Saturday, August 11, 2007


The Art of Understanding Asian Languages

Every language has its own character, not to mention its peculiarities. It’s been so long since I started to learn how to spell in English that I’ve forgotten what it must’ve looked like before I could read it. However, it’s easy for one of your more jingoistic Americans to point out the odd appearances of other languages.

Now, you know I’m not a jingoist, and I know you’re not, but if we were just pretending for awhile, what would we say about those languages found in, say, Asia?

For example, Russian: here’s a language that appears to have noble intentions, and by noble intentions I mean that seems as though it tries to look like ours part of the time. Despite the intent of its founders, it never quite gets there, looking more and more like the product of someone who was drinking as they scribed. The end result: a series of letters facing in the wrong direction, some numbers pretending to be vowels and some that are completely overdone.

Much further south of Russia we have the Thailand. Here, the language appears to have been influenced by nothing so much as the local wildlife. In particular, it’s influenced by the kind of wildlife that crawls out of the ground after rainy days. One fateful afternoon, maybe hundreds or even thousands of years ago, somewhere between the provinces of Chiangmai and another whose name is really hard to spell, a handful of earthworms lay in their death throes, and moved into formation in order to send one final message.

Coming upon to the scene, the potentate of the early settlers said to another of his younger traveling companions: “You see this shape they’re making? In the new language, this will mean ‘Goodbye.’”

His protégé examined the scene for a moment, and then said: “But I can’t tell where one character ends and another begins.”

“Most people can’t,” the older man responded. “That’s why I’m the chief.”

Elsewhere, the differences between the Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages are like the differences in the rest of their cultures: people in the West assume that since their appearances are similar and they live in the same general area they must be the same.

However, once you’ve lived in one of these places for a few months, it becomes easy to distinguish between their languages and writing systems, even if you don’t understand any of it.

To anyone who has taken the time to look over Mandarin Chinese (but not bothered to study it, mind you), it appears that there is no way it could have been conceived without a paintbrush, a bit of writing material, and a decade or two of free time. This person, whoever he/she was, probably didn’t even expect it to become a language. He/she was probably a struggling artist using a series of intricate designs in an attempt to capture the angst of life in China prior to indoor plumbing.

After being rejected by a host of primitive publishing houses, the artist finally took the etchings to one of the local villages, showed them to the town elders and said, “Like this? For a small fee, I’ll let you use it as a word.”

“Why not make a whole language?” the village leaders probably asked. “How many more of those drawings do you have?”

“Eighty-six thousand,” the artist probably replied, with no small hint of frustration in his/her voice.

Later, whoever began writing the Japanese language appears to have begun leaving messages on wood. As such, nearly all of its characters appear to have been designed to be easy to carve using a knife or similarly sharpened object.

In fact, since Mandarin Chinese was the root of most languages in this part of the world, this early Japanese linguist-person probably began by trying to carve Chinese characters into this wooden object. Soon, he/she probably gave up, realizing that by the time a complete sentence in Mandarin was etched, his or her knife would be worn down to a nub.

Until the Middle Ages, the Korean language used the Chinese characters in all their fecundity, meaning that only the upper class was literate. However, in the 15th century they had a king named Sejong the Great who sought to change that.

“Children would have to be in school for sixteen hours a day just to speak this language,” Sejong probably said to himself. “We must make our language simpler, so that our students can learn it easily and use those sixteen hours to study English.”

Of course, hardly anyone from the West had been to Korea, so no one there even knew English existed. That’s just how ahead of his time Sejong was.

But where did Sejong find the inspiration for the language he helped to develop? I think it came from an overlooked source of knowledge: the dinner table. One day, as he used chopsticks to finish a bowl of rice he thought, Hey, the shape of a chopstick could be a vowel sound.
He put them down, and realized, Together, they could be a different vowel sound. The shape of this bowl could be a consonant!

In 1446 a new system, one which could be learned in only days, became the national language. Sejong was naturally please with his discovery. This must be why people call me “the Great,” he thought to himself.

In truth, no story I can invent could summarize the wonders of how a civilization forms, and how they learn to communicate. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to try.

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