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If English was written like Chinese (1999)

If English was written like Chinese

Also see the Belorussian translation provided by Fatcow.

The English spelling system is such a pain, we’d might as well switch to hanzi— Chinese characters. How should we go about it?

Japanese style

One way would be to use hanzi directly, asthe Japanese do. For instance, we’d write “work” as , and “ruler” as . Chinese and Japanese borrowings could be written using the original hanzi, e.g. “gung-ho” would be , and “tycoon” as .

You can already see that this is going to be tricky. We’ve just given two readings, for instance– /wrk/ and /gûng/– and two as well– /rulr/ and /kun/.

Proper names will be a problem as well. Again, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean names already have hanzi forms– e.g. for the name of the bodaciously cute singer Faye Wong— but for English names we’d have no better recourse than to spell things out using the nearest Chinese syllables. For instance, Winston Churchill would be represented by hanzi that would be transliterated Wensuteng Chuerqilu.

Chinese style

Maybe there’s a better approach. Instead of using hanzi directly, let’s invent a new system– we’ll call it yingzi, “English characters”– that would work for English exactly as hanzi works for Chinese.

The basic principle will be, one yingzi for a syllable with a particular meaning. So two, to, and too will each have their own yingzi. (If we were creating a syllabary, by contrast, we’d write all three with the same symbol, the one for /tu/.)

Does that mean we need a completely separate symbol for each of the thousands of possible English syllables? Not at all. We can simplify the task enormously with one more principle: syllables that rhyme can have yingzi that are variations on a theme.

Little pictures

You’ve been reading for half a page and are probably wondering why I haven’t yet talked about pictograms. When do we get to draw little pictures?

Well, now’s the time. Let’s draw pictures. For instance:

When the pictures are abstract we can call them “ideograms”, but they still represent particular English morphemes:

Some of our pictures will be kind of clever. For instance, woods repeats the yingzi for tree, while east is a little picture of the sun rising through the trees. guilt is a picture of a man inside an enclosure.

Let’s not go crazy, however. We only need a thousand or so, and we’ll restrict ourselves to fairly simple, one-syllable words. We’ll derive the vast majority of our yingzi from this basic stock of pictures.

Phonetic classes

Basically each simple yingzi will be the basis for an open-ended set of yingzi, used for a set of rhyming syllables. For instance, the king character will generate the family king, thing, sing, sling, sting, shing(le).

It would be awfully confusing to use for all of these. Instead we’ll use it only for king, which will be the phonetic for this set, and add little signs called radicals to distinguish the rest. Examples:

When we add a radical, we scrunch up the yingzi so the whole thing still fits into a square. All characters, however complex, fit into the same size box.

“Rhyming” isn’t quite accurate. We don’t want each family of words to get too large; so we’ll restrict a single family to either voiced or unvoiced initial consonants.

So, bring, ring, Bing, wing, zing will form a separate family of yingzi, based on the character wing.

Overlaps and secondary derivations

The yingzi formed from a single phonetic will all rhyme; but not all syllables that rhyme will necessarily have the same yingzi. This is largely because we started with a set of pictograms chosen for their pictorial rather than phonetic qualities; but it also adds visual distinctions to the script, and thus aids the reader. (It rather burdens the writer; but heck, everyone does a lot more reading than writing.)

For instance, the phonetic un- will be used for fun, ton, pun, thun(der), Hun, etc. But sun will have its own yingzi, , and this will be used for son, shun, stun, spun. For instance, sun plus the man radical makes son, and sun with the fight radical is used for shun.

Moreover, a compound yingzi may itself be used as a phonetic with its own set of yingzi. The shun character , for instance, will be used with the work radical to form -tion, used to spell this common suffix, as in section.


Where do the radicals come from? For the most part they are either simple characters (e.g king, work), or abbreviations of characters; for instance the character net is abbreviated to when used as a radical.

The set of radicals is not unlimited; there is in fact a fixed set of 214 of them. The total number of yingzi that belong to one phonetic set is thus absolutely limited to 214. No set will actually have this number of yingzi, though some will have a few dozen.

(However, the potential number of yingzi is still unlimited, because we can always choose a compound yingzi as a new phonetic, and generate a new set of rhyming yingzi from it.)

Because the set of radicals is limited, a really good radical will not always be available to distinguish the yingzi in a rhyming set. We’ll just choose the best one we can. In addition, when choosing radicals we will rely on the etymological meaning of a word, which may not always match its current meaning. For instance, the word villain originally meant peasant, and so the sign for vill- uses the field radical (added to the phonetic bill).

The yingzi that use a particular radical will form a class of their own– a sort of meaning class. We can consider the entire English language to be divided into 214 meaning categories. For instance, every yingzi that uses the bug radical will have something to do (at least etymologically) with insects or reptiles. However, since the number of radicals is so limited, and because the choice of radical is sometimes quirky, the resulting sets will be rather vague and eccentric.

Guessing at an unknown character

There will be tens of thousands of yingzi; but we must not let this frighten us. There are tens of thousands of conventional spellings, too, but despite what the wiseacres say, it would be absurd to say that there’s no logic to English orthography at all. Likewise, the yingzi themselves are not the basic graphical units or graphemes of the writing system; the phonetics and radicals are.

Readers can make use of this fact to guess the pronunciation of an unknown character. For instance, is a straightforward combination of the speech radical with the phonetic purse. A type of speaking that rhymes with purse– curse, of course.

Or, , a combination of the plant radical with the guilt phonetic . Something about plants that rhymes with guilt? This one is a bit harder– wilt.

— a plant (radical plant) that rhymes with speech— is easy: peach. But note that speech, which we used as a radical above, is used as a phonetic here.

Since there are many more phonetics than radicals, the information content of the radical is much less than that of the phonetic. If you knew only the radical for an unknown character, you can only narrow down the meaning to 1/214 of the lexicon; if you knew only the phonetic, you could narrow it down much further, since there are more than a thousand phonetics.

Polysyllabic words

Where possible we will divide a word into morphemes. For instance outsider breaks into out + side + -er; reshipment is re- + ship + -ment.

How do we handle morphemes of more than one syllable? We simply create a yingzi for each syllable. For instance, person would be expressed as . The first character is based on per, with the addition of the man radical; the second is sun with the addition of the same radical.

A polysyllabic morpheme, in fact, can generally be recognized because all the syllables have the same radical. For instance, insect consists of in and sect, each with the addition of the bug radical. (Note that sect is itself a compound character, formed from the rite radical with the specked phonetic.)


How about inflections that don’t form a full syllable, such as plural -s? It would be pretty tiresome, even with the add-a-radical trick, to create thousands of yingzi for syllables that just happen to have a final -s.

Note, however, that the plural morpheme sometimes takes up its own syllable, as in grasses, rashes. So why not use the yingzi for is, which is ? Of course, is and -s are both pretty common, so we should add a little dot to the character to represent final -s: So peach is , peaches is ; sun is , suns is . We can use a similar strategy for other inflections.

Foreign words

Very old borrowings (e.g. the mass of words borrowed in medieval and Renaissance times from French and Latin) will be treated like native words. We’ve already seen examples like peach, villain, insect, and person.

Words borrowed more recently, however, won’t get their own radical+phonetic compounds. Instead we’ll represent them, syllable by syllable, using the nearest existing characters. For instance, Peking will be represented as . The first character is the first syllable of pecan (that is, pe-; phonetic see, radical gourd), and the second is the word king. The name Fellini will be written , composed of the yinzi fell, lean, knee. (You may amuse yourself working out what the phonetics and radicals are for these three characters.)


English dictionaries would no longer be arranged alphabetically, of course, since we’re no longer using an alphabet. They’ll be organized by radical.

The 214 radicals are ordered according to the number of strokes needed to draw them. Radicals of one stroke (e.g. one or per ) come first, followed by radicals of two strokes (e.g. un-), and so on, up to monstrosities like toad, which has 20 strokes.

The section for each radical is also organized by stroke number. Under the plant radical, for instance, the first entry is plant itself, followed by characters with one extra stroke (like dron, the last character in rhododendron), then characters with two strokes, and so on (up to , the first character in toadstool).

Note that there are no main entries for what we’re used to calling words at all. There wouldn’t be a main entry at all for a word like person, for instance. There would be an entry for the man radical; under it a sub-entry for the character per, and person would be listed as a sub-sub-entry under that.

Thinking in yingzi

The nature of the writing system would encourage lexicographers (and English speakers) to think of everything in the language as built out of yingzi. There wouldn’t seem to be a great difference between “words” like storehouse, storage, restore and “expressions” like shoe store, store up, store detective, store manager; or between blackboard and black eye, or between alphabet and alpha male.

Many morphemes that now live out a shadowy existence, forever bound to other morphemes, would take on an independent existence; for instance the volve in revolve, evolve, involve, devolve, which would have its own yingzi, and would seem as much a “word” or component of the language as the match in rematch, mismatch, unmatch. There would be a tendency to describe the meanings, vague or miscellaneous as they might be, for such characters.

This might seem sensible and even wise for a morpheme like volve, which after all derives from a real Latin root meaning roll; but there would be other, more dubious applications. For instance, the son in person was represented by , which happens to be the yingzi for son. It will be almost impossible not to assume that person derives from son; but historically it’s just a coincidence; person derives from Latin and has nothing to do with son.

Worse yet, the –cuit of biscuit and circuit might be written with the same character (a derivative of kit), and a meaning sought for it– perhaps ’round’, since biscuits are round and circuits involve going round. Again, etymologically this is nonsense.

Words, perceived as compounds, might lend themselves to abbreviation. After all, why write two yingzi when one will do, especially if it unmistakably implies its partner? For instance, language would be a two-character word , each character defined only as part of this compound and used nowhere else in the language. If you’ve written lang, you must write gwidge next. You might as well just write lang and leave it at that. Ultimately of course will acquire a meaning of its own– namely language. And for consistency’s sake lexicographers might well give gwidge a meaning of its own as well–namely, language.

The complexities of the writing system, the inherent interest of the pictorial elements, the cleverness inherent in graphic compounds like woods and the radical-phonetic system, and even sociological facts such as the time it takes to learn the system, and the fact that English speakers of all nations can use it whatever their native dialect, would also combine to give the writing system an overwhelming character of its own. It would be seen as more important than speech; there would even be a tendency to think of words as derived from characters rather than the other way around.

If someone asks where a word comes from, we (now) think of its original phonetic form; we say for instance that language comes from French langage, itself derived from Latin lingua ‘tongue’, which in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European dnghu. With the yingzi system, people would be tempted instead to give what we might call the graphic etymology. They’d say that lang derives from the speech radical and the gang phonetic, and that the latter is actually a picture of a gang– a reduplication of the man character. That is indeed where comes from, but not lang, which did not derive from it! (But it wouldn’t even be easy to make this point in yingzi– how do you distinguish lang from if you can’t even write “lang” without writing the character?)

A word is a word is a word

Does all this mean that words are cultural constructs or that the concept of a word would no longer apply to English written in yingzi? Not at all. A word is still a useful linguistic concept– or rather a series of overlapping concepts. By word linguists may mean one or all of the following:

  • a phonological unit– e.g. something with one stress accent or one pitch contour; or a unit within which intervocalic stops get voiced.
  • the abstraction underlying a set of morphological forms (e.g. write underlying write, writes, writing, written, wrote).
  • an element which can stand alone (e.g. in response to a suitably chosen question), as suffixes or bound morphemes cannot.
  • a morphological unit you can’t insert other morphemes into (e.g. black dog is not a word since you can change it to black, tired dog; but you can’t turn blackbird into blacktiredbird)
  • an expression with a conventional meaning– something that has to be defined in the mental lexicon (this sense is also called a lexeme).

A moment’s thought should show that these definitions may or may not coincide even in English; and that even where they do they may not coincide with the typographical or lexicographical notion of a word. The latter idea– roughly ‘something with spaces around it’– is of little interest to linguists since it depends on the writing system. That makes it useless for describing most of the languages of the world; and even for written languages it’s pretty arbitrary, as this page should show. (Everything you know about writing English would change if we adopted yingzi instead.)

It’s safe to say, however, that such definitions would seem fairly abstract in a yingzi system. Word might become a technical term, like morpheme or lexeme. Or it might be identified with a yingzi (a written character); or be abstracted into a more vaguely defined linguistic element, applicable to anything from a character to a compound to a whole phrase.

Hey, did I just learn something about Chinese?

I’ve attempted in this sketch to lay out, by analogy, the nature and structure of the Chinese writing system. All of the concepts apply:

  • the limited role of pictograms
  • the clever compound pictures (indeed all three examples are from Chinese)
  • the phonetic-and-radical system (97% of Chinese characters work this way)
  • the inclusion of radicals as part of the character (rather than as separate symbols, as in cuneiform or hieroglyphic writing)
  • the relative information content of radicals and phonetics
  • compounds used as secondary phonetics
  • the handling of multisyllabic and foreign words
  • the handling of subsyllabic morphemes (the model here is Mandarin -r, represented by ér)
  • the organization of dictionaries (in fact, the graphic at the top of the page shows part of the radical index for a Chinese dictionary, organized by stroke count)
  • the psychological effects.

The radicals named are all also Chinese radicals. The phonetics are not, of course, since the phonetics in hanzi refer to the sounds of Chinese words, not English ones. But I tried to pick phonetics which would also be phonetics in Chinese (e.g. sun, king, wing, tree, one, east, field, bill).

There are differences, too. For instance, I haven’t made any attempt to make my yingzi look like hanzi.

The phonetic sets of Chinese are not exactly based on rhymes. Karlgren explains that the hanzi belonging to one set had homorganic initial consonants (e.g. k, g), the same main vowel, and the same final consonant.

I’ve also underreported the complexity (and arguably the inefficiency) of the Chinese script in several important ways:

  • The phonetic sets in Chinese, though still useful, are two thousand years out of date. It’s as if my yingzi phonetics had to rhyme in Proto-Germanic, not in modern English.
  • The scribes who devised hanzi often went wild adding radicals, creating multiple characters for what are etymologically the same root.
  • Four milennia have reduced the pictorial content of the hanzi primitives almost to nil. What the “pictograms” are pictures of is often evident only to the scholar.
  • Clear and precise handwriting is by no means a virtue in Chinese; the most admired style, câoshu, is highly simplified, suggesting rather than delineating the characters intended.
  • The People’s Republic has simplified many of the traditional hanzi; and this reform has been accepted in Singapore but not in Taiwan or Hong Kong. It’s as if the US had its own versions of a large fraction of English yingzi.

I also haven’t gotten into the many additional complications engendered when hanzi were adopted by Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese; for more on that see
John DeFrancis’s The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy.

In some respects, however, yingzi are harder than hanzi. For instance, English has many more multisyllabic morphemes than Chinese. Only about 10% of Chinese morphemes are more than one syllable long. Also, English has borrowed so much that it often has five or six morphemes where Chinese would have just one– compare wáng vs. king, regal, royal, regicide, Rex, or vs. word, verb, logograph, bon mot.

–Mark Rosenfelder

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Fellini: fell has the radical vertical and the phonetic sell; lean has the radical stand and the phonetic bean; and knee has the radical body and phonetic tree.

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