What Chinese characters can’t do-be-do-be-do

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that “shuing”!

David Moser uses the question of how would someone scat sing in Mandarin Chinese to start off an exploration of what Chinese characters can’t do well (and what Pinyin can).

Here’s an excerpt:

English has numerous conventions for representing casual oral speech: “Are you kiddin’ me?” “Whaddya wanna do tonight, Marty?” “I’m gettin’ outta here!” “Gimme that.” And so on. Such spelling conventions have been employed in the literature of most alphabetic traditions for hundreds of years, and are often an invaluable link to the vernaculars of the past. English-language writers from Mark Twain to James Joyce have used the flexibility of the alphabet to vividly re-created various speech worlds in their works. It is, in fact, hard to imagine how much of the literature of the West could have been produced without recourse to such devices.

Chinese characters, by contrast, cannot reproduce the equivalent elisions and blends of colloquial Chinese, except in rare cases, and only at the level of the syllable…. The result is that China effectively has no tradition of realistically notating vernacular speech. Wenyanwen ???, classical Chinese, exerted a virtual stranglehold on written literature up until the early twentieth century, and even then, most writers did not attempt to accurately represent common speech, despite the appearance of an occasional Lao She or Ba Jin. But even if such writers had so desired, working within the Chinese system of writing, they could never have notated the sounds of the language around them with the same kind of vivid verisimilitude of the following examples in English….

Read the whole article, here on Pinyin Info: Some Things Chinese Characters Can’t Do-Be-Do-Be-Do.

And if you haven’t seen it already, be sure to check out another work by Moser: Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard, which is one of Pinyin Info’s most popular readings.

3 thoughts on “What Chinese characters can’t do-be-do-be-do

  1. Sort of a meaningless comparison–Scat-singing is an American thing. I’m sure at the time when it was an emerging thing, most Americans couldn’t write down the scat they heard in a way that would be accurately communicable to other scat singers.

    “I’m gettin’ outta here!”. This has a standard reading to anyone who knows English, even outside of accent differences. But in “gettin'”, “i” is pronounced differently. “I’m” is never pronounced in English in the way in which it is in “gettin'”.

    We could point to such a retarded sentence in Chinese as ?????????(?), which are all written, without tonation, as _shi_. Despite this, it’s an acceptable, meaningful, if not contrived, sentence–‘the best thing to do would be to try eating shit’. LOL!!!

    Chinese poets have played with this for centuries. You can’t do that with our alphabet/non-toned language.

  2. might i add that that’s, while grammatical enough, not standard chinese–??? is not a word, though a chinese should be able to infer enough of the meaning to be insulted.

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