying issue of national pride and identity may be partially responsible for the differences as well. Cultures often identify strongly with their languages, and the Japanese and Koreans may have been simply searching for a sense of cultural identity while the Chinese are proud of their writing system. Cultural identity may not be the primary reason that the languages have evolved differently, but it definitely is a factor.
The spoken language for each culture had also been in place long before any written language had been developed. To the outside listener, the three spoken languages may seem similar at first sight, but a speaker of one of the languages will agree that Chinese is completely different from Korean and Japanese. There is good reason for this too, as Chinese belongs to a family of languages known as the Sino-Tibetan family. Sino-Tibetan languages are all monosyllabic and tonal. This means that every spoken word only consists of a single syllable: more complex words are created by stringing together multiple words. In addition, being a tonal language means that changing the tone of a word changes its meaning completely. The way that Chinese is tonal is different from the notion of English being a tonal language because while tones sometimes change the connotation of sentences in English, the meaning of each word is changed in Chinese. Mandarin Chinese has four tones: high, low, rising, and falling, but other dialects of Chinese have varying numbers of tones. Japanese and Korean on the other hand, are theorized to be Altaic languages, which the same category that Turkish falls into. The language was brought to them by nomadic horsemen who lived in the Altai Mountains of central Asia (Katsiavriades). In fact, parts of northern China spoke Altaic languages at one point, but the language reforms put forth by the first emperor of China, Shi Huangdi, standardized the language all across China (Noll). Altaic languages are polysyllabic and non-tonal, meaning that a word can be composed of many different syllables, changing the pitch of a word does not change its meaning. Sino-Tibetan languages embody exactly the opposite traits (Katsiavriades).
The Chinese script was the first writing system to emerge from that area. Records of its usage date to as early as the eighteenth century BC, and the language had been standardized in the third century BC during language reforms. The oldest records involve a style of writing called the oracle bone script, and was used during ancient Chinese rituals. The earliest Chinese characters were just drawings of what the character was supposed to represent. Like western writing, Chinese characters have evolved over thousands of years and each basic character has gone from an ornate, curvy character to a simple line drawing. The Chinese script has gone through at least twelve different stages, ranging from tortoise-shell writing, to different type-faces used in printing, to the modern day traditional and simplified forms. The traditional form has already been greatly simplified from the original Chinese characters, but the line drawings used in the traditional form are still quite complicated. Simplified Chinese is more widely used now since those complicated characters have been made into simple ones. Because of tradition, however, certain parts of China, such as Taiwan, still use and teach the traditional form of Chinese script (Halpern). Today, knowledge of approximately 3,000 characters is required for very basic literacy in Chinese, which is quite a lot to learn, even in the simplified script (“Chinese Character”).
Chinese characters were brought to Japan in approximately the fourth century AD. The Japanese had their own language already, but when the Chinese and the Japanese started to interact with each other, the Japanese had not developed a writing system yet. As a result, they borrowed the Chinese writing system with a couple of modifications. Since the two cultures interacted with each other so much, parts of the Chinese vocabulary started to trickle into Japanese, particularly words describing new technologies. Initially, Chinese characters were used by the Japanese to represent the Chinese language with a one to one correlation. Because they used the same writing system, the Japanese people could actually read books written in Chinese. Soon, however, the Japanese started adapting the Chinese characters to their own language. As early as the eighth century AD, Chinese characters were used in Japan for phonetic