Thu, Dec 30, 2010 - Page 8 News List


Ma’s futile steps toward past

I see that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has committed Taiwan to the creation of a dictionary that would sort out all the differences between simplified and traditional Chinese (“Cross-strait Chinese dictionary will be released in stages,” Dec. 28, page 2). I find the project rather naive from a linguistic point of view.

Unlike other culturally tied languages — US English and British English or High and Low German — simplified Chinese not only simplified the characters, but revised the classification system for radicals and the placement of radicals within individual characters.

In other words, the two lexicons do not share a common index, nor a common definition of characters. Already, there have been several projects and publications that have compared the two and China’s colloquial use of the language has drifted away from more metaphorical traditional Chinese into more authoritarian and militaristic terminology over the decades of separation. Any attempt to blend the two seems rather wasteful as China prefers its lexicon as the status quo.

Former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) was an assistant librarian in his youth and the simplification of Chinese was a pet project with which he intended to shut the door on China’s past. I suspect any blend of the two is going to lead to further dilution of traditional Chinese in -unpredictable ways.

Whatever is published will require at least two sets of indexes and substantial cross-referencing. It is indeed an ambitious and noble project, but it side steps the real issue of finding common ground in the cultural past.

China shut the door on its linguistic past decades ago and has developed a language that creates definitive boundaries to what the average person is supposed to read and know. If China wanted to revisit its past, Chinese officials would simply allow a return to traditional Chinese on their own soil. A productive blend of the two is a nostalgic dream that Ma seems to hold dear, but anyone that is knowledgeable in comparative linguistics is likely to find the project a waste of time and resources. We might as well just romanize Kaohsiung as “Gaoxiong” on all Taiwanese maps and accept our fate. At least Taipei will always be spelled Taipei.

This dictionary is unlikely to be of use to anyone. Google is far more likely to properly explain the meaning of any words these days than even the best of published dictionaries in any language.

The real truth is languages are dynamic and change over time. At times they do fork into two distinct languages. And in all cases, reunification of such divisions or returning to past usage are futile. Language is what it is.



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