Pictographs, water-ness, and ness-ness

This is known: writing is magic. I scratch marks on paper, and you know my mind. Magic. The next question is, is some writing more magical than others? Can some written languages enter your brain more naturally than others? Of living languages, Japanese and Chinese seem to sway our Western imagination as links to a pictographic past. For example, here is “mizu”,



the Japanese (and Chinese) character for water. You can imagine that it suggests a plunging cataract splashing left and right. Thus you might even argue it has a pictographic “soul” (as distinct from our abstracted chickenscratch alphabet). It also appears in many water-related words in Japanese like flood, sewage, and brine. It fairly drips with water-ness. Is this a more “legitimate” or natural way to represent water than the arbitrary letterforms W-A-T-E-R? Does it represent water-ness more truly than other non-pictographic written forms are capable of doing?

To get a feel for the power of pictographs, think of some examples from our own culture. Emoticons like :-) come to mind, but my personal favorite is $, the dollar sign. Strictly speaking, this is an ideograph (idea captured by a sign) rather than a pictograph (idea captured by a picture). Even so, it forcefully sums up the concept of money-ness in the same compact way that 水 sums up water-ness. Put dollar signs in the eyes of a cartooon character, and we know exactly what’s afoot, whereas writing the word “money” in the same place would simply be odd. Pictographs and ideographs are laden with the ness-ness of meaning. Their ness-ness-ness is palpable. Is, therefore, Chinese a “truer” writing system than the Roman alphabet of English? Are languages based on pictographs better, more direct, more apprehensible, more magical?

The short answer is this: we want to believe that they are, but they aren’t. Chinese is just another way to put words on paper. There is no such thing as a true pictographic written language, and there never has been. This is true for the same reason that it’s hard to play Pictionary when your word is “irony”. I recently came across an excellent discussion of this topic in a book about Chinese called The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy by John DeFrancis. In one of his chapters, entitled The Ideographic Myth, he debunks the idea that non-alphabetic writing systems somehow short-circuit the normal approach to language. Here’s an extended quote.

The error of exaggerating the pictographic and hence semantic aspect of Chinese characters and minimizing if not totally neglecting the phonetic aspect tends to fix itself very early in the minds of many people, both students of Chinese and the public at large, because their first impression of the characters is likely to be gained by being introduced to the Chinese writing system via some of the simplest and most interesting pictographs.

If you like this kind of thing (and if you made it this far, you probably do), it’s worth a read.