Assimilation of Roman letters into the Chinese writing system: 1994 study

The latest rerelease from Sino-Platonic Papers is The Sino-Alphabet: The Assimilation of Roman Letters into the Chinese Writing System (2.3 MB PDF), by Mark Hansell. This was first published in May 1994. Since then, of course, Roman letters have come to be used even more widely in texts written otherwise in Chinese characters.

Here is the introduction:

One of the most striking changes in written Chinese in recent years is the increasingly common use of the Roman alphabet in both loanwords and native coinages. To modern urbanites, vocabulary such as MTV, PVC, kǎlā OK, and B xíng gānyán are not exotica, but are the stuff of everyday life. The explosion of alphabetically-written lexical items is made possible by the systematic assimilation of the Roman alphabet into the standard repertoire of Chinese reader/writers, to create what I have called the “Sino-alphabet”. This paper explores both the formal structure and the function of the Sino-alphabet. Structurally, the Sino-alphabet represents the adaptation of the English alphabet to the Chinese system in terms of 1) discreteness and 2) directionality. Chinese characters (henceforth “Sinograms”) are “discrete” in that each graph represents an independent chunk of phonological material, influenced very little by its neighbors. Roman letters, in contrast, are non-discrete because only in combination with other letters can they form meaningful units of speech. The use of Roman letters as fully discrete entities sets the Sino-alphabet apart from the Roman alphabet as used in other languages, and makes possible its assimilation into the Chinese writing system. In terms of directionality, the Sino-alphabet exhibits the full range of options that are present in Chinese: left-to-right, top-to-bottom, and right-to-left; while the traditional Roman alphabet as used in the West never allows the right-to-left direction.

The main function of the Sino-alphabet has been the adaptation of graphic loans from English. Graphic borrowing has a long tradition in Chinese; for example, graphic loans from Japanese have contributed a great deal to the modern Chinese lexicon (e.g. 科學, 經濟, 幹部 and hundreds of others). The emergence of English as the main source of loan vocabulary, as well as schooling that has exposed the mass of the population to the Roman alphabet, laid the groundwork for graphic borrowing of English vocabulary .Increasing graphic borrowing solidified the position of the Sino-alphabet, which in turn made possible more borrowing. Now firmly established, the Sino-alphabet is available for other functions such as transliteration of foreign or dialectal sounds.

The adaptation of Roman letters into the Chinese system would seem to highlight the difference between alphabetic and morpho-syllabic types of writing systems. Yet it also shows that Roman letters are not inherently alphabetic, and can quite easily change type when borrowed. Throughout the history of writing, the creativity and flexibility of writers and readers have overcome radical structural differences between writing systems and between languages. The development of the Sino-alphabet is proof that the peculiar structure of the Chinese writing system presents no impediment to the internationalization of the Chinese language.

This is issue no. 45 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

Kazakhstan backtracks on move from Cyrillic to Roman alphabet?

The president of Kazakhstan has announced that his country won’t “advance the transformation of the Kazakh alphabet from the Cyrillic to Latin one.”

That he did so in a meeting with the president of Turkey is puzzling, as this is not something likely to please the Turks.

On the other hand, not advancing is not necessarily the same thing as cancelling.

Here’s the full release from Kazakhstan’s news agency:

Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev offered not to advance the transformation of the Kazakh alphabet from the Cyrillic to Latin one. The Head of the State announced about it upon the results of his talks with President of Turkey Abdullah Gul.

“For 70 years the Kazakhstanis read and wrote in Cyrillic. More than 100 nationalities live in our state. Thus we need stability and peace. We should be in no hurry in the issue of alphabet transformation”, Mr. Nazarbayev noted.

source: Kazakhstan should be in no hurry in Kazakh alphabet transformation to Latin: Nazarbayev, Kazinform, December 13, 2007

See earlier: Kazakhstan plans switch to Latin alphabet, Pinyin News, November 18, 2007

Kazakhstan plans switch to Latin alphabet

Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Education and Science has followed up on suggestions from President Nursultan Nazarbayev by proposing a six-step plan to switch the country from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin one. The plan is based on a similar one used in Uzbekistan.

The plan for switching to Latin will have a five-year preparatory stage, during which the practicalities will be worked out. The next step will see publications being printed using the new alphabet, alongside the existing one for the initial changeover period, and the working-age population will be trained in using the new script. Teaching materials using Latin will be introduced into the country’s school system. The final phase will be the consolidation of Latin as the Kazakh language in Cyrillic fades from public use.

The switch is projected to cost US$300 million, though some expect the cost to be higher.

With the country awash with petrodollars from its booming energy sector, financing the switch should not be a problem. It remains to be seen, however, whether officials will retain the political will to press ahead, given that the measure could cause disruption at home, and seems likely to vex one of Kazakhstan’s key allies, Russia.

Along with the usual arguments for alphabet change, in particular promoting the country’s integration into the global economy, officials have argued that a Latin alphabet could help Kazakhstan forge a more cohesive national identity, moving it out from under Russia’s shadow.

“Switching the Kazakh alphabet to Latin means for Kazakhs changing the Soviet (colonial) identity, which still largely dominates the national consciousness, to a sovereign (Kazakh) identity,” the report stated. “Among the many arguments in favor of switching the Kazakh alphabet to Latin, boosting the national identity of the Kazakh people is the main and decisive one.”

This explicit statement marks a break with Kazakhstan’s earlier, low-key approach to discussing the switch to Latin. While Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan acted quickly after the 1991 Soviet collapse to embrace Latin script, Kazakhstan took a more cautious route: it did not want to alienate its large Russian-speaking population. In addition, officials felt that with the country in the grip of economic crisis in the early 1990s, changing the alphabet at that time was not a fiscally justifiable move.

The report pulls no punches in identifying the Cyrillic alphabet as being a major barrier to developing a Kazakh national identity: “It [Cyrillic] facilitated and facilitates the orientation of the Kazakh national consciousness towards the Russian language and Russian culture. As a result, Kazakh identity as such remains largely undefined. On this level, moving to Latin will make it possible to form a clearer national identity for Kazakhs.”

Another reason for the switch is linked to the representation of the sounds of the Kazakh language. “In many cases the phonetic nature of Kazakh is not shown according to Cyrillic script,” Professor Kobey Khusayn, director of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Linguistics, told EurasiaNet in an interview. As a result, he said, certain Kazakh sounds are not properly represented and this leads to difficulties with correct pronunciation. The introduction of Cyrillic in 1940 was “imposed from above” for ideological reasons, he added, with no consideration of how this alphabet suited the Kazakh language.

Kazinform, the state news agency, already issues news in both the Cyrillic and Latin scripts.