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'Self-fulfilling prophecy': How Chinese characters confer independent status on elements that were not originally independent

(This is a side note to the page The Chinese Writing System)

By breaking polysyllabic forms into individual syllables, Chinese characters give them an independence they would not normally have. This has created something of a 'self-fulfilling prophecy', as though English broke 'rabbit' into two words, 'rabb' and 'it', and people then assumed that 'rabb' could be used freely to create new words like 'rabb-hunt' or 'rabb-stew'.

An excellent example of this is the naming of the wren-babblers in Chinese.

The Chinese word for 'wren' is 鷦鷯 jiāoliáo (simplified 鹪鹩) an age-old word that is written with two characters. Although consisting of two syllables and written in two characters, jiāoliáo is a single word -- the character 鹪 jiāo is never used alone or in any other character combination, and 鹩 liáo is used in the names of the mynahs but nowhere else. It is only the writing system that splits jiāoliáo into two parts.

It seems clear that the 'wren babblers', species of small birds that form part of a far larger group of 'babblers', were originally regarded as a kind of 'wren', 鷦鷯 / 鹪鹩 jiāoliáo, at least for naming purposes.

However, naturalists tend to feel uncomfortable with misleading bird names, so Mainland scientists understandably tidied things up. They added 鹛 méi 'babbler' to the names of the 'wren babblers' in order to make it clear that they are, in fact, 'babblers' and not 'wrens'. They then went on to create separate names for different species of wren-babbler using the two characters in 鷦鷯 jiāoliáo.

In this way, the single, originally indivisible word 鹪鹩 jiāoliáo, has been split into two individual parts for word-building purposes.

This kind of phenomenon is described by Hannas as follows:

Because Chinese characters represent both morphemes and syllables, linguists use the term "morphosyllabic" to identify the system within the taxonomy of world orthographies. Does this mean all Chinese morphemes are made up of one syllable? Not at all. Although this is largely the case in modern standard Mandarin, particularly as it is written, it was not true of the archaic language, nor does it apply to the spoken language in its many varieties. Rather, the monosyllabism of Chinese morphology is an artifact of character-based writing, which imposes a one-to-one relationship on the language's sound, script, and meaningful units. Given the holistic relationship between characters, their meanings, and their sounds, characters as the most conspicuous units in that triad define all legs of the relationship, including the link between sound and meaning -- a link that is reinterpreted in terms of the writing system's requirements.

[Owing to the character writing system] there is significant pressure on users to impute meaning to each character of a multi-syllable morpheme, even when the morpheme's one meaning is expressed over all of the syllables. The fact that Chinese feel obliged to assign as many characters to a term as there are syllables in the term is a function of the shift that occurred in the typology of Chinese writing to a phonetic-based system. This change did not, however, nullify the practice of associating a meaning with each character. If two characters in a single term share the same meaning, one character tends to take on the meaning of the whole term. That character is then used alone or in new compound terms with different morphemes, in a de facto validation of the reduction process.

(See Chinese Writing at Pinyin Info, which reproduces the first chapter from The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity by William C. Hannas, 2003.)

More on the writing of disyllabic words can be found at The addition of a meaningful radical in creating Chinese characters.

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