So where is the Chinese alphabet and why is it so hard to find on the web? Well, the main reason is that there is no such thing as an alphabet in China. The English word "alphabet" comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet (alpha and beta) because it was the Greeks who adopted this writing system from the Middle East and transmitted it, along with their culture, to the rest of Europe.
Alphabets are phonetic systems where the individual sounds of the language are represented with letters. Letters are symbols which only have phonetic values and do not mean anything by themselves. The letters in a word have to be read together and vocalized, either aloud or mentally, in order to be understood as a concept.
Chinese writing, on the other hand, developed as a system where the symbols represent concepts. Although sound does play a role in the construction of a character, it almost invariably stands for a semantic value. The very first characters developed from the graphic representation of certain objects (i.e. the picture of an elephant meant an elephant) but early on the system got much more complex and the majority of the symbols today do not have such a direct link between shape and meaning. But what is common in all of them is that they all represent a concept and not a sound. There are a few characters that stand for a sound, but always to a very unique sound (i.e. the sound of a horse running) and cannot be used for any other sound.
One of the main benefits of alphabetic systems is that there are few components to memorize. The number of letters varies in different alphabets but it usually does not go above 50. In case of the Chinese scripts, the number of symbols is much larger. It is thought that a person should know at least 3,000 characters to be able to understand newspapers. Even smaller dictionaries contain at least 6,000 characters, whereas the largest ones (Kangxi zidian, Morohashi Daikanwa jiten) can have as many as 40-50,000.
Of course, it is an impossible task to memorize so many characters even for the most educated person. The fact is, however, that only about 6,000 characters are essential in everyday use and Chinese students acquire these in the course of several years.
A section from a medieval Chinese manuscript with Chinese characters in it. The writing symbols here cannot be regarded as "The Chinese alphabet."
An argument has been made that, because of the large number of symbols, Chinese writing is inefficient and takes too long to learn. Yet recent studies have shown that Chinese children do not learn to read slower than children who learn languages with alphabets. This is mainly due to the reason that when children are not familiar with a concept they simply do not use it and they learn the characters for them later, when they learn about a concept. For example, if a second-grader does not know how to write the word "telecommunication", it does not impede his or her reading abilities in any way. Nor does it put him or her behind the Western child who might be able to read the word but still would not understand its meaning. So there is no reason to be pessimistic about the efficiency of Chinese script, as the last 4,000 years have shown us, it is a very efficient communication system.
Written by Imre Galambos, 2000
The Chinese Alphabet - Where is it?
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