John DeFrancis

American linguist (1911-2009)

John DeFrancis (August 31, 1911January 2, 2009) was an American linguist, sinologist, author of Chinese language textbooks, lexicographer of Chinese dictionaries, and Professor Emeritus of Chinese Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.



The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (1984)


See: The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy

  • The concept of ideographic writing is a most seductive notion. There is great appeal in the concept of written symbols conveying their message directly to our minds, thus bypassing the restrictive intermediary of speech. And it seems so plausible. Surely ideas immediately pop into our minds when we see a road sign, a death's head label on a bottle of medicine, a number on a clock. Aren't Chinese characters a sophisticated system of symbols that similarly convey meaning without regard to sound? Aren't they an ideographic system of writing? The answer to these questions is no. Chinese characters are a phonetic, not an ideographic, system of writing… Here I would go further: There never has been, and never can be, such a thing as an ideographic system of writing.
  • In human history it seems that the idea of using a pictograph in the new function of representing sound may have occurred only three times: once in Mesopotamia, perhaps by the Sumerians, once in China, apparently by the Chinese themselves, and once in Central America, by the Mayas. (Conceivably it was invented only once, but there is no evidence that the Chinese or the Mayas acquired the idea from elsewhere.) The idea that was independently conceived by these three peoples was taken over, as were at times even the symbols themselves, though often in a highly modified form, by others who made adaptations to fit a host of totally different languages. One of the major adaptations, generally attributed to the Greeks, was the narrowing of sound representation from syllabic representation to phonemic representation (Gelb 1963; Trager 1974), after an earlier stage of mixed pictographic and syllabic writing (Chadwick 1967).
  • With regard to the principle [of using symbols to represent sounds], it matters little whether the symbol is an elaborately detailed picture, a slightly stylized drawing, or a drastically abbreviated symbol of essentially abstract form. What is crucial is to recognize that the diverse forms perform the same function in representing sound. To see that writing has the form of pictures and to conclude that it is pictographic is correct in only one sense -- that of the form, but not the function, of the symbols. We can put it this way:
QUESTION: When is a pictograph not a pictograph?
ANSWER: When it represents a sound.
  • The term "ideographic" has been used not only by those who espouse its basic meaning but also by others who do not necessarily accept the concept but use the term out of mere force of habit as an established popular designation for Chinese characters. I find, to my chagrin, that in my previous publications I have been guilty of precisely this concession to popular usage without being aware of the damage it can cause. As a repentant sinner I pledge to swear off this hallucinogen. I hope others will join in consigning the term to the Museum of Mythological Memorabilia along with unicorn horns and phoenix feathers.

Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems (1989)

  • The Chinese system must be classified as a syllabic system of writing. More specifically, it belongs to the subcategory that I have labeled meaning-plus-sound syllabic systems or morphosyllabic systems. I use the term morphosyllabic in two senses. The first applies to the Chinese characters taken as individual units. Individual characters are morphosyllabic in the sense that they represent at once a single syllable and a single morpheme (except for the 11 percent or so of meaningless characters that represent sound only). In this usage the term is intended to replace the more widely used expressions logographic, word-syllabic, and morphemic, all of which are applied to individual characters taken as a unit. The second sense of the term refers to the structure of Chinese characters and is intended to draw attention to the fact that, in most cases, a character is composed of two elements, a phonetic grapheme which suggests the syllabic pronunciation of the full character, and a semantic element which hints at its meaning.

"The Prospects for Chinese Writing Reform" (2006)

  • I think there are three possible scenarios for the future of Chinese writing, in all of which the government plays a major role. In the first, and at present apparently the least likely scenario, the government abandons its hostility to an expanded role for Pinyin and instead fosters a climate of digraphia and biliteracy in which those who can do so become literate in both characters and Pinyin, and those who cannot are at least literate in Pinyin. This is essentially a reversion to the Latinization movement of the 1930s and 1940s, when Mao Zedong and other high Communist Party officials like Xu Teli, the commissioner of education in Yan'an, lent their prestigious support to the New Writing. Such a change within the governing bureaucracy would in all likelihood result in an explosion of activity that might end in Pinyin ascendancy in use over characters in less than a generation.
In the second scenario the government adopts a policy of benign indifference that involves abandoning its hostility toward Pinyin but without actively supporting it, leaving it up to the rival protagonists of the two systems to contest for supremacy among themselves. This is likely to result in a somewhat longer struggle.
In the third scenario the government continues its present policy of repression, resulting in a much more protracted struggle (though surely not as long as the fascinating parallel struggle between Latin and Italian in Italy, where it took 500 [!] years after Dante’s start in 1292 for academics, the last holdouts, to finally abandon their long resistance and start using Italian in university lectures).47 In this long struggle, PCs and mobile phones and other innovations still to come will undoubtedly allow more and more advocates of writing reform to escape the stranglehold of officialdom, to the point where (in a century or so?) characters are finally relegated to the status of Latin in the West.
My own view is that this is actually the least likely scenario, the most probable one being that the Chinese pragmatism that has manifested itself so strongly in economics will extend further into writing, and that, perhaps sooner rather than later, given the success of the promotion of Mandarin, some influential Party bureaucrats will finally arrive at the conclusion that the "some day in the future" anticipated by Mao has arrived, and that wholehearted Party support should now be unleashed for his anticipated "basic reform."
In any case it is basically all a matter of time. And the decisive factor that will seal the ultimate fate of Chinese characters is the new reality, noted by a perceptive observer, that "the PC is mightier than the Pen."
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