The Chinese language and ideographic writing

Language and writing undoubtedly represent the most characteristic elements of the culture of each people and that of each individual: they are in fact the synthesis of the method used of observation-description-reading-codification-interpretation of reality that each people inherits from its history as well as each individual of that people from its parents and ancestors, to develop it in the present and pass it on in the future through subsequent generations.

In our chromosomes are collected the codes that tell the phylogenetic evolution of life starting from unicellular organisms, passing through fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, to finally arrive at man and, within each individual man, to that very particular renewed individuality that is the result of the completely original synthesis of the inheritance of the paternal and maternal genetic patrimonies at the moment of fertilization. In the same way in the words we pronounce, in the logic, grammar and syntax that govern their relationships, in their graphic representation through the symbols of writing are collected the codes of cultural evolution of all the generations that preceded us. Our ancestors observed, described, read, codified and interpreted reality through a language that has translated into a writing that evolves with the history of successive generations.

As in biology the chromosomal map is a mirror of the past that organizes the present and designs the future of the species, so the map of the language-writing of each people is able to provide us with the story of its method of reading and comparison with reality, of its mode of perception, ultimately of its culture. Language is consensually reading, codification, communication of men and between men but also represents the mode of perception that each individual possesses of reality: this perception is ultimately strongly characterized by the codes that are used to describe it. In this sense, we must not be naïve: our brain is not a ‘tabula rasa’ that observes and catalogs in an absolutely subjective and independent way, its perceptual mode and above all the interpretative one are determined by the words and syntax learned from the first days of life.

Starting from these considerations we address the most salient aspects of the Chinese language and writing that represent the reference model for all other languages and Far Eastern writings, such as Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, which derive directly or indirectly from Chinese.

Alphabetic and ideographic writing
The Chinese language and writing are completely original when compared to those used throughout the rest of the planet. While in fact Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Romance languages, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic languages, Slavic languages, but also Arabic and other Indo-European languages use the alphabetic system for writing, in China and in the Far East ‘characters’ are used.

In the alphabetic language each word is formed by sounds (or phonemes) that correspond to signs (or graphemes): no phoneme has meaning in itself, as well as no grapheme. The letters of the alphabet (a, b, c, d etc.) are only ‘sounds and signs’ and mean nothing when taken in isolation; They take on semantic value only when they follow one another to form and define a word that has specific meaning.

In some way it can be said that even in alphabetic writing the typically Western method of dealing with reality is used, which is based at the beginning on analysis – the isolation of the individual elements of reality, which in the case of language and writing are the individual sounds and individual signs – and then on synthesis – the succession of individual sounds and signs to form the read or written word.

All known alphabets work in the same way even if they use different signs or graphemes. From this point of view, an Italian, an Englishman or a French who write with Latin characters are very close relatives of a Russian or a Serb who writes with Cyrillic characters, of an Israeli who uses Hebrew ones, but also of a Syrian who writes in Arabic or of an ancient inhabitant of Hellas who used the Greek alphabet.

In China there is no alphabet that corresponds phonemes, that is, simple sounds, to meaningless signs or graphemes: on the contrary, every ‘character’ of Chinese writing – with very rare exceptions – has its own specific meaning, indeed generally has more than one meaning, different possible meanings: ‘each character is polysemantic’ and acquires within the sentence the meaning – among the many it possesses – which is the most probable and plausible taking into account the characters that they precede and those who follow him. It can be said – with an evident forcing that nevertheless serves to introduce us to this system – that each series of characters of a Chinese sentence is a sort of ‘rebus’ whose true meaning is identified by grasping the link between the individual characters that, of the multiple meanings of each character, enucleates and identifies the most probable one or those starting from the given link.

The Chinese characters in current use are about 2,000-3,000 and those known by a person of culture plus a few thousand, so the possible combinations are extremely numerous.

To complicate the question is added the fact that often the character is formed by several ‘radicals’ which, in turn, are ‘simplified characters’: the final character will have as its own meaning the synthesis of the meanings of the individual radicals that compose it dynamized by their mutual relationship.

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