Should Ukrainians Switch To The Latin Alphabet?

Dear Readers:

It is a common saying among bloggers that if one chooses to title one’s post in the form of a question, then readers should simply assume the correct answer is a definitive “NO!” and move on. So, end of post, goodbye, THE END.

No, really, though. I want to give it the Old School Try, possibly even speak as Devil’s Advocate. Putting on my Linguistics cap as one who trained formally in that field and even received an advanced degree in it; although not currently practicing this noble trade. Also not one who technically speaks, understands, reads or writes Ukrainian, although I can get by just from knowing Russian; but there is a saying among Linguists, that you don’t really need to know a specific language in order to pass judgement on it.

My starting point is this piece by reporter Nikolai Storozhenko. The title is:

Ukraine Found A Way To Turn Into Poland

Well, not exactly. One may doubt that this “Latinization” initiative will go anywhere except to an early grave; but reporting on it is a good way to toss red meat and enrage Russian patriots who adore their own Cyrillic alphabet. The lead quote goes something like this: “We need to rid ourselves of the Cyrillic alphabet and switch to the Latin alphabet.” And Russians go “Grrrrrr! GRRRRR!” Storozhenko is quoting Alexei Danilov, Ukrainian Secretary of Defense and National Security. So, an important person within his own society, but clearly a bit of a tool. Born in 1962 in the Luhansk Oblast, Danilov graduated from Veterinary School in 1981 and worked as a farm vet for several years, while also serving a 2-year stint in the Soviet army.

Alexei Danilov

Then he switched careers and graduated in 1999 from Luhansk Pedagogical Institute, his specialty as a history teacher. Eventually got involved in politics (as a member of the Julia Tymoshenko Party) and rose up the ranks; was appointed in 2019 to his current position in the government. He should have stuck to healing animals. It was in an interview with Radio Freedom that Danilov uttered the above utterance about Cyrillic vs Latin; and the reporter, according to the editorial standards of the Russian press denotes that infamous media outlet with not just one but 2 asterisks ** and denotes in the footnote as a designated foreign media agent in Russia. Which it is.

The reporter then goes on to provide some history of the issue, which I will elide over, in order to get to my main theme of Ukrainian phonology and orthography. The political/historical subtext is all about Orthodoxy vs Catholicism, of course. Major Catholic Slavic nations such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Croatia use the Latin alphabet to encode their phonological utterances. (And I know it’s heresy to say this, but the Latin alphabet actually serves these languages pretty well, their alphabets having been designed by scientists who knew what they were doing.) In the Ukrainian Borderlands, split between East and West, it is only natural that the political and geographic divide should result in an occasional flare-up of alphabet wars. Crudely put, one can say that the Ukraine is torn between “Latin” Poland and “Cyrillic” Russia.

After detailing some of this history, Storozhenko notes that, in the past couple of years, proponents of Latinization have included such “patriotic” Ukrainian politicians as Pavel Klimkin. But ironically, the worst of the Banderite Nationalists and outright Nazis, such as Vladimir Vyatrovych, support Cyrillic. Surprising as that sounds, but recall that 200 years ago a similar thing happened when the Galician intelligentsia supported Cyrillic as a way of avoiding Polonization.

Ukrainian Phonology

Okay, so here’s the thing: The Ukrainian language/dialect has (more or less, with some regional variations) 38 phonemes, consisting of 6 vowells and 32 consonants (using International Phonetic Alphabet symbols to denote):

  1. /i/ (IPA #301)
  2. /u/ (IPA #308)
  3. /ɪ/ (IPA #319)
  4. /ɛ/ (IPA #303)
  5. /ɔ/ (IPA #306)
  6. /ɑ/ (IPA #305)
  7. /m/ (IPA #114)
  8. /n/ (IPA #116)
  9. /nʲ/ = palatalized version of above
  10. /p/ (IPA #101)
  11. /b/ (IPA #102)
  12. /t/ (IPA #103)
  13. /tʲ/ = palatalized version of above
  14. /d/ (IPA #104)
  15. /dʲ/ = palatalized version of above
  16. /k/ (IPA #109)
  17. /ɡ/ (IPA #110)
  18. /t͡θ/
  19. /t͡sʲ/ = palatalized version of above
  20. /d͡ð/
  21. /d͡zʲ/ = palatalized version of above
  22. /t͡ʃ/ (IPA #103 and #134)
  23. /d͡ʒ/ (IPA #104 and #135)
  24. /f/ (IPA #128)
  25. /s/ (IPA #130)
  26. /sʲ/ = palatalized version of above
  27. /z/ (IPA #133)
  28. /zʲ/ = palatalized version of above
  29. /ʃ/ (IPA #134)
  30. /ʒ/ (IPA #135)
  31. /x/ (IPA #140)
  32. /ɦ/ (IPA #147)
  33. /ʋ/ (IPA #150)
  34. /l/ (IPA #155)
  35. /lʲ/ = palatalized version of above
  36. /j/ (IPA #153)
  37. /r/ (IPA #122)
  38. /rʲ/ = palatalized version of above

My personal favorite phoneme, by the way, is #10, the “Voiceless Bilabial Plosive“. #24 is also pretty cool, it’s the Voiceless Labio-Dental Fricative. They sound so naughty! Ukrainian, however, lacks an even naughtier sound beloved of Acoustic Phoneticists, namely the “Voiced Bilabial Fricative”, otherwise known as the “English Raspberry” !

Rhyming pairs: the gold standard of phonemic distinction.

As the intelligent reader can detect, this language possesses quite an extraordinary number of consonants and relatively few vowels, hence one might call Ukrainian a consonant-heavy language. By some amazing coincidence, Russian is exactly the same kind of language! The modern version of the Cyrillic alphabet, when encoding standard Russian, uses an ingenious method to cut down on the number of symbols needed in the alphabet (otherwise you might need to buy a bigger keyboard). This trick consists of using the same symbol (for example, for the letter T) to encode two different consonantal phonemes, both the regular and the palatalized form. In which case the burden of phonemic distinction is carried by the vowel; which is why Russian employs 2 different symbols for each of the 5 vowels. The cunning reader must deduce which consonantal phoneme to pronounce, based on the vowel symbol that follows it. Linguistic Purists might raise their eyebrows at such an “unorthodox” (pun-intended) solution, but it does get the job done while keeping the number of alphabet symbols down to a reasonable level.

What about Ukrainian, though?

Ukrainian Orthography

According to wikipedia, modern Ukrainian orthography dates to 1619 and the work of Meletius Smotrytsky. That was back in the days when the Ukrainian dialect was known as Ruthenian. As part of his innovations, Meletius introduced the letter ґ (“Ge”), the digraphs дж and дз, as well as й (for the consonantal phoneme yod). In 1907-09 Ukrainian spelling took its almost final form in the works of B. Hrinchenko. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Ukrainian spelling entered its official form in 1918. But further reforms took place in 1926, 1929, 1933, 1959, and 1960, some of the changes motivated by political issues such as Russification, Ukrainization, and suchlike.

Meletius Smotrytsky: “Here it is, folks!”

In Soviet times the “Literature, Language and Arts” Department of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences curated the Ukrainian alphabet and oversaw these various changes. These Academicians earned a very good living, although I personally would never trust a Linguistics Department that was grouped under The Arts instead of The Sciences. Also, these Soviet language departments tended to be overly-heavy with Philologists. Who are more literary critic than scientist, in nature. Philologists are the kind of people who fall in love with their own language and go hunting for old folk tales, and they don’t usually understand the scientific principles of Language as such. At least not since the days of the Grimm Brothers, but those guys were effing geniuses, hence the exception that proves the rule.

The most recent version of Ukrainian orthographic reform dates to as recently as 2019, and had to deal with the deluges of foreign borrowings — an issue which has also been mercilessly destroying the Russian language in recent years. Unfortunately, this latest effort at reform was put into the hands of rabid Ukrainian neo-Nazis such as Iryna Farion; who claims to be a “Doctor of Philology”, by the way. So, nothing good can come of this at all. And, by the way, a “Doctor of Philology” is an oxymoron. Might as well call an Astrologist a Doctor of Astrology.

It says: “Could somebody PLEASE invent the spacebar!”

Anyhow, it is time to look at the existing Ukrainian alphabet and grade it based upon its adherence to the laws of Scientific Linguistics.

The Ukrainian alphabet consists of 33 symbols. Right there we see there is not a one-to-one, phonemically speaking, otherwise there would be 38 letters. But that’s okay. We can’t expect all alphabets in the world to be as absolutely perfect as the alphabet of Classical Greek, so beloved by pioneer Linguists Cyrill and Methodius. And we see right away that Ukrainian adopted the same trick as Russian, in doubling the vowels (well, almost, there are 10 vowel symbols for 6 actual vowels) and having the vowel symbol carry part of the load for distinguishing between different consonantal phonemes. Thus, 20 consonant symbols can represent 32 actual consonants, and we don’t have to buy a bigger keyboard.

Not bad, overall, but somewhat messy, even messier than the Russian alphabet (but way superior to, say written English); wiki:

There are other exceptions to the phonemic principle in the alphabet. Some letters represent two phonemes: щ /ʃt͡ʃ/, ї /ji/ or /jɪ/, and є /jɛ/, ю /ju/, я /jɑ/ when they do not palatalize a preceding consonant. The digraphs дз and дж are normally used to represent single affricates /d͡z/ and /d͡ʒ/. Palatalization of consonants before е, у, а is indicated by writing the corresponding letter є, ю, я instead (but palatalization before і is usually not indicated).

Frankly, it is not bad at all, I was expecting worse. I was expecting something almost as bad as the modern Belorussian alphabet which is more phonetic than phonemic in nature; but what can you expect when it was designed by air-headed Philologists instead of Linguists!

Next, proceeding to the final bullet point: Would it be possible for somebody to design a Latin-based alphabet for Ukrainian that is superior to the current Cyrillic one? Well, obviously it could be possible. One could do something like what Jan Hus did with Czech, use accents and superscripts, like č for ч, and suchlike. You’d just need a bigger keyboard, that’s all. It would take a generation to get everybody reading in the new script, but yeah, it’s theoretically doable. Will it actually happen? Probably not.

And with that, I end this piece and stoically await the stonings to come.


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21 Responses to Should Ukrainians Switch To The Latin Alphabet?

  1. FatMax says:

    “Major Catholic Slavic nations(…)use the Latin alphabet”

    Well, maybe in the case of Croatian language this can go either way: “Cyrillic” Serbian and “Latin” Croatian were once one and the same language (together with Montenegrin and Bosniak, ofc).
    “Croato-Latin” symbols have 1:1 equivalent to “Serbo-Cyrillic” ones. So if Ukies manage to pull this one off, it would be most interesting to see what they’ll come up with.
    “Ukie-Latin” symbols would have 1:1 equivalent to “Russo-Cyrillic” ones, since they are basically the same language.
    I highly doubt they will, though.


    • yalensis says:

      Max, I think you got what I was trying to convey.
      Namely, “Serbian” and “Croatian” are exactly the same language. People talk exactly the same. But when writing it down, they use different written symbols, depending on the history/religion/political situation. It’s a perfect example, because both alphabets are absolutely perfect encoders of the utterances, and 1:1 like you say.

      Which proves my point: The important thing is not how words are written, but rather how words are spoken! Which is the essence of what it means to be human, and separates us from the apes.



  2. Josep says:

    I don’t think Latinization of Ukrainian is going to work. What will replace the soft sign, if the apostrophe is already taken?

    One quirk about Cyrillic is how most of the lowercase letters, at least in most serif or sans-serif fonts in their regular forms, are basically shrunken-down uppercase letters. This is what made me envy the Cyrillic alphabet as a kid, having to struggle to write (in print) Latin lowercase letters quickly, especially during spelling class.

    One thing I never really liked about the Latin alphabet is the way each language’s phonemes differ in pronunciation – for instance, CH is not pronounced the same in German and Dutch as it is in English and Spanish. How these differences came to be is another story. Cyrillic OTOH has managed to retain consistency for some reason.
    If Ukraine were to switch to Roman, how will foreign names be spelled? In Russian they tend to be respelled in Cyrillic so as to match the phonetic values, with workarounds in place of sounds that don’t exist in Russian.


    • yalensis says:

      Hi, Josep, I am 99.9% confident that the Latinization of Ukrainian will not come to pass, it’s just empty talk. Those who are promoting this idea are practicing, in my opinion, “Magic Thinking”. They think that if they switch from Cyrillic to Latin, then they magically become Poland or Croatia, overnight, complete with EU and NATO membership! Like, if I don a wizard cap on my head, then I immediately become a wizard.

      Playing devil’s advocate, though… the apostrophe is an issue, but not insurmountable. People could make up a different super-script, for example, the tiny little [j] that you see in some IPA letters, like the /nʲ/ above for soft /n/. Maybe on the typewriter keyboard, you could make it so you hit the ALT key or something along with the letter, and then you get that variant with the tiny /j/. In other words, people could figure something out, if they were serious about it. They would have to set up a commission of smart people and exclude raving lunatics like Farion.

      Agree with you about Cyrillic being nice for not having upper-case vs lower-case variants. As time marches on, I find myself being ever more questioning of things that I never questioned as a child. Like, when you’re a child, you readily learn different forms of letters, penmanship, and writing cursive, and so on. In the computer age I think cursive makes no sense. In Cyrillic, in particular, cursive is almost like a completely different alphabet. I am glad I learned it when I was a child and mentally receptive, but please don’t ask me, as a grown adult, to learn essentially two different alphabets for the same language!

      Same reason I have a bee in my bonnet about the utter horrible-ness of English spelling, but the issues there go way beyond just type versus script. The spelling system itself is a complete mess and badly in need of reform. I have a feeling it will take a bloody revolution, guillotine and all, to sweep that away and come up with a phonemic writing system. Like the French revolutionaries changed everything, including the names of the months, although that piece was admittedly stupid. Also, the future American revolutionaries should force people to switch to the metric system while they’re at it. You might as well change everything while you have that brief opportunity, before the inevitable Thermidor and Old Order returns.


  3. Pavlo Svolochenko says:

    Contemporary Ukrainian is culturally on par with Fenya, and like Fenya it has no need for any sort of writing system.


    • yalensis says:

      Well, not that I agree with you, Pavlo, that Ukrainian is a criminal jargon, but I’ll play along:

      So, even jargons and pidgins need writing systems sometimes if, for example, a writer or film maker decides to create a story in which characters speak this jargon; hence, they need to find a way to write it down. In America, great writers like Twain and Faulkner, for example, had a perennial issue how to spell the utterances of characters speaking southern and Negro dialects. It’s not good enough to just have them say “y’all” or “dem”, or whatever.

      One of my favorite American writers is DuBose Heyward, who wrote Porgy, I don’t know if you happened to see my book review from a couple of years ago. Heyward had to make some artistic decisions how to portray the speech of characters who spoke the Gullah Negro dialect of that era. He wasn’t a professional linguist, so he made some spelling choices which were not always consistent, but basically got the job done. The non-standard spelling makes the book very difficult to read through, but it’s well worth it, because it’s an American classic, maybe even up there on the same level as Moby Dick.

      My point is, this is an issue for writers, when they create characters who don’t speak a standard language or dialect! In conclusion, even criminals speaking Fenya, need their own writing system. How else are they going to pass notes through the prison walls?


      • Pavlo Svolochenko says:

        The presence of non-standard dialects in prose is a matter of taste and patience. A certain novella by New England’s most celebrated turbo-racist has its atmosphere of dread somewhat marred by the need to struggle through the old-timey dialogue of Zadok Allen. One shudders to imagine what the author would have done with black characters, had he been inclined to write any.

        Fenya, perhaps, might usefully be written down, but Ukrainian has no such value in the present climate – central and eastern Ukrainian svidos use Ukrainian for what can only be described as ritual purposes, their actual communication needs are satisfied in Russian. Westerners might as well abandon all pretence and switch to Polish.


  4. Paola C. says:

    I’m desperately trying to learn the Cyrillic alphabet (the Russian version admittedly) as I think is beautiful and I will be devastated!! 😒


    • yalensis says:

      Hi, Paola! Don’t worry, the beautiful Cyrillic alphabet will always be here! I love it too, Cyril and Methodius did a really good job adapting Greek letters and inventing new ones, etc. Although, admittedly, the Cyrillic that we see today is very different from ancient Cyrillic, just as modern German script is quite different from Gothic.
      Anyhow, I think Cyrillic is easy to learn, I wish I could recommend a book, but I don’t remember what it’s called, it’s something like “Learn the Russian alphabet in a single day”, and I think the method works. Depending on your other language, it just proceeds from the easiest letters to the hardest, and employing words which are the same or similar in both languages. Another variant would be to just focus on learning and practicing a single letter each day, and then you’d be done in a month. After that, just read simple sentences out loud, focusing on the pronunciation and matching letters to phonemes, even if you don’t know what the words mean. That’s how I learned the Polish alphabet! I hope this helps.


    • Ben says:

      My opinion is the exact opposite. I find Cyrillic to be eye cancer. My head literally starts to hurt if I have to stare at big blocks of it for more than about ten seconds. I’m not fond of the original Greek alphabet either, but there’s something about Cyrillic that I find downright hideous.

      Just to go ahead and piss off an even bigger population, another writing system I find visually repulsive, though not headache inducing, is Chinese. It has some redeeming value in calligraphy form, but as text on a screen it’s about the least aesthetically pleasing script I can think of. At least the Japanese have the good sense to break up the hanzi/kanji with lots of kana.

      The many Indian and Southeast Asian Brami scripts are pretty ugly as well.

      (A tangent, but a funny thing about Chinese characters: everyone kind of knows they suck. Attempts at reforming them to suck less are nearly as old as the writing system itself. This started first with scholars/monks/’sages’ substituting some characters with ones that looked close to them but were easier to write. So one of the supposed virtues of the writing system, that you can figure out any characters meaning by just adding up the individual sub-characters (radicals) meanings, that’s thrown straight out the window much of the time. Now you’ve got characters whose meanings have nothing to do with what they’re made up of, because some arthritic asshole 2200 or whatever years ago swapped in an easier character and attached a different word sound to it.

      Every society that has ever used these godforsaken chicken scratches has tried to either make them less crap, or given up and abandoned them entirely. The Japanese created the kana (literally ‘simple’; they knew kanji were cumbersome trash) syllabic system to alleviate some of the bulk of Chinese hanzi/kanji. Korea gave up on hanzi entirely in favor of what may be objectively the planet’s best writing system, and Vietnam (admittedly with lots of French ‘help’) adopted a modified Latin alphabet. Every society that stuck with hanzi tried to reform at least some of the characters to be less shit.That’s why Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese are now both a thing. But everyone who has reformed Chinese has reformed different characters, and reformed them in different ways. Mainland China, Taiwan, and Japan all have many hanzi/kanji that don’t exist in for one or both of the others, further diluting the supposed virtues of the system.)


      • yalensis says:

        Hi, Ben, thank you for your refreshingly politically-incorrect comment!
        I know some people think it’s heresy to criticize other cultures’ writing systems, as if they are criticizing the culture and the ethnos itself — such people are probably unconscious adherents of the discredited Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, not to mention confusing speech with writing. In reality, a writing system is just a tool in the toolbox. Each writing system was invented by some guy (or group of guys) back in the day. The inventors were either geniuses (like Cyrill/Methodius) or dolts who didn’t understand the difference between phonology and phonetics. Or, more to the point as in hieroglyphic systems, the difference between phonology and semantics. Or, in the case of Panini, very smart guys who knew exactly what they were doing, and set out to gaslight their own people with a cumbersome script.

        I personally love Cyrillic and Greek letters, I think they are very cool and have a clarity of aesthetics about them, but I don’t take offense if somebody finds them ugly. As a computer programmer, I personally like letters which are easy to read/write and easily distinguishable one from the other.
        Alphabets which I personally dislike include Hebrew, Arabic, and Sanskrit. I have bad memories of trying to learn Sanskrit in college. I was majoring in Linguistics with a minor in Indo-European morphology. Hence, I was required to take one semester each of Classical Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. In the Sanskrit class, initially we were allowed to read some texts (like the Ramayana) in a Sanskrit that was transcribed into Latin letters, e.g., “Asid Raja Nala nama”… etc. [“There was once a King named Nala.] Which is easy to read and understand, in general Sanskrit should be easy to read since they basically have only 3 vowels or so. But then, to my horror, after the third or so week, the Professor insisted we had to learn the alphabet and start reading the texts in actual Sanskrit. I was taking tons of other classes and simply didn’t have time to learn such a cumbersome alphabet, when all I really needed was a smattering anyhow, to complete the requirements of my Minor. When I protested, the teacher thought I was being disrespectful to Indian culture. WOT??!!! And he wasn’t even an Indian himself, he was just some white dork. I retorted, somewhat sharply, that if the Indians wanted to earn my respect, then Panini, who definitely knew better, should have invented an easier alphabet. Judge for yourself, which is easier to read, what I wrote above about King Nala, or this:

        तपःस्वाध्यायनिरतं तपस्वी वाग्विदां वरम

        Egads, who has the time to learn that! And that upper bar, yikes! I can’t write a straight line like that. Also, I don’t mind reading right to left, but try to make more distinctions in the letters, for crying out loud!

        Oh, and don’t even get me started on Chinese, Ben, you are absolutely right, it’s a nightmare of a script, and I have said this many many times: If the Chinese don’t get their sh*t together and reform their alphabet into a simplified phonemic system (I don’t care which dialect, just pick one), then they will never achieve their destiny as a super-power. Because very few non-Chinese people have the time or energy to spend 10 years just trying to memorize 1,000 ridiculous characters, when all you really need is around — I dunno, 20 or 30? (Chinese phonologists out there?)


        • Ben says:

          I think the Chinese are basically stuck with their writing system. They’ve been using hanzi for thousands of years; there’s too much legacy behind it to just abandon it. If they abandon it then there’s a vast literature that they become cut off from. Korea could do it because only a very narrow part of the elite was literate anyway (and in fact I’ve seen it argued that part of the reason for developing hangul was precisely to break the elite stranglehold on literacy). The same goes for Vietnam. The Japanese created katakana and hiragana to allow literacy among people who didn’t know kanji (and didn’t need to know it, since it was basically felt to be the language of government). Eventually they combined all three, but they could, theoretically, abandon kanji (not that they ever will). There is precedent for ripping out a long established writing system entirely with Turkey, but I seriously doubt the Chinese will ever go that course. Especially not now, with them clearly the rising (rather, returning) power and everyone else on the downward trend. They’re high-on smug nationalist superiority now, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. It’s about the worst possible time to suggest abandoning their beloved writing system.

          More likely they’ll just keep teaching all their kids English and use it as the lingua franca outside their borders.

          You’re understating how bad hanzi are, by the way. Chinese elementary school kids are expected to know something closer to 2500 characters. Japanese adult literacy is close to 2400 characters. I have a Japanese-English dictionary where the Japanese writer notes that his newspaper man father probably knew something like 20,000 different characters, though admittedly a lot of those were outdated, obscure, or minor variations that you would never need in practice.

          It doesn’t help that everyone, including the Japanese themselves, teach kanji in the most retarded way possible. They teach through brute memorization of the characters as a whole. The non-retarded way to teach would be from the simplest characters on up, and gradually teach adding radicals together to form more complex characters. I once heard an ESL teacher living in Japan and fluent in Japanese sigh and say, yeah, kanji suck, but you have to learn them, and eventually you’ll reach a breakthrough point where you start to be able to read kanji you haven’t studied simply by deciphering the radicals. Putting aside that this doesn’t always work because some kanji’s practical meaning has nothing to do with what it’s built from, WHY NOT TEACH THAT WAY FROM THE START?!


          • yalensis says:

            Uffff, that sounds absolutely horrible. 2500 letters, the mind boggles. Stupid question: how do they type on computers? Is the keyboard, like, 2 miles long? 🙂

            Interestingly, a couple years ago I met a young woman at work, she was briefly on the same team with me before they merged her into a different department; anyhow she was really cute and had a sort of exotic look to her, but we couldn’t place her until one day, in the lunchroom (this was before covid, when we still worked in an office building and had a functioning cafeteria), she told us she was Vietnamese. But then, as we chatted more, she talked about spending a year studying in China, so I sort of sussed that she was one those Vietnamese who is actually Chinese but passes as technically Vietnamese, but I was too polite to ask her, even though I was curious. (In America, it’s considered “cool” to be Vietnamese because people assume your family fled from Communism, so you’re a victim as well as a cool person.)

            Anyhow, one thing I did ask her, being an un-woke Linguistics brute, was, how was it even possible to learn all those Chinese hieroglyphs as an adult. And she set about, like a good Chinese patriot, to defend their indefensible writing system. I was smart enough to just shut my mouth and listen. She gave, as an example, how, when they needed a new word for, say, “television”, they would craft it from pictures with various meanings, and any person in the world just lookinig at this little picture, would understand that it was the word “television”.

            Hmm… highly dubious. And I just googled what is the Chinese word for television, and it looks like this:


            To me, that could be a picture of anything. Although I suppose, if you squinted, that little thing in the middle might look like an antenna! Then I can sort of see a little box with a wire, and, on the right, a little couch potato watching the tube while fiddling with the antenna.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Ben says:

              How do you type Chinese on a keyboard? Oh, you’ll love this. Short answer: they use the Latin alphabet.

              Long answer: Korean is easy, just put hangul characters on the keyboard, done:

              Japanese is harder, and they use a lot of shift states to get by. Either put hiragana on the keyboard, then type a character phonetically, then choose the kanji (if needed) from a drop down list×0/6/8/3a9495d06c4a3fbbfb19853797671afd5219be24cfa6be5d0aa7bef1259d5d/KA-Japanese-20843.jpg? To switch between hiragana, katakana, and Latin requires another button press (also, the Japanese language setting in Windows comes with its own specific Latin font, which is why English on Japanese websites always looks weird). The other way is to just type the word out in Latin romaji, then select the kana or kanji from a drop down list. Using hiragana is faster because it uses one less step, but everyone young these days just uses the Latin alphabet (if you were young in the 2000s you would have had a flip phone and would have *had* to use the hiragana method: Japanese highschool girls of the time were probably the fastest typers on the planet).

              Chinese has no less than four different keyboard methods between Mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, three of which are shit. You can either type a word in Latin using the pinyin romanization and then select the hanzi from a drop down list (the only good method). Or you can use Taiwan’s weird zhuyin/bopomofo method, where you basically have to first learn a separate phonetic system (that is basically an attempt to make a Chinese hiragana) that better mimics actual Chinese sounds:×240.jpeg

              The other two methods are shape based, and you basically get a bunch of basic strokes and construct the desired character on the fly (I think these also use drop down lists to autocomplete to speed things along), canqjie for Hong Kong:

              or the utter monstrosity that is the wubi system for Mainland:

              And no, that girl was wrong.Chinese is often extremely poorly suited to modern terms. Yeah, that TV character looks a fair bit like the thing it’s describing, but how about chemistry?

              Liked by 1 person

              • yalensis says:

                Hi, Ben, Thanks for your comment. For some reason it ended up in my spam filter, but I was able to fish it out, fortunately, because it’s a great comment! I am guessing it went to spam because of the number of links, sometimes WordPress Artificial Intelligence (with emphasis on the word “Artificial”) just deduces wrong things, arg, well what can you expect from stupid robots.

                Anyhow, I totally get your points, I think we’re on the same wavelength here. It’s understandable that mankind’s first writing systems would be pictographical, because that’s how peoples minds work instinctually, before scientists discovered the true nature of human language, the arbitrariness of the vocal encoding system, the difference between sounds and semantics; and the phonemic principle, and so on. Even the ancient Egyptians quickly started converting their original picture system in a phonemic system, so, for example a picture of a little owl didn’t actually mean the whole word “owl” any more, it just stood for the letter /w/. And so on. I think, at a certain point the Chinese, who have the highest IQ’s in the world on average, totally understood that they were doing it all wrong, but just stuck to it anyhow out of sheer stubborness. And eventually it was just too late to change because, like you say, they have way too much legacy literature. Like my mom says, “Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you have a practical mind.”


              • yalensis says:

                P.S. Ben, I once got into a debate with somebody online, this very same issue. (I’m glad I have somebody like you on my side, because you’re totally knowledgeable about all of these languages and systems; I know very little so I am not in a position to win a debate at all!)
                Anyhow, the person who was debating me said the Chinese needed to use a pictographic system with all these strokes and “radicals” because of the sheer number of homonyms in the language. Due to the evolution of sounds over the centuries, every language ends up with a certain number of homonyms, English also has quite a lot, for example the classic “two” vs “to” vs “too”. The historical spelling shows that these words used to be pronounced differently but then, due to sound changes, merged. Same deal with “there” vs “their”, “night” vs “knight”, and lots more, etc. So, the argument is to keep the historical spelling, otherwise it would get too confusing to read with all these homonyms. And this was an argument why NOT to reform the English alphabet into a more phonemic system.

                To me, as a computer programmer that reasoning doesn’t make sense. Keep an outlandishly non-phonetic spelling for thousands of words, just to accommodate a few honomyms? In computer science, we call that the 20/80 rule, which is a fallacy: In other words, the 20% of exceptions corrupt the rest of the system, which is a solid 80%.

                There are lots of ways you could work around the homonyms, for example, have a single word /tu/ but use a superscript on the typewriter (1,2,3) to denote whether it’s “to”, “two”, or “too”. Other people might have other ideas. Now, I understand that Chinese has LOTS more homonyms even than English, but you could make the same thing apply. I am just making things up here, not knowing Chinese, but you could have, for example /ma-1/, /ma-2/, /ma-3/, etc. for the single word /ma/ if there is such a word.


  5. Ben says:

    Chinese does have lots of different words pronounced the same (an extreme example made to prove the point:

    (as an aside, Chinese in other respects can be pretty stripped down and uncomplicated. You don’t need to bother with time tenses, because there’s only one; the present tense. Time reference is established at the start of a section and then you just write everything after in present tense. Dealing with tone bullshit probably makes up for this simplicity though.)

    So does Japanese, which is one of the arguments for keeping kanji and not just using hiragana* (which would basically amount to doing what the Koreans did with hangul). The classic example is that there’s no way to distinguish between bridge and chopsticks otherwise, because the word for both is はし(hashi). Except two things 1. context, and 2. in practice you can distinguish between them, because they use different tones (contrary to myth Japanese is tonal, but it just has two; low-to-high, and high-to-low), which hiragana doesn’t bother to convey. So add pitch markers to hiragana, or Latin scripts already have accent markers.

    Of course, I also think we should bring back the thorn letter, so what do I know.

    *in case you’re wondering wither katakana, hiragana and katakana cover the same sounds. In essence they’re redundant. They developed roughly contemporaneously in different parts of Japan as independent solutions to the same problem. Then they both survived, with the angular katakana being the writing of MEN, and the rounded cursive hiragana being girly and only for women. Today everyone uses hiragana for Japanese, and katakana as basically the equivalent of italics for foreign words. If you wanted to simplify the writing system(s), you would just pick one and discard the other, but I suppose they do help to distinguish Japanese from foreign words, which given how poor Japanese is in sounds, isn’t always obvious as foreign words tend to get mangled when rendered in Japanese. Koreans seem to get by just fine rendering all words with the same script.


    • yalensis says:

      Haha, I think somebody else once showed me that “Lion-eating poet” thing (Shī-shì shí shī shǐ), it’s pretty clever, but this person was using it as a debating reason why Chinese CANNOT and MUST NOT reform its alphabet (basically defending the status quo anarchy in order to accommodate a tongue-twister). Speaking of which, one reason I hear from people defending the indefensible English spelling system, is that it’s so cool that the different spellings reflect the historical pronunciation, like “knight” used to be pronounced with an actual initial /k/ in Chaucer’s time. But it’s not like those legacy documents will ever go away, or that every schoolchild wants to be an etymologist or Medieval Literature Professor when they grow up. For the vast majority of schoolchildren, it’s vastly more important that they learn to read quickly and well, by the age of four or five. And also don’t forget adults, with their sluggish brains, who might want to learn to read a foreign language later in life, and they simply don’t have 10 years to spare, just to learn the writing system.

      As far as Chinese, despite such extreme examples, I don’t believe the homonym issue is insurmountable. People can find a way to symbolically make the semantic distinctions without resorting to hieroglyphics. I mean, when people speak they use homonyms in speech, but they can tell from context which word it is. Otherwise, I refuse to believe that Chinese people just babble at each other ineffectually and can’t understand a word each other says, due to the number of homonyms!

      Anyhow, if any of these countries, like China, Japan, Korea, etc. ever decide to get with the program and reform their alphabets, I think they should hire YOU to head the Commission. And you could put together a team of scientific Linguists and really git ‘er done. Oh, and you can bring back the thorn letter for English too. I think that would be cool. Single-letter phoneme encoding is always preferably, in my book, to digraphs. Makes words shorter, for one thing. Which is why I like the Czech alphabet better than Polish, although Polish is not really that bad itself, formidable as it might look to the novice.


      • Ben says:

        China and Japan will never do away with Chinese writing, partly because of pride, but also partly from pragmatism. Korea and Vietnam were able to get away with discarding it because only a narrow slice of the elite were literate anyway (and also there was a lot less writing in those days compared to today). The common people weren’t losing anything by becoming literate in simpler writing systems because they hadn’t been literate before anyway.

        Japan also has an extreme problem with being run by living fossils who are habitually opposed to anything that they themselves didn’t grow up with. We often like to think of Japan as some utopia of tech, but in reality a lot of stuff is still done with pen and paper because all the old people running the schools and bureaucracy grew up using those old methods. So that’s an added obstacle: they grew up with kanji, so by god everyone else has to use it too. Also, they were taught it through brain-dead brute memorization, and if it was good enough for them…BACK IN MY DAY…

        In practice in South Korea (who knows about Best Korea /s) a lot of students end up being at least partially literate in Chinese characters anyway because, since South Korea is a miserable hellhole for students, parents frequently put their kids in cram schools to learn Chinese characters (hanja; hanzi/kanji/hanja are all different pronunciations of the same word) because it might, possibly, eventually be useful. If nothing else knowing it means you do better on/can take more tests, which is more impressive looking on the resume when trying to get into better schools. In practice most of them forget whatever they learned because they so seldom have any reason to use it.


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