Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning

by J. Marshall Unger

Try this "thought experiment": suppose a couple really smart little green guys from outer space showed up one night in a suburb of Tokyo, just like in a Japanese science-fiction movie. Would they instantly understand all those store-front Chinese characters as soon as they saw them? (Hint: look at the cover.)

It's pretty obvious that cousins of E.T. would be as clueless about Chinese characters as you would be staring at street signs in Baghdad (unless, of course, you happen to be literate in Arabic). But that hasn't stopped generations of writers who really ought to know better from insisting that Chinese characters somehow convey meaning to brains through some mysterious process completely detached from language. Think about it: every normal human being naturally acquires a language just by going through infancy in the presence of normal, talking adults. It took hundreds of thousands of years for even one species with this extraordinary ability to evolve. Yet somehow, within the span of just a few rather recent centuries, the Chinese came up with a completely artificial writing system that can denote every thought you could ever express in any of the world's languages without any reference to human speech whatsoever! Something is obviously wrong with this story, and Ideogram explains what.

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