From: Kenneth Whistler (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Mon Nov 29 2004 - 19:36:16 CST
Allen Haaheim provided some further detailed clarification:
> Note that Han characters are logographic, not ideographic. That is,
> they are graphemes that represent words (or at least morphemes),
> not ideas.
This correctly states the situation for the normal case for
Chinese characters used writing the Chinese language in most
instances. But as is not unusual for real writing systems, the
situation gets blurred all around the edges.
For one thing, Chinese has characters which are simply used for
their sound, as syllabics. In some instances, they are characters
in dual use, as logographs *or* as syllabics, but in either
instance they are used to "spell out" foreign words irrespective
of the morphemic status of the orginal characters -- or the
morphemes of the foreign word, for that matter.
And the situation is also not so clear when considered in
the dynamic context of the historical borrowing of the Chinese
writing system to write unrelated languages such as Japanese,
Korean, and Vietnamese. Much of the writing system borrowing
was *attached* to words -- in other words, the vocabulary itself was
borrowed in from Chinese, using the Chinese characters to
write it. But Japanese and other languages faced the problem of how
to adapt the writing system for preexisting, *native* vocabulary,
as well as for all the borrowed words from Chinese. And a
variety of strategies evolved, some of which involved
abstracting the *meaning* of a Chinese character, and then
reapplying the character to write an unrelated word in Japanese
(for example) which had a similar meaning. This semantic-based
transference of Chinese characters completely ignored
morphemic status in Chinese, as the whole point was to simply
find the appropriate character to express the lexical semantics
of the historically unrelated (but semantically similar)
word(s) in the borrowing language.
During such a borrowing transition, you can conceive of
the process as many Chinese characters temporarily "floating off"
their morphemic anchors in Chinese, being considered
purely semantically, and then reattaching to a new set of
morphemic anchors in Japanese, where they subsequently
evolve with new lexical histories in another language.
> But somehow "ideograph" has become the standard term in use outside
> the field of experts in Chinese linguistics (because of Ezra
> Pound et al., perhaps?).
I don't think you have to look to Ezra Pound's poetic
misrepresentations of the nature of Chinese to find
"East Asian ideograph" and "CJK ideograph" caught on as
acceptable compromise alternatives for "Chinese character"
or "Japanese character", which were language-specific and
misleading (in the Japanese case), or for transliterations
such as kanji or hanzi (also language-specific), or for
sinogram or sinograph, which were too little known (and
also too Chinese-biassed for some). "East Asian logograph"
would have been technically a little more correct, but
not absolutely right, either. "Ideograph" wasn't used because
the standardizers were confused about how Chinese and
Japanese writing systems worked, but simply because it
was a usable term in the right ballpark, available for
a specialized technical usage, and less objectionable
than most of the alternatives.
As Asmus and Richard implied, "ideograph" should simply
be treated as polysemous now. It has a narrow technical
sense applying to the character encoding world, where it
effectively is equivalent to kanji/hanzi/hanja. And it
has a separate graphological sense where it refers to
signs (like symbols marking restroom doors) that represent
ideas directly without being attached to specific words
or morphemes of a particular language.
> I hope this doesn't confuse matters.
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