Narrowing The Range Of Thought

You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,’ he said almost sadly. ‘Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in The Times occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?’

Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on:

‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?’

A grasp of 900 pictographs will allow access to 90 per cent of content, as Chinese media continues a process of linguistic simplification, according to an education ministry survey which examined “900m characters used in more than 8.9m files chosen from newspapers, magazines, the internet and television”, according to Xinhua news agency.

Although Reuters notes that many traditional, aka “complex”, characters are still used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and in Chinese expat communities abroad, linguistic homogenisation, and with it simplification, are gradually consigning these to history as mainland Chinese influence grows.

19 thoughts on “Narrowing The Range Of Thought

  1. I’m not so sure the analogy is accurate. Newspeak talks about an actual reduction of vocabulary, but the alphabet is the same. A reduction of pictographs may not necessarily reduce the effective vocabulary of Mandarin, but it would certainly make it a lot easier to teach and learn the language. As a Chinese who grew up in a predominantly English culture, and who had to learn Mandarin growing up (and did so in a spectacularly dismal way), I can really appreciate the necessity to reduce the complexity of the Mandarin written language. There’s just too many words out there right now.

    Of course, if I had my way, we’d just all abandon Mandarin altogether. Purely pictographic languages are such a pain. Which is why I like Japanese so much; it’s a great amalgam of phonetic alphabet and pictographs.

  2. ketsugi said: Newspeak talks about an actual reduction of vocabulary, but the alphabet is the same.

    The Western equivalent of the Chinese character is a word, not a letter – as you say yourself later. So reducing the number of pictographs is reducing the number of words – i.e. the vocabulary. Isn’t it?

  3. The English language has “lost” words over time too, does that mean it is also less expressive than it once was? Though admittedly that was by the words falling out of common useage naturally, rather than by a concerted effort…

  4. I’m not sure it’s so simple as you make out. I’m no expert but I think the idea that one character == one word is really only a half-truth simple enough to be taught at primary school. Wikipedia suggests that official simplifcation of Chinese has been going on for more than 50 years and, as far as I can tell, is non-destructive (at least linguistically).

  5. eggz: Possibly. The language has also gained words at the same time.

    jgraham: The simplification of Chinese you refer to means changing how the characters are drawn to make them simpler and easier to write – reducing the number of strokes. That is not the same as deprecating words or removing them from the language, which is what the Register article is about.

  6. Orwell wasn’t much of a linguist. His political satire is interesting, but his ideas about language are, to put it bluntly, rubbish.

    Reducing the vocabulary of a language is not an effective way to reduce the range of thought. Concepts for which there’s no handy word are readily imagined and stated anyway, either by extending the meaning of an existing word, or, perhaps more frequently, by paraphrasis.

    Consider the Zionist movement, wherein ethnic Israelites from various nations and languages have moved back during the last century or so to the land once known as Israel. The generation that moved back thought in various languages, but in order to all speak one language they chose to revive a formerly dead language, Hebrew, and all re-learn to speak it. The Hebrew language had been dead for some 2500 years (approximately), so it didn’t have any words for modern things. This didn’t prove to be a problem: subsequent generations of Israelis, raised in Israel and speaking (and thinking in) the revived Hebrew as their first language, don’t have any trouble expressing modern concepts. They either re-use an existing word, expanding its meaning (“merkava” doesn’t just mean “chariot” anymore; not it also means “main battle tank”), or they state the concept periphrastically. (In some cases they might also add new words.)

    You can’t make a word mean only a certain thing by writing only that definition in a dictionary. Many people have tried this, even going so far as to write usage notes into dictionaries and grammar books explaining why the other meanings are wrong, and not what the word actually means (e.g., explaining that “kid” does not mean “human child” but only “young goat”, that “can” does not mean “be allowed” but only “be able”, and so on). This always fails, because words do not in practice just mean what the dictionary says — they mean what it’s obvious that they mean in context. The real determiner of the meaning of a word is the way that the word is used in practice. The reason for this is simple: people don’t exclusively learn what words mean from reading only dictionaries. People learn what words mean by glorking the general pluggandisp from whatever they happen to be reading (or hearing) when they encounter the word.

    Then there’s periphrasis, which is how new concepts are usually introduced: rather than stating them succinctly with a single word, they’re stated in a more round-about way, i.e., the concept is explained with a larger linguistic construct: rather than a word, a phrase may be used, a clause, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, or in extreme cases an entire book.

    The long and short of it is that if you engineer a language that doesn’t have words for “freedom” or “privacy”, and if you raise children with it as a first language, they’ll have no trouble finding ways to express those concepts. If you’ve ever played the party game “Taboo”, you’ll have a pretty good idea how they’ll go about doing it.

  7. Jonadab: All fair points. I agree that you couldn’t actually do what Orwell writes about and what the Chinese may or may not be trying. But I don’t need to believe it will work in order to comment on the similarity between the two pieces :-).

  8. Fair enough. I won’t try to guess what the Chinese intentions are in this project. (I gave up trying to understand the way Chinese people think after reading up on the One China policy. One thing I can say with a fair degree of certitude: they don’t think like Westerners.)

    As for characters equating to words, that was not my understanding of how the Chinese writing system works, but I have not studied it in any real detail. (The prospect of tens of thousands of characters kinda scared me away from ideographic languages, and my lack of a good musical ear scares me away from tonal languages, and Chinese is both, so it hasn’t been high on my to-learn list.)

  9. How is this different from other languages? Many English speakers wouldn’t know the more archaic vocabulary that you’d find only in literature. Besides, 900 pictographs figure is a bit misleading because the characters may be the same but they carry different meaning based on context and the meanings can also change when paired with different characters.

  10. That is not the same as deprecating words or removing them from the language, which is what the Register article is about.

    Well that’s not what I got from the article. It talks specifically about reducing the number of pictographs, which, I think, is different to the total number of words. The reference to “traditional aka ‘complex’ characters” mirrors exactly the content of the wikipedia article.

    Anyway, Jonadab makes the crucial point which is that the number of official words in a language is not a good measure of the diversity of concepts that it may be used to express, whatever Orwell would have had us believe. A pathological example of this would be a sign language which has no words – either written or spoken – but combines guestures in such a way as to allow the same level of expressiveness as a more traditional verbal language.

  11. As an user of the “complex” Chinese character, I don’t find it that “complex” as some of you may thought. If you understand how Chinese characters are formed, just like how English words are formed (e.g. farm + er => farmer), it isn’t “complex” as all to learn the traditional Chinese characters.

    On another hand, “simpifing” the Chinese character is rather destructive. Imagine that you are no longer allowed to use the words “cinema” as there is “theatre”, and then you have to write “three” as “free” because they sound similar. It is a destruction of the language and culture.

    Anyway, I can read simpified Chinese characters because many of those characters are same or similar to their correponsing traditional Chinese characters.

  12. jgraham: I agree the language is a bit confused, but it talks about only having to know 900 characters instead of the 1500 or 2000 you used to have to know. This is definitely not about changing how you write characters, it’s about changing how many you use.

  13. Interesting blog and discussion.

    Actually the way we seem to have got our alphabets was through exactly the same kind of process: you start out with a large number of pictographs, and then you end up using them more symbolically / in combinations… so reducing the number may mean that you represent certain words by a number of pictographs rather than one. (Chinese characters are already often composed by combining multiple radicals into one, so this would just be a different way of compositing ideas, using presumably similar concepts). If you start using them to represent sounds instead of concepts, you end up with an alphabet (and need far fewer symbols)

    More to the point however, this is not what the real news is. The actual news is that fewer pictographs are being commonly used and so you need to know fewer in order to get by (as in, this is a descriptive survey, not a prescriptive edict). May be slightly clearer in the original Xinhua article:

    And the sad part:
    The survey also shows that many of the 100 languages used by various ethnic minorities of China is at the brink of extinction.

  14. A Swedish to Foo dictionary is always a lot thinner than an English to Foo dictionary. Do the Swedes have a narrower range of thought? In Swedish they have more letters in the alphabet though.

    Anyway, the alphabet is a very cool invention. It simplifies things even further than simplified ideographs.

  15. Gerv,

    Reading the Xinhuanet story, it looks like this is a storm in a teacup. There’s no sign at all of the Chinese dumbing down their language, any more than the Germans are doing with their spelling simplification.

    The original article says: “people could understand 90 percent of the content in Chinese publications, so long as they learn only about 900 Chinese characters and 11,000 phrases, a new survey shows”, and “Though 1.65 million words are found in use in the files, only 110,000, or seven percent, are frequently used.”

    Whatever you might think of the Orwellian nature of the Chinese censors, it does not look like the Chinese are intending to commit linguistic suicide any time soon.

    — Neil

  16. For your interest: the figures quoted are not too different from those found in English; the most common 900 words of a widely-used version of the Old and New Testaments account for 86% of the total number of words in the text (89% if you exclude proper nouns), even though they form only about 10% of its total vocabulary.

  17. > Anyway, the alphabet is a very cool invention. It simplifies things
    > even further than simplified ideographs.

    For the Chinese to move to an alphabetic writing system, they would want to first unify pronunciation. Prior to the introduction of radio this would probably have been completely impossible, but even now I don’t know that it would be easy.

    It *would* have certain benefits, though. Among other things, phonetic writing systems (whether it’s an alphabet, abjad, or syllabary) make computer interfaces far easier to design as well as easier to use, allow for easier integration of foreign words and phrases (via transliteration), greatly simplify typesetting and printing, and are easier to learn, making it easier to achieve higher literacy rates.

    The question of *which* phonetic writing system to use would be a difficult one. I suspect that the PROC would not want to adopt the Latin alphabet, for political reasons, and I am stone cold certain they would not want to adopt the Devanagari script, the Japanese syllabary, the Hangul writing system, or the Cyrillic alphabet, all for political reasons — but those are most of the obvious choices. (Arabic script? Seems… somehow inappropriate.) They would probably need to develop their own, I guess. Not that that’s hard, if one person can just sit down and do it, but getting all of the necessary and relevant people to agree on one would be… a major undertaking.

    And then there’s the whole problem of getting people who grew up with ideographs and already know them to see the _value_ of moving to a phonetic system. Plus as mentioned the small matter (ahem) of unifying pronunciation.

    In short, it seems unlikely to happen soon. Simplifying the existing, ideographic writing system may not be as ideal a solution as going to phonetics, but it’s probably a lot easier to implement, both in terms of political support and plain old practicability. The Chinese writing system is one of the most complex writing systems in existence, so the desire to simplify it is much more understandable than some of the other things the PROC has undertaken.

    Again, though, I don’t claim to know all their motivations.

  18. Jonadab: As I understand it, Mandarin Chinese pronunciation is unified (to the same extent that English is, even though it incorporates Glaswegian and Southern USA), and the Chinese already have an official Latin-letter transliteration – Pinyin. In fact, books are printed in Pinyin for some Chinese schoolchildren; kids don’t learn the pictorial writing until reasonably late in their education (8 or older, I think).

    I believe some methods of Chinese character input involve typing the Pinyin on a standard keyboard.