pigpen principles

Newspapers and magazines have so much misinformation about Chinese characters that I seldom bother to mention specific instances. But I expect better than this from the New York Times, even though this is but soft news:

The two designers chose 20 stellar examples of a concept defined by the Japanese ideogram katei. It is the joining of two symbols — ka being house and tei being garden — that defines home in Japanese.

Oy. First, katei is not written with one “ideogram” [sic] but two Chinese characters / kanji:


(Somebody help me out if I got that wrong. I don’t know Japanese.) In Mandarin this is jiātíng, meaning “family.” Nishikawa Yūko has a long discussion about notions of katei in “The Modern Japanese Family System: unique or universal?” (Multicultural Japan. Palaeolithic to Postmodern. Donald Denoon, Mark Hudson, Gavan McCormack, and Tessa Morris-Suzuki, eds. Cambridge University Press, pp. 224-232).

Second, Chinese characters / kanji do not represent an ideographic form of writing.

Third, the Japanese language is not defined by symbols. Language comes first, writing later.

Fourth, calling Chinese characters “symbols” is at best problematic; this is part of what feeds the ideographic myth. (See the second point.)

I’m all for good design, but it shouldn’t be explained in terms of myths. Otherwise, perhaps architects and interior designers should be putting functioning pigpens inside houses, or at least a little covered shrine to a pig. After all, if we’re going to be guided by how characters look, is not the very essence of “home” (家) in Japan and China defined by having a pig (豕) under a roof (宀)?

source: Homes and Gardens, Living in Harmony, New York Times, March 9, 2006

9 thoughts on “pigpen principles

  1. I like other ideas of characters,

    like peace (an) is a woman under a roof and slave is a woman with (you) (also), so it means woman = also slave?!

    I doubt its like this.

  2. Uh oh! You might want to check out some of the readings on this site: Chinese characters are by-and-large phonetic in construction. The crazy myths came after the phonetic drudgery.

  3. Searching for a free translation website between pinyin to chinese (simplified/tradition) and vice versa.

    Please advise.

    chris chan

  4. If Chinese characters are largely phoenetic, surely then everyone who reads them should speak them the same? No dialects/languages then, if they’re so phonetic and everyone can deduce the “correct” sound.

    ?/? is Jian4 in Mandarin, Laam in Cantonese.
    ?/? is Lan4 in Mandarin, Laam in Cantonese.
    (?/? is Jian1 in Mandarin, Gaam in Cantonese)

    Using the argument that both these characters are shape-sound compounds, you’d expect them to sound the same. They do, in Cantonese. Not in Mandarin. Notice how the simplified character ? alters the sound compound on the right to ? instead of ? to make the shape-sound compound work with respect to Mandarin.

    ? is Wo1 in Mandarin, Yuk in Cantonese.
    ? is Yu4 in Mandarin, Wut in Cantonese.
    ? is the simplified character for ?, and this is pronounced Yu4 in Mandarin but Yuk in Cantonese.

    Not very phonetic at all. I wonder how they’re pronounced in the 5 languages of Fujian, or in Shanghainese. Probably completely different.

  5. Mandarin is known to be the most innovative of Sinitic languages in the sense that its readings have drifted further away from earlier, ancestral languages (for whose sounds the characters were constructed) than others, as shown by the Mandarin/Cantonese contrast above. But generally speaking, within a given Sinitic language, you do observe a rough correspondence in the pronounciations of characters sharing the same phonetic keys. This accounts for how speakers routinely are able to dedeuce pronounciation for numerous unfamiliar characters.

  6. In Taiwanese (and probably Amoy, too):

    ? l?m
    ? l?m, làm
    ? ka? (as in ka?-ga?k ??), kàm (as in kàm-to?k ??), kam

    ? ak, ok
    ? ut

    Clearly Cantonese readings are much closer to Southern Min ones than they are to those of Mandarin — again reflecting their more conservative phonologies.

  7. P TAN: When I wrote that Chinese characters were “phonetic in construction”, I was refering to their origins, not necessarily how they are pronounced today (as you correctly point out). When I wrote that, I was responding to “Someone” when they said they liked “ideas of characters” to point out that Chinese characters’ true origins lay with phonetics more than ideas. Although I’m no expert, I’ll reference Peter Boodberg’s “Proleptical Remarks” as a source.

  8. Regarding the issue of “thinking” of a household/family as a “pig under a roof”, I think it’s important here to recognize the historical context. Who can be sure that property (pig, wealth, money) and a roof (a house structure) were not the two essential requirement for males to attract (qualify for) a female mate, at some point in Chinese history?

    It’s not an issue of endorsing myths. It’s an issue of going beyond our hide-bound 21st century perspective to recognize that previous cultures and times were a world apart. Is it a world apart that cannot be understood? Of course not; just apply a bit of knowledge from the social sciences.

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