by John DeFrancis

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. Rather, I believe, analysis must be based on the multiplicity of meanings attached to the same utterance regardless of how this sound is currently written and whether it is considered as comprising one word or more than one word. After all, it is virtually impossible to reach agreement as to what constitutes a word.

Another symptom of homographobia is the insistence that the distinctiveness of lexical items must be manifested in isolation. The phobia demands that the meanings of rain and reign should be graphically distinguished in isolation regardless of the fact that they can be clearly distinguished even in such minimally different contexts as It raned for 40 days and He raned for 40 days. This demand is even stronger in the case of Chinese. Many people have been so conditioned by the distinctive ability of Chinese characters to convey meaning in isolation that they are psychologically incapable of giving up this undoubted advantage enjoyed by characters and are in terror that proposals for phonemic writing may lead to what they consider to be unbearable homography, such as that engendered by writing zai for both “at” and “again,” to avoid which they demand special spellings that would preserve the distinctiveness. Yet the phobia is not provoked by current homographs that are ambiguous in isolation, such as with its two different pronunciations and some dozen and a half different meanings.

Closely related to the symptom just noted is the obsessive compulsion to draw up lists of lexical items which it is feared will cause problems a homographs. The famous 38 “words” pronounced yi (with tone) and 90 written as li (without tones) are continually cited as examples of insurmountable ambiguity. Even near homography is invoked as a danger by listing a number of character expressions which transcribe as approximate look-alike, such as:

zhanzhang “station master”
zhanzheng “warfare”
zhengzhan “go on a campaign”
zhengzhang “badge”
zhuanzhan “fight in one place after another”
zhuanzheng “dictatorship”
zhuanzhang “transfer accounts”

Still another irrational aspect of homographobia is the insistence on adopting a style of writing which aggravates the very homography that is the basis of the fear. 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. In the face of this situation, sufferers from homographobia, instead of seeking to exorcise their fears by having recourse to a style of writing that approximates obviously intelligible speech, often create a self-fulfilling prophecy by insisting on writing in a style heavily influenced by classical usages that when transcribed phonemically result in many homographs which even in context are unintelligible to the eye.

This does not mean that all writing must lower itself to a uniform style based on the colloquial style of everyday speech. In English there are different levels of writing that more or less correspond to different registers of speech but have in common the essential feature that they are all comprehensible to the ear when rend aloud. In Chinese it requires only that different levels of writing must be based more or less (of course not slavishly) on normal language as spoken at different registers, from colloquial slang to academic lectures, all of which are presumably intelligible to those who command these various levels of speech. As Y. R. Chao (1934: 175-176) has noted: “If in talking normal Chinese a person makes use of such a number of homonyms as to give his hearers trouble, then it is a sign that his art of language is not good enough in the first place. If, on the other hand, he takes care to make his language clear and full in sound, then it is a language which is automatically good for writing in romanization.”

Like most phobias, homographobia is an exaggerated and irrational fear that is not completely without foundation. A high cliff has a potential for danger that is not entirely a figment of the imagination of those who suffer from acrophobia. The rational person, however, approaches the danger cautiously, calmly, with an attempt at a sober assessment of the relevant realities.

In the case of Chinese, such an approach requires the adoption of a sound methodological framework for assessing the danger of homography. In his article on “Ambiguity in Chinese,” Y. R. Chao (1959) notes, for example, that “One important factor which affects the degree of ambiguity of a form is the relative frequencies of the alternate interpretations.” He further notes: “The simplest kind of ambiguity of homophony is where the homophonous forms belong to the same form class.” At best, however, a sound theoretical approach such as that advanced by Chao can only suggest hypothetical problem areas. At worst it may still lead the fearful to hallucinate fanciful and unlikely contexts, whose actual probability approximates that of the proverbial monkeys typing out the Encyclopedia Britannica, to prove that theoretical ambiguity can indeed become reality.

As a counter to such irrationality, the examples of other character-based writing systems that have been provided with phonemic alternatives deserve careful attention despite the fact that they have not entirely succeeded in dispelling the fear of homography. In Japan, the syllabic kana systems are quite frequently used by themselves, without characters, in communication involving computers, and phonemic romaji is the exclusive means of sending messages by telex. Nevertheless, many Japanese remain impervious to these realities and continue to invoke the problem of ambiguity In non-kanji writing. North Korea has been using its alphabetic Hangul system exclusively for almost forty years, but many South Koreans remain afflicted with fear of homography. Only in the case of Viet Nam has the adoption of a phonemic system of writing completely dispelled earlier manifestations of homographobia.

So thoroughly has this fear been eradicated in the case of Vietnamese that specialists in the language react with some amusement at its existence in the Chinese field. I encountered the same reaction from my colleague Samuel H. Elbert, a specialist in Hawaiian, when I questioned him about his statement that “Partly because of its few phonemes [and hence limited alphabet of only 13 letters], Hawaiian has more words with multiple meanings than almost any other language” (Elbert 1984). He responded with ill-concealed derision when I asked if this caused ambiguity in written Hawaiian, and he declined to take the time to satisfy my request for a list of homographs to provide evidence for specialists in Chinese that even extensive homography does not necessarily lead to ambiguity. My own tentative search into the matter reveals that even in my little pocket dictionary (Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini 1975) many entries do indeed have a multiplicity of meanings, and, to compound the matter, many entries, a few of which are listed below, are as much look-alikes as the Chinese examples cited earlier:

haha kaha koko
hahu kahe kuha
haka kahu kuka
haku kake kuke
heha kaku kuku
heke koha
huha kohe
huhu kohu
huka koke

Despite look-alikes such as these, I must, since Professor Elbert is probably the world’s leading authority on Hawaiian, accept his categorical assertion that the writing system presents no problem of ambiguity and that homographobia is completely unknown is his field.

My colleague in Vietnamese, Professor Stephen O’Harrow, was more willing to satisfy whet he too considered a rather curious request on my part. Consulting a dictionary to make sure he was presenting real words, he drew up the following list of what may be considered look-alikes in Vietnamese:

56 examples of DAM and DAN written with various diacritics

At this point Professor O’Harrow’s patience became exhausted, as he indicated that the list could be extended three-or-four-fold with a few minor modifications of the single syllable. But even this brief sample is enough to make some illuminating comparisons between Vietnamese and Chinese phonemic writing. In the former the phonemic diacritics which supplement the phonemic letters are akin to the four tone symbols of Chinese. In Chinese, owing to the existence of the neutral tone, each syllable has on the average only about 0.8 of a tone mark. Apart from the four tone marks, Pinyin has no additional orthographic embellishments (other than the infrequent two dots over the letter u and the still more infrequent symbol ’ as a sign of syllable separation). Vietnamese, which lacks e neutral tone, has five tone marks but also features orthographic embellishments such as crossing the letter d as well as t and adding circumflexes, breves, and hooks to various letters to produce the complete orthographic repertoire of 12 Vietnamese vowels. As a result, it averages about 1.5 of these additional symbols per syllable, twice the number in Chinese.

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 with its five diacritics (cedilla and dieresis; grave, acute, and circumflex accents) actually adds one of these symbols on one word in six.

It thus appears that if the Chinese always indicate tones they would have to add symbols only half as often as do the Vietnamese, and if they add them only when necessary they would have to do so less than a third as often as the French. Both the Vietnamese and the French take the writing of their little diacritics in their stride, faithfully adding them in virtually all circumstances, informal as well as formal, much as we do in dotting the letters i and j and crossing the letter t. They appear to be bothered hardly at all about a feature of their writing the parallel of which engenders almost paranoid concern and contention in the Chinese field.

It would be well for specialists in Chinese to ponder the Vietnamese success in applying a phonemic writing to a language which, heavily influenced as it was by Chinese, appears to have presented problems--which turn out to be non-problems--closely akin to those feared by our victims of homographobia. It would be especially advisable to ponder the ridicule that outsiders express regarding our preoccupation with problems of homography. The fact of the matter is that our field is beset with egregious methodological errors noted in this paper that to my mind are extremely serious. They have led to much wasted effort in consideration of ambiguity in Chinese and to a paralyzing fear of homography in phonemic writing.

It is high time to end this state of affairs, which reflects badly on our work, and to place our primary emphasis on a methodology that seeks to find occurrences of ambiguity in real-life situations. Some of these can be projected by a sound theoretical approach. Others have probably already come into being, as may be the case in the considerable body of alphabetic writing that simply cries out for scholarly analysis, materials which include such diverse items as the Bible, the Soviet Constitution, and Through the Looking Glass.

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.


Chao Yuan Ren. 1934. “The Idea of a System of Basic Chinese.” Quarterly Bulletin of Chinese Bibliography 1. 4: 171-183.

Chao Yuan Ren. 1959. “Ambiguity in Chinese.” In Studia Serica Bernhard Karlgren Dedicata, pp. 1-13. Copenhagen.

Elbert, Samuel H. 1984. “A Short Lesson on Translating into Hawaiian.” Honolulu (November, 1984), p. 32.

Pukui, Mary Kawena, Samuel H. Elbert, and Esther Mookini. 1975. The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary. Honolulu.