The main drawback of Chinese characters – that they don’t reflect pronunciation – is also their primary advantage in representing so many disparate spoken languages.

Book review: A Billion Voices asks: is there such a thing as ‘the Chinese language’?

Although about China, David Moser’s book also serves as a case study of the way language intersects with policy, society and technology – and much in the Chinese experience finds echoes elsewhere

A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language

by David Moser

Penguin China

4/5 stars

“I never learned anything in the Saturday morning Chinese school I was forced to attend as a child,” Ted Chiang wrote in a recent piece in The New Yorker.

“There were plenty of reasons for my poor performance in those classes … so I don’t blame Chinese characters for my failure. No, my objection is a practical one: I’m a fan of literacy, and Chinese characters have been an obstacle to literacy for millennia.”

Ridding Chinese of Chinese characters is an idea, writes David Moser in A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language, that is at least a century old. In the tech world, every decade or so there is serious although invariably fanciful commentary that Chinese characters will be made obsolete by their incompatibility with the technology of the moment: typewriters, keyboards, telex, mobile phone texting, internet URLs, etc.

Then some innovation – fax machines, hi-res graphics screens, smartphones – comes along to make Chinese characters easy again. The latest expression of concern is that due to the various input methods on smartphones, older Chinese are reportedly forgetting how to write characters properly, while younger ones never learn.

In his survey of China’s search for a common language, Moser quickly and clearly runs through the basic linguistics – whether Chinese “dialects” are “dialects” or “languages” and the structure of Chinese characters – to provide the foundation for a discussion of the history of Chinese linguistic policy. He begins by asking, not entirely rhetorically: “Is there such a thing as ‘the Chinese language’?”

Putonghua, he notes, is an invented construct, and not in fact the first: it is however the one that survived after several other abortive attempts (including apparently serious suggestions to give up on Chinese entirely and adopt Esperanto).

The objective was always unification through a common language, an idea that makes practical as well as political sense. This meant deciding on exactly what that common language was to be, and second, what to write and how to write it. The former ended up being based largely on the dialect used in Beijing, an arguably flawed choice that was nevertheless better than any of the alternatives. There was a further move to have writing reflect actual speech rather than classical forms – and, finally, after the revolution, the simplification of the characters.

Some are concerned that smartphones are causing older Chinese to forget how to write characters properly, while younger ones never learn.

The current language wars between Cantonese and Mandarin in Hong Kong go back a long way. Efforts to standardise the language date to the late Qing dynasty; the slogan of the faction supporting the adoption of northern dialects at the 1913 Conference on the Unification of Pronunciation was “Force the South to follow the North”.

Much of the appeal of Moser’s book is the inclusion of anecdotes such as these. Some, it must be admitted, are rather funny. The 1913 Conference came up with a five-tone system and a pronunciation guide for 6,500 characters, constituting “a version of Chinese that nobody actually spoke”. It was then realised that since no one actually spoke it, there was no one to teach it. Epithets were tossed around, with a competing system called “utterly worthless dog s***”.

Moser restricts his account to Chinese, but much of this story is hardly unique to China. Many countries made attempts, even within living memory, to stamp out dialects and minority languages. Welsh, Languedoc, Breton, Basque, Sicilian, Romani, Berber and indigenous languages from the Americas to Australasia have all suffered from central government programmes of suppression. Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Indonesia and Tagalog are, on the other hand, like Putonghua: they are also constructs based on dialects of a central majority.

And it is certainly possible to ditch one writing system in favour of another. Turkey’s replacement of the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet is at least as drastic as the move to simplified characters. Certain Central Asian languages went from an Arabic/Persian script to Latin to Cyrillic all in a couple of decades – and some are now trying to move back.

But China is different, not least because of its size and the great variety of “dialects” – a term that Moser notes has been adopted by China for political reasons: if all Chinese speak Chinese, then what they speak cannot be different languages – to say nothing of languages such as Tibetan, Uyghur and Mongolian. The durability of Chinese characters – often put down to tradition or, at least, entrenched resistance from traditionalists – is surely due to this diversity.

The characters’ main drawback – that they don’t reflect pronunciation – is also their primary advantage: they work like emojis. If Chinese were written as it is spoken, then different regions of China would write entirely differently, turning China linguistically into something more like Europe.

Although Moser’s book is about China, it is also serves as a good case study in the way language intersects with policy, society and technology; although different countries will slice the issue differently, much of the Chinese situation finds echoes elsewhere.

The final irony is that if Putonghua were to become universally understood in China (which – as Moser points out – is policy), it would remove what is perhaps the major impediment to replacing characters with an alphabetic script.

Asian Review of Books