Twenty-five years ago, John DeFrancis wrote a terrific essay on what he aptly dubbed homographobia (in Mandarin: tóngyīncí-kǒngjùzhèng). It’s a word that deserves wider currency, as the irrational fear he describes still affects a great many people.

Homographobia is a disorder characterized by an irrational fear of ambiguity when individual lexical items which are now distinguished graphically lose their distinctive features and become identical if written phonemically. The seriousness of the disorder appears to be in direct proportion to the increase in number of items with identical spelling that phonemic rendering might bring about. The aberration may not exist at all among people favored by writing systems that are already closely phonemic, such as Spanish and German. It exists to a mild degree among readers of a poorly phonemic (actually morphophonemic) writing system such as English, some of whom suffer anxiety reactions at the thought of the confusion that might arise if, for example, rain, rein, and reign were all written as rane. It exists in its most virulent form among those exposed to Chinese characters, which, among all the writing systems ever created, are unique in their ability to convey meaning under extreme conditions of isolation

That the fear is a genuine phobia, that is an irrational fear, is attested to by the fact that it is confined only to those cases in which lexical items that are now distinguished in writing would lose their distinctiveness if written phonemically, as in the case of the three English homophones mentioned above. Quite irrationally, the fear is not provoked by lexical items which are not now distinguished in writing, even though the amount of already existing homography might be considerably greater than in projected cases, such as the mere three English words pronounced rane. The English graphic form can, for example, has at least ten different meanings which to a normal mind might appear as ten different words. But no one, either in or out of his right mind in such matters, suffers any anxiety from the problems which in theory should exist in such extensive homography.

The uncritical acceptance of current written forms as an immutable given ignores the accidents in the history of writing that have resulted in current graphic differentiation for some homophones and not for others. Such methodological myopia cannot lead to any useful consideration of ambiguity….

The complete essay is now online: Homographobia.

3 thoughts on “Homographobia

  1. Without reading the whole thing, does he address the problem of homographs like wind, tear, live, read and others?

    As a child learning to read those caused more problems than anything else.
    I remember for some reason the first time I saw the instruction ‘read before using’ I mentally interpreted it as the past tense and thought (for an embarrassingly long time) that it was an abbreviation for “this should be read before you’re using it”.

    On the other hand, I don’t remembr having trouble with words like record where the vowel differences come from a stress difference.

  2. DeFrancis appears to me like a academecic idiot.

    he rants on in monotone, but his writing is unclear, complex, hard to read, yet sans cogency nor humour.

    in a piece on Chinese, why didn’t he throw in some real chinese characters to illustrate the point? I have a hard time reading his pinyin adorned with english explanations. Is the target of this piece to be non-chinese speaking plebians??

    in what seems to be deep research, why didn’t he actually illustrate examples or cite statistics regarding chinese homographs and homophones? instead, he borrows hawaiian and vietnamese to prove a point, by analogy??

    «The relative simplicity of Chinese will become even greater if, as many advocate, tone indication is used only when necessary to avoid ambiguity. According to Yin Binyong (personal communication 2/7/85), tests made on written materials indicate that Chinese needs to add one of its four tone marks only on one word (cir) in twenty. According to my own count, French …»

    why didn’t he actually give hard points instead waving hands with his “personal communications” friends?

    «A rational approach along the lines indicated above will doubtless confirm the conclusion reached by Chao (1959: 10) that Chinese as a whole is “neither much more nor much less ambiguous than most other languages.” It would logically seem to follow from this that a phonemic writing system for Chinese on the whole would also be neither much more nor much less ambiguous than other phonemic systems of writing such as English, Spanish, German, and Russian. In other words, it seems to be an elementary truism that a Pinyin orthography that is truly based on speech (of course at various levels), and that is provided with a minimum number of judiciously determined special spellings to avoid attested occurrences of unacceptable ambiguity in realistic contexts, can function as a simple and practical orthography for Chinese. The implementation of such an orthography appears to offer the best possibility for curing all but the completely hopeless cases of homographobia.»

    The above conclusion, is so ridicilous that it just won’t fly for any native chinese in living in a taiwan or china who were not born imbicils.

    when is this piece written? published in where? what’s the audience, context?

    see http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2667
    for lots of similar views on this piece.

  3. Thank you for linking the article; it was an interesting and informative look into the linguistics arguments for romanization rather than the political ones, which are much more familiar to me.

    However, there seems, to me, to be a rather large hole in DeFrancis’s argument that he rather neatly skirts around, and I was wondering if you would be willing expend a little time on filling it in? My primary concern about the rominization of the Chinese written language has always been more about the comprehensibility of that new language to speakers of dialects other than Mandarin than about the issue of homophones. I thought DeFrancis would address the issue in the section that began “There are a billion speakers of various Chinese languages and dialects, some highly educated, many completely illiterate, all of whom express themselves quite volubly on all sorts of topics with little apparent difficulty from homophones,” but he did not. In fact, his next sentence exacerbates my concerns rather than alleviates them*. He asserts that “sufferers from homographobia [should seek] to exorcise their fears by having recourse to a style of writing that approximates obviously intelligible speech,” but how is a pinyin written form based on Mandarin pronunciation any closer to “intelligible speech” to the reader speaks Cantonese, Hakka, or, god-forbid, Teochew**?

    At the moment, I can see 3 different solutions to this issue, but, at least for me, each is more unsatisfactory than the last; so I am writing in hopes that you will be able to provide one which I was not creative enough to think of. In order to prevent rehashing of my uncreative ideas, the ones I CAN think of are as follows:

    1. Completely disregard the mutual unintelligibility of these dialects and create a romanized written language based on Mandarin that everyone else just has to deal with. I believe this to be unsatisfactory because I believe this to be one area in which the distance of the Chinese written language from its sundry spoken dialects is beneficial. Because the form of the Chinese character conveys no inherent pronunciation, it allows speakers of any dialect to superimpose their own pronunciations upon it. In this way, it allows a single character to have pronunciations as distinct as “wong” and “heng.” Theoretically, it could be argued that one COULD pronounce something written as w-o-n-g as “heng,” but the Stroop effect and commonsense cause me to believe that is impractical.
    2. Compel everyone that would learn to write to achieve fluency in Mandarin. I believe to be unsatisfactory because, even putting aside all cultural concerns I would have about the disappearance of Chinese dialects, the Chinese and Taiwanese (& even Singaporean!) governments have been trying for years to encourage Mandarin education among regional dialect speakers with limited success. Then there’s the possibility of this causing more illiteracy than it alleviates being that one would be effectively asking students to learn another mutually incomprehensible language before teaching them to read/write. (Pidgin Mandarin would not be useful as it would inevitably lead to sentences like “ni de hai zi bu jian diao le,” where “hai” is the Cantonese pronunciation of “xie.”) In my associations with organizations promoting English literacy, I have never come across one unwilling to teach a speaker of African American Vernacular English to learn to read until s/he had learned Standard English, and that’s across mutually intelligible dialects. I would consider this the equivalent of not teaching children simple arithmetic because they refuse to learn it in Mandarin.
    3. Create a distinct romanized written language for each (officially recognized) Chinese dialect. My problems with this begin with “officially recognized” and continue ad infinitum. Linguists typically classify the Chinese languages/dialects using groups numbering anywhere from 7 to 14; so should anywhere from 7 to 14 written languages be created? What about the problem that every classification system places Hokkien and Teochew in the same language group of Min Nan but also recognizes that they are mutually unintelligible? Or dialects of questionable mutual intelligibility like Standard Cantonese vs. Zhongshan Cantonese? Just how many written languages should be created to encompass all the Han Chinese dialects and who gets to make that call? These questions then form the launch pad for most of my “ad infinitum” issues, which, I must admit, are more socio-political in nature. Since I am at least attempting to keep this comment linguistically based, I will be omit these concerns except to posit that linguistics as a field does not exist in a vacuum exempt from either affecting or being affected by the socio-political currents of the world at large. The reasons why the Chinese people at large might want to maintain the current writing system are numerous and diverse. But I doubt any of these reasons are less logical or phobia-based than the reasons the mutually intelligible languages of Danish and Norwegian are militantly maintained to be separate languages with separate writing systems. I also doubt that any of the Chinese spoken dialects has a more confusing relationship with the Chinese written language than the Arabic dialects have to Modern Standard Arabic; in fact, I could claim those relationships to be more confusing as the “Arab World” consists of 25 separate countries, all of which claim Arabic as an official language, no residents of which speak Modern Standard Arabic as a default first language. (But I won’t – I only know the whos/whats/whys of this choice well enough to know how little I know.)

    *Of course DeFrancis had no obligation to assuage the fears of his audience, but in reading the article, it was my understanding that one of the purposes of his writing of the article was to ameliorate (what he considered to be) the irrational fears on the part of his audience.

    **I am in no way implying that Teochew is somehow a bad dialect, I am actually quite fond of it. It was just a good dialect to make my point as it is widely spoken by many relatively urban & educated Chinese in exclusion to all other dialects (including Mandarin) but also obscure enough that it does not come up frequently in conversations about the Chinese language.

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