Sample from Chapter 4. Meaning Representation in Characters

Characters Tell Stories

English letters, such as a and b, now merely indicate sounds, and then only inconsistently; but in their earliest forms these two letters were pictographs, which came to represent the initial sounds of the Semitic words alef ('ox') and beta ('house'). These two words were joined to form the word we now know as alphabet.

Compared with the now meaningless and workaday phonetic letters, some Chinese characters have interesting origins, which can be elaborated into stories. These stories give us an intriguing glimpse into the way Chinese people lived and viewed the world in ancient times. They might be learned when characters are learned; if not, they are readily found in any good book on Chinese characters (e.g., Li L.-Y. 1992 and Ma 1993). Let us sample some characters that have interesting stories. The characters are listed in old pictographs--most in the oracle-bone script--and contemporary standard script. Some of them are used in simplified shapes in China (for one example, see the characters for 'child'.)

The interpretions of characters are occasionally ambiguous or controversial: witness the two or more possible interpretations for some characters. About 2000 years ago the lexicographer Xu Shen misinterpreted the pictographic origins of some characters, especially because he was not aware of the oracle-bone script. For example, he explained the character for earth tu as two layers of soil through which a plant pushes upwards. The oracle-bone and bronze character, however, has the form , which shows an altar with a wooden sacred pole on it representing the god. The earth was a divinity in ancient China, and in front of the pole offerings for the god of the soil were laid (Karlgren 1923). Yet another interpretation says that the archaic character simply depicts a mound of earth on the ground.

These stories--whether authentic or fabricated, and realistic or fanciful--make characters come alive and at the same time serve as excellent mnemonics for remembering them. A mnemonic is an art or trick used in memorizing a seemingly meaningless or complex item, or in memorizing a large number of items. (Example : I memorized the name in English of the fish splake by asssociating it with "splash in a lake.") The thousands of Chinese characters do not form a collection of totally arbitrary graphs, but neither are they systematically related to each other. The use of mnemonics is bound to help in learning Chinese characters (chap. 9).

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