RE: Radicals and Ideographs

From: Allen Haaheim (
Date: Tue Nov 30 2004 - 02:15:29 CST

  • Next message: Richard Cook: "RE: Ideograph?!?"

    Hi again,

    Thank you Ken, I was speaking of Chinese in particular and the Chinese
    character in general, and did not mention the exception of transliterations
    from foreign languages into Chinese, nor changes after borrowing by other
    languages. Yes, such characters are numerous enough to make the second
    category Ken explains. Other exceptions also exist: the old fan-ch'ieh
    method of glossing character pronunciation uses characters purely as
    syllabics. Pictographs and phono-pictographs might also constitute an
    exception when they function as both logographs and pictographs, though the
    examples here would be a few simple graphs--many less than there are foreign
    loanwords. Ad hoc phonetic loans within Chinese were also made by writers
    for expedience or convenience, or, in the case of U+86A4 ("flea") for
    U+65E9 ("early") in _Mencius_, for reasons I do not know. No doubt there
    are more exceptions.

    >> 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 reasons here.

    I should have mentioned rather Herrlee Creel, who seems to be the chief
    proponent of the ideographic view in the twentieth century. It goes back to
    at least the fifteenth century. Pound probably helped popularize it

    >"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.

    It seems to me the problem is that if "ideograph" is taken in its strict
    sense by the uninitiated, it is too easy to slip into the exotic
    "orientalizing" notion of Han characters in two wrong ways: as a set of
    cryptic symbols for concepts, and as symbols that are divorced from
    pronunciation. Speaking for Chinese (and I would suspect a large number of
    Japanese kanji onyomi), "logograph" simply does a more accurate and much
    less misleading job, because it means that characters stand for
    pronunciations of morphemes, and thus that phonological information is
    conveyed part and parcel in them. "Phono-logographs" constitute "nearly 90%"
    of the historical Chinese language according to William G. Boltz. So I still
    don't see how "ideograph," even with current polysemous usage, is the
    preferable word. It gives the wrong idea about what most Han characters
    fundamentally are: a "graphic representation of the sounds of the Chinese
    language," and this would seem to more than cancel out any
    advantages--perhaps I'm still not understanding them. I still do not see how
    "logograph" is not the better term by more than just a little, when it
    clearly describes the nature of the vast majority of Han characters encoded
    in Unicode (i.e., historical Chinese). How could "logograph" have been
    deemed a less preferable word? I am curious as to just how this was decided.
    (A reply as short as "convention" would sate my curiosity. :)

    The phrase "radical-radical compound" on the suggested webpage seems
    to cloud the issue of what a radical is. "Radical" is, I think, defined by
    function, so, because a lexicographical standard strives to classify each
    character only once by its radical (while noting ambiguities, etc.), only
    one component of a given character can function as its radical: one primary
    semantic component deemed fundamental--its "signific"--by which it is
    organized lexicographically, whether or not other components may also be
    used as radicals in other characters, or may be related semantically. On the
    web page, a phrase such as "radical-semantic compound," or "radical-based
    compound" would be, I believe, less potentially confusing.

    As noted by Edward, ambiguity as to which component of a given character
    constitutes the radical is not uncommon--ambiguity of the reader, or between


    Allen Haaheim

    -----Original Message-----
    From: [] On
    Behalf Of Edward H. Trager
    Sent: November 29, 2004 7:04 PM
    Subject: Re: Radicals and Ideographs

    On Monday 2004.11.29 16:30:06 -0800, Allen Haaheim wrote:
    > >they often (not always) combine 1 or more radicals, with 1 or more
    > >that are not radicals themselves.
    > Sorry Philippe, this is simply not true, and your email follows this with
    > few dubious statements. A Han character has one radical. That is, it can
    > catalogued under only one radical, exceptions before codification
    > notwithstanding. The fact that other components in a given character may
    > used as radicals in other contexts is irrelevant and can only confuse
    > matters here.

         To clarify:

         A Han character will always be classified under just one radical in,
         for example, a dictionary. But there can be differences between
         dictionaries. For most characters, such as the previously-mentioned
          (ren4 ֨ "pregnant"), it is very obvious to a literate speaker
         of Chinese or Japanese that the radical is Ů (nu:3 ˨顦 woman). But
         a subset of characters, it is not so obvious, so much so that
         dictionaries may contain a "Table of Characters that are difficult
         to locate" (yzֱ). For example, "" (nan2 ˨ "male") is a
         simple character, but it is difficult to know whether the radical
         used to find this character in a dictionary is "" (field) or ""
         (power/strength) -- in this case, the radical is "". Of course
         a lot of modern dictionaries use pinyin or a similar phonetic system
         which is great *if* you know the pronounciation: When you do not
         know the pronounciation, then look up by radical followed by a count
         of the remaining strokes after the radical is a traditional and
         still commonly-used method.

    - Ed Trager

    > Allen Haaheim

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