Differentiating fictive and biological kinship

Grammar questions which are not related to any specific text.
Jonathan_Burke
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Differentiating fictive and biological kinship

Post by Jonathan_Burke » July 27th, 2011, 10:41 am

Paul overwhelmingly uses αδελφος as a reference to Christian fictive kinship. In Galatians 1:19 he uses τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου. I have been told that this is also a reference to Christian fictive kinship. This is the explanation I have been given. Note that the Greek quoted here by the person making this suggestion is of course wrong; the manuscript text has 'τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου', not 'ο αδελφος του κυριου'.
My position works from the starting knowledge that Paul uses αδελφος in every case that can be discerned to mean "fellow believer". There is not a discernable case where this is not so in Paul's work. We see that when Paul talks of biological relationships he marks them with the expression κατα σαρκα ("according to the flesh"). When we look at the expression ιακοβος ο αδελφος του κυριου ("James the brother of the lord"), there are no indications that Paul is using αδελφος to mean anything other than what he normally does, ie "fellow believer".

There is no marking with κατα σαρκα to show that he means a biological connection, so there is no reason to believe that Paul meant anything about a biological relationship when he wrote the phrase ιακοβος ο αδελφος του κυριου. If over 70 uses of αδελφος indicate "fellow believer" and there are no discernable examples where it doesn't, we must conclude that in the phrase ιακοβος ο αδελφος του κυριου there is no reason to think he means anything other than what he normally means with αδελφος.
I am interested in understanding whether or not any of these arguments are valid, and whether the methodology being used here is valid. The argument does not appear to follow standard conventions of translation, and I cannot find support for the claims made here in any standard lexicon or grammar guide (standard critical commentaries of course identify Galatians 1:19 as a reference to biological kinship). Nevertheless, I'm interested in understanding how fictive and non-fictive kinship is differentiated in Greek. I have found also found Paul's usage in the LXX (2 Kingdoms 36:10), in the New Testament (Mark 5:37), and Josephus (Life, 41.201), all in contexts which refers explicitly to biological kinship. It seems that 'X, the brother of Y' is a reference to biological rather than fictive kinship.
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Louis L Sorenson
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ἀδελφός

Post by Louis L Sorenson » July 28th, 2011, 1:21 am

Jonathan,

The entry to the main Greek-English lexicon of the NT speaks to this directly. There are two main entries for ἀφελφός· Take the time to read this entry and look up the appropriate passages for each category. Try making the same argument in English that "brother" always means "biological brother" and see how far you get.
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ἀδελφός , οῦ, ὁ (Hom. [ἀδελφεός]+; accord. to B-D-F §13; Schwyzer I 555; Mlt-H. II 58; PKatz, TLZ 83, ’58, 315f vocative ἄδελφε should be accented on the antepenult in Ac 9:17; 21:20 contrary to the practice of the editions; also GPt 2:5.)
① a male from the same womb as the reference pers., brother, Mt 1:2, 11; 4:18, 21 al.; τὸν ἀ. τ. ἴδιον J 1:41 (s. Jos., Ant. 11, 300). Of Jesus’ brothers (passages like Gen 13:8; 14:14; 24:48; 29:12; Lev 10:4; 1 Ch 9:6 do not establish the mng. ‘cousin’ for ἀ.; they only show that in rendering the Hebr. אָח ἀ. is used loosely in isolated cases to designate masc. relatives of various degrees. The case of ἀδελφή [q.v. 1] is similar Gen 24:59f; Tob 8:4, 7 [cp. 7:15]; Jos., Ant. 1, 211 [ἀδελφή = ἀδελφοῦ παῖς]. Sim. M. Ant., who [1, 14, 1] uses ἀ. for his brother-in-law Severus; the same use is found occas. in the pap: JCollins, TS 5, ’44, 484–94; s. VTscherikover HTR ’42, 25–44) Mt 12:46f; 13:55; Mk 3:31f; J 2:12; 7:3, 5; Ac 1:14; 1 Cor 9:5. James ὁ ἀδελφὸς τοῦ κυρίου Gal 1:19. The pl. can also mean brothers and sisters (Eur., El. 536; Andoc. 1, 47 ἡ μήτηρ ἡ ἐκείνου κ. ὁ πατὴρ ὁ ἐμὸς ἀδελφοί; Anton. Diog. 3 [Erot. Gr. I 233, 23; 26 Hercher]; POxy 713, 21f [97 a.d.] ἀδελφοῖς μου Διοδώρῳ κ. Θαΐδι; schol. on Nicander, Ther. 11 [p. 5, 9] δύο ἐγένοντο ἀδελφοί, Φάλαγξ μὲν ἄρσην, θήλεια δὲ Ἀράχνη τοὔνομα. The θεοὶ Ἀδελφοί, a married couple consisting of brother and sister on the throne of the Ptolemies: OGI 50, 2 [III b.c.] and pap [Mitt-Wilck. I/1, 99; I/2, 103–7, III b.c.]). In all these cases only one brother and one sister are involved. Yet there are also passages in which ἀδελφοί means brothers and sisters, and in whatever sequence the writer chooses (Polyb. 10, 18, 15 ποιήσεσθαι πρόνοιαν ὡς ἰδίων ἀδελφῶν καὶ τέκνων; Epict. 1, 12, 20 ἀδ. beside γονεῖς, τέκνα, γείτονες; 1, 22, 10; 4, 1, 111; Artem. 3, 31; Ptolem., Apotel. 3, 6; Diog. L. 7, 108; 120; 10, 18. In PMich 214, 12 [296 a.d.] οἱ ἀδελφοί σου seems to be even more general=‘your relatives’). Hence there is no doubt that in Lk 21:16 ἀδελφοί=brothers and sisters, but there is some room for uncertainty in the case of the ἀδελφοί of Jesus in Mt 12:46f; Mk 3:31; J 2:12; 7:3, 5; Ac 1:14.


And MEANING TWO:

② a pers. viewed as a brother in terms of a close affinity, brother, fellow member, member, associate fig. ext. of 1.
ⓐ one who shares beliefs (for an associated duality, s. Did., Gen. 127, 6 ἀ. ἐστι τοῦ φαινομένου ἔξω ἀνθρώπου ὁ κρυπτὸς καὶ ἐν διανοίᾳ ἄνθρωπος=brother to the man as he appears from without is the man who is hidden in thought): Jesus calls everyone who is devoted to him brother Mt 12:50; Mk 3:35, esp. his disciples Mt 28:10; J 20:17. Hence gener. for those in such spiritual communion Mt 25:40; Hb 2:12 (Ps 21:23), 17 al. Of a relationship w. a woman other than that of husband Hs 9, 11, 3 al.; 2 Cl 12:5.—Of the members of a relig. community (PParis 20 [II b.c.] al. of the hermits at the Serapeum in Memphis; UPZ 162 I, 20 [117 b.c.] ἀδελφοὶ οἱ τὰς λειτουργίας ἐν ταῖς νεκρίαις παρεχόμενοι; IG XIV, 956 B, 11f. ἀ.=member of the ἱερὰ ξυστικὴ σύνοδος; IPontEux II, 449f εἰσποιητοὶ ἀ. σεβόμενοι θεὸν Ὕψιστον [Ltzm. ZWT 55, 1913, 121]. Mystery pap [III a.d.]: APF 13, ’39, 212. Essenes in Jos., Bell. 2, 122. Vett. Val. 172, 31; Cleopatra ln. 94. See GMilligan 1908 on 1 Th 1:4; Ltzm. Hdb. on Ro 1:13 [lit.]; Dssm. B 82f, 140 [BS 87f, 142]; Nägeli 38; Cumont3 276). Hence used by Christians in their relations w. each other Ro 8:29, 1 Cor 5:11; Eph 6:23; 1 Ti 6:2; Ac 6:3; 9:30; 10:23; Rv 1:9; 12:10; IEph 10:3; ISm 12:1 al. So esp. w. proper names (for ἀδ. in a figurative sense used with a name, cp. the address of a letter PMich 162 verso [II a.d.] ἀπὸ Ἀπλωναρίου ἀδελφοῦ) to indicate membership in the Christian community Ro 16:23; 1 Cor 1:1; 16:12; 2 Cor 1:1; Phil 2:25; Col 1:1; 4:7, 9; 1 Th 3:2; Phlm 1; 1 Pt 5:12; 2 Pt 3:15; AcPl Ha 1, 30 al. Completely ἀδελφὸς ἐν κυρίῳ Phil 1:14. Oft. in direct address 1 Cl 1:1 (cod. A); 4:7; 13:1; 33:1; 2 Cl 20:2 al.; B 2:10; 3:6 al.; IRo 6:2; Hv 2, 4, 1; 3, 1, 1; 4; AcPl Ha 7, 4; 8, 21; AcPlCor 1:16. ἀδελφοί μου B 4:14; 5:5; 6:15; IEph 16:1; ἄνδρες ἀ. Ac 1:16 (rabb. par. in EStauffer, TLZ 77, ’52, 202); 15:7, 13; 1 Cl 14:1; 37:1; 43:4; 62:1. To interpret ἀ. in Ac 15:23 as ‘colleague’ (e.g. PGaechter, Petrus u. seine Zeit, ’58, 141f) is speculative; and the interpretation of ἀ. in 3J 5 and 10 as itinerant preachers (AKragerud, D. Lieblingsjünger im Johannesevangelium, ’59, 105) is based entirely on the context.
ⓑ a compatriot (cp. Pla., Menex. 239a ἡμεῖς δὲ καὶ οἱ ἡμέτεροι, μιᾶς μητρὸς πάντες ἀδελφοὶ φύντες; Lev 10:4; Dt 15:3, 12; 17:15 al.; Philo, Spec. Leg. 2, 79f ‘ἀ.’ τὸν ὁμόφυλον εἶπεν he termed a compatriot ‘brother’; Jos., Ant. 10, 201; 7, 371 after 1 Ch 28:2) Ac 2:29; 3:17, 22 (Dt 18:15); 7:2, 23 (Ex 2:11), 25f al.; Ro 9:3.
ⓒ without ref. to a common nationality or faith neighbor (of an intimate friend X., An. 7, 2, 25; 38. Specif. in the sense ‘neighbor’ Gen 9:5; Lev 19:17 al.) Mt 5:22ff; 7:3ff; 18:15, 21, 35; Lk 6:41f; 17:3; B 19:4; Hm 2:2 al.
ⓓ Form of address used by a king to persons in very high position (OGI 138, 3; 168, 26; 36 [both II b.c.]; Jos., Ant. 13, 45; 126) Herod says ἀδελφὲ Πιλᾶτε GPt 2:5.—JO’Callaghan, El vocativo sing. de ἀδελφός, Biblica 52, ’71, 217–25.—B. 107. DELG. M-M. EDNT. TW. Sv.

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. "Based on Walter Bauer's Griechisch-deutsches Wr̲terbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der frhchristlichen [sic] Literatur, sixth edition, ed. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, with Viktor Reichmann and on previous English editions by W.F. Arndt, F.W. Gingrich, and F.W. Danker." (3rd ed.) (18). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Anybody who has read any breadth of Greek in the NT has to acknowledge that the word ἀδελφός contains both these meanings - context rules, as always.

If you are truly interested in understanding the NT, you will not put off learning the language in which it was written. Both Latin and Greek are rich languages, which express things differently from each and and differently from English, which is a word-order language rather than a case-based language (more word-order independent). Anyone who works off of translation or tries to pare a translation against some absolute meaning of a word in any context is going to go astray in their interpretation. If you really want to understand the text of the NT, you will learn to "read" Greek and not to "decipher" it. Those who have spent time learning the language of the NT find a very rich reward. I encourage you to reconsider dismissing Greek as something to be endured.
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Jonathan_Burke
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Re: Jonathan Burke

Post by Jonathan_Burke » July 28th, 2011, 2:38 am

Louis L Sorenson wrote:Jonathan,

The entry to the main Greek-English lexicon of the NT speaks to this directly. There are two main entries for ἀφελφός· Take the time to read this entry and look up the appropriate passages for each category. Try making the same argument in English that "brother" always means "biological brother" and see how far you get.
Thanks Louis. I think your post was supposed to be a reply to the topic I posted in the 'Beginner's' forum, but that post of mine hasn't appeared yet. I am familiar with the entry for ἀφελφός in all the standard lexicons and dictionaries (LSJ, BDAG, TDNT, Spicq, EDNT), not to mention the other commonly referred to lexical aids (Louw/Nida, Swanson, GELS). Citing such works unfortunately does not get far with the auto-didact with whom I have been corresponding, who simply ignores them.
Anybody who has read any breadth of Greek in the NT has to acknowledge that the word ἀδελφός contains both these meanings - context rules, as always.
Yes, I agree entirely. The person with whom I've been corresponding agrees that the word ἀδελφός contains both these meanings. What they claim is that Paul never used the word ἀδελφός with the meaning of non-fictive, biological kinship.
If you are truly interested in understanding the NT, you will not put off learning the language in which it was written.
Actually although I am truly interested in understanding the NT, I am fully aware of the fact that I'm better off with a good English translation, authoritative lexicons, and professional translation aids, than spending time and effort attempting to become qualified in the language, when I could be using that time to learn Chinese. It's unfortunate that I only have time to learn one language at present, and Chinese is critical to my life and work in Taiwan; Greek isn't.
Both Latin and Greek are rich languages, which express things differently from each and and differently from English, which is a word-order language rather than a case-based language (more word-order independent).
Yes indeed they are very different to English. Looking at language from a practically oriented communication point of view (which is a product of having to use a foreign language to actually communicate with other human beings, instead of studying a text), I find case based languages incredibly inefficient, massively redundant, and appallingly clumsy. The learning burden on the non-native speaker is massive, and completely unnecessary. English is far better in this regard, but even English grammar looks completely idiotic when compared to the far more economical and regular grammar of Chinese (don't get me started on the writing system however, which is archaic and should be replaced completely). If I had my way I would happily cut English grammar down to about a tenth of its current size; throw out all verb conjugations and noun declensions, eliminate all irregular forms, reduce the number of prepositions to about 8 (it currently has over around 150, which is ridiculously redundant), and probably halve the number of formal tenses.
Anyone who works off of translation or tries to pare a translation against some absolute meaning of a word in any context is going to go astray in their interpretation.
I agree. Fortunately I'm not that stupid. I'm not an auto-didact who thinks they can casually ignore what professional translators and Greek scholars say about the text, instead I follow their lead.
If you really want to understand the text of the NT, you will learn to "read" Greek and not to "decipher" it.
To be honest Louis, I would rather learn from people who are professionally qualified, through commentaries and lexical aids, than try and become as good as they are so I can do it all myself. It's basically the same reason why I hire a plumber to work on my pipes, instead of spending six months reading books about plumbing so I can do a bad job of it myself while having to live with dysfunctional plumbing the whole time.
Those who have spent time learning the language of the NT find a very rich reward. I encourage you to reconsider dismissing Greek as something to be endured.
I'm sure it's very rewarding for those who have the time, the inclination, and the need. Unfortunately my linguistic inclination and need lies in another direction, and I have to be practical about how I spend my time. I'm in no way dismissing the learning of Greek as valuable for study and understanding of the New Testament, I'm simply explaining why in my case it's literally a waste of time.
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Barry Hofstetter
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Re: Differentiating fictive and biological kinship

Post by Barry Hofstetter » July 28th, 2011, 8:03 am

Jonathan_Burke wrote:
I am interested in understanding whether or not any of these arguments are valid, and whether the methodology being used here is valid. The argument does not appear to follow standard conventions of translation, and I cannot find support for the claims made here in any standard lexicon or grammar guide (standard critical commentaries of course identify Galatians 1:19 as a reference to biological kinship). Nevertheless, I'm interested in understanding how fictive and non-fictive kinship is differentiated in Greek. I have found also found Paul's usage in the LXX (2 Kingdoms 36:10), in the New Testament (Mark 5:37), and Josephus (Life, 41.201), all in contexts which refers explicitly to biological kinship. It seems that 'X, the brother of Y' is a reference to biological rather than fictive kinship.
I see you already have quite a discussion going on with this over in Introductions. But to answer your question, in a word, context. The word can bear either sense. There is no separate or special word used to designate metaphorical kinship in the NT. ἀδελφός is used for both. It sounds like your interlocutor has a theological axe to grind on this.
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Jonathan_Burke
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Re: Differentiating fictive and biological kinship

Post by Jonathan_Burke » July 28th, 2011, 8:28 am

Barry Hofstetter wrote:I see you already have quite a discussion going on with this over in Introductions. But to answer your question, in a word, context. The word can bear either sense. There is no separate or special word used to designate metaphorical kinship in the NT. ἀδελφός is used for both.
Thank you, that confirms what I thought. The claim being made (that Paul used ἀδελφός overwhelmingly for fictive kinship outside Galatians 1:19 and therefore must be using ἀδελφός in Galatians 1:19 as a reference to fictive kinship), does not actually pay any attention to context, and is a non sequitur. Additionally, I have not yet found any examples of 'X, the brother of Y' as a reference to fictive kinship, whereas the instances of this kind of pattern which I found in the LXX, Mark, and Josephus, all refer to biological kinship.
It sounds like your interlocutor has a theological axe to grind on this.
It seems that way.
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Michael Christensen
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Re: Jonathan Burke

Post by Michael Christensen » July 28th, 2011, 9:38 am

Jonathan_Burke wrote:
Yes indeed they are very different to English. Looking at language from a practically oriented communication point of view (which is a product of having to use a foreign language to actually communicate with other human beings, instead of studying a text), I find case based languages incredibly inefficient, massively redundant, and appallingly clumsy. The learning burden on the non-native speaker is massive, and completely unnecessary. English is far better in this regard, but even English grammar looks completely idiotic when compared to the far more economical and regular grammar of Chinese (don't get me started on the writing system however, which is archaic and should be replaced completely). If I had my way I would happily cut English grammar down to about a tenth of its current size; throw out all verb conjugations and noun declensions, eliminate all irregular forms, reduce the number of prepositions to about 8 (it currently has over around 150, which is ridiculously redundant), and probably halve the number of formal tenses.

Reducing languages to mere "efficiency"* would rob them of their subletly and beauty, and most likely would render nuanced expression and understanding impossible. Besides, the morphology, semantics, phonology as well as the writing system of a language reflect the mentality, the history, the culture and the way of life of the people that brought forth the language (and – in some cases – are still using the language). To pare down the language artificially would be the same as destroying the very cultural roots of the people using the language.

Thus, to understand Taiwanese (or Chinese) people, it helps a great deal to take the trouble of learning about the Chinese language and writing system (although I personally find it fascinating rather than troubling), just as to understand the New Testament or Greek philosophy, it helps to learn about the Greek language, as well the Hebrew and Aramaic (since the NT language is influenced by these, especially in the gospels). Even if one doesn't attain professional mastery of the language, even a partial understanding of a language can open many "doors" – in other words: new perspectives (at least in my experience so far).

Therefore, I'm quite glad you don't have it your way: anyway, if anybody did suceed in implementing a scheme to reduce the grammar, the vocabulary and/or the writing system of either English, Greek or Chinese to a seemingly "simpler" system, I would stubbornly refuse to use it and stick to the traditional system – because it had largely grown organically within the society that used the language, rather than having beed administered artificially from without for so-called "practical" reasons.




*Extra note: I must admit however, that the definition of "efficiency" can vary quite a bit from person to person: I, for instance, find the Chinese writing system extremely "efficient", since there is no other language I know of that is capable of such a density of expression – take, for example, the multitude of four character 成語's – which other language has so many four word idioms? "Replacing" the characters with a solely phonetic system would not do, since so many different characters have identical pronunciations – it would make it impossible to trace the origin of as well as the semantic ideas behind the words that are represented in the visual forms of the writing system (besides the fact that it would create many ambiguities and difficulties in understanding the written language – especially for foreigners who will have even more difficulty discerning the correct meanings of the words from the context, because there would be a lot more possiblities to choose from).

People who speak Chinese on a high level are constantly aware of the written forms while in conversation – several word plays and puns used in conversation are based on the fact that there are several different characters that have an identical or similar pronunciation; besides, this awareness enables them to avoid ambiguities and misunderstandings by providing enough descriptive context (or body language) to ensure that the listeners will not mistake the word they want to say for a different word that has an identical sound. Thus one can see that the Chinese writing system is extremely important to the language and the speakers of the language and therefore should not be replaced.
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Jonathan_Burke
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Re: Jonathan Burke

Post by Jonathan_Burke » July 28th, 2011, 1:12 pm

Michael Christensen wrote:Reducing languages to mere "efficiency"* would rob them of their subletly and beauty, and most likely would render nuanced expression and understanding impossible.
It's all relative. Chinese grammar is far simpler and more efficient than English, but you try telling the Chinese that their 3,000 years of literature is barren of nuanced expression and understanding. Try reading 三字經, a 13th century classical text which is simple enough to be used to teach school children history and moral principles, but which required considerable literary skill to compose in order to achieve the aim of the work whilst keeping within the strict circumference of the demanding 'three character phrase' literary style. It's a masterpiece of nuanced expression and understanding.
Besides, the morphology, semantics, phonology as well as the writing system of a language reflect the mentality, the history, the culture and the way of life of the people that brought forth the language (and – in some cases – are still using the language). To pare down the language artificially would be the same as destroying the very cultural roots of the people using the language.
People said all this when the Chinese decided to switch from traditional to simplified characters. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be wrong. I say unsurprisingly because such changes had already happened several times in the history of the Chinese language, as well as other languages. In the history of language, this happens frequently, and people adjust. Look at English, a scruffy mongrel of a linguistic accident cobbled together with spare parts like a medieval creole. Fast forward a few centuries (after a couple of changes of alphabet along the way), and it was stripped of gendered nouns, underwent a radical shift in vowel pronunciation which had a significant impact on what became standard spelling, and was later ruthlessly pruned and streamlined by the ruling elite.

And hear, hear, I say. I don't see anyone clamouring to go back to this, and despite the radical shifts through which English staggered on several occasions (typically enforced and at very rapid pace), any historian would be hard pressed to argue that English society suffered signifcant cultural loss in the process. No one seems to miss thorn.
Thus, to understand Taiwanese (or Chinese) people, it helps a great deal to take the trouble of learning about the Chinese language and writing system (although I personally find it fascinating rather than troubling)...
Er, quite. You need hardly tell me. :D However, the more you learn about the Chinese language the more you learn; 1) that the vast majority of its speakers know next to nothing about its history or the history of its writing system, 2) that the vast majority of its speakers are taught completely inaccurate folklore explanations of its development, 3) that the language has repeatedly undergone enforced radical shifts at various stages of its history at the hands of the ruling elite, with the specific aim of simplifying it, and that 4) these shifts have never caused the socio-cultural and historical crisis that people allege will take place if such language shifts take place. The history of the Chinese language is not the history of the Chinese people, though the writing system has shaped the Sintic psyche, and the writing system in the PRC today is less than 100 years old, hardly embedded deeply in the misty past of Chinese history.
...just as to understand the New Testament or Greek philosophy, it helps to learn about the Greek language, as well the Hebrew and Aramaic (since the NT language is influenced by these, especially in the gospels). Even if one doesn't attain professional mastery of the language, even a partial understanding of a language can open many "doors" – in other words: new perspectives (at least in my experience so far).
I absolutely agree with this. Even my few remaining scraps of Greek and Latin are of significant use to my Biblical studies, not least because they provide access to extremely useful professional tools and commentaries (not to mention the occasional classical text), which would otherwise be literally a closed book.
Therefore, I'm quite glad you don't have it your way: anyway, if anybody did suceed in implementing a scheme to reduce the grammar, the vocabulary and/or the writing system of either English, Greek or Chinese to a seemingly "simpler" system, I would stubbornly refuse to use it and stick to the traditional system – because it had largely grown organically within the society that used the language, rather than having beed administered artificially from without for so-called "practical" reasons.
Well that's just what happens to languages as they evolve. Modern developments in English which are doing exactly this, have been observed and followed by philologists for the last few decades. I wonder what the early scribes thought when minuscules were being introduced; 'This will never take off!', 'These newfangled characters are so ugly no one will ever use them, 'We'll lose our access to thousands of historic manuscripts, which no one will ever be able to read anymore!', 'I refuse to submit to the authoritarian military-industrial complex!'.

Fortunately for most of us, these developments tend to take more than a lifetime and we tend not to even notice them as they happen. I've known nonagenerians who were born in the 19th century and who lived until the late 20th century, who had experienced a massive shift in English language use over that time, but because it was relatively gradual and took place over such a long time, there wasn't any significant 'shock of the new'. Anyone who wants a convenient window into how a more simplified English is currently being gradually imprinted on the current generation only has to use Microsoft Word. Replacement of diphthongs with single vowel sounds, replacement of double consonants with single consonants, and other documented changes, are readily observable.
*Extra note: I must admit however, that the definition of "efficiency" can vary quite a bit from person to person: I, for instance, find the Chinese writing system extremely "efficient", since there is no other language I know of that is capable of such a density of expression – take, for example, the multitude of four character 成語's – which other language has so many four word idioms?


The writing system is extremely efficient in that sense, certainly. However, the sheer number of characters is massively redundant and an incredible learning burden. One of the government's aims in introducing first a phonetic system and then simplifying the characters, was to increase literacy; it simply took so long and such a rigorous pedagogy to learn the written language that millions of people literally never had the time or opportunity to do so. Westerners underestimate dramatically the length of time necessary to learn the 4,000 characters required for functional literacy. Chinese students are still learning characters in junior high school.

Density of expression is fine. But wait until you discover how many homophones there are. There are at least 219 with the sound 'xi', 225 with the sound 'yu', and an astonishing 286 with the sound 'yi'. This, coupled with the complete dislocation of the written from the spoken language, results in native Chinese speakers having to resort to clumsy work arounds in order to make themselves understood. Because the vast number of homophones results in incredible ambiguity in the spoken language, native speakers are sometimes compelled to 'draw' characters on their palm when speaking in order to clarify which character they are using when pronouncing certain sounds, and commonly have to add clarifying explanations to their spoken conversation such as 'I mean 天 as in 夏天', or 'I mean 所 as in 所以'. Add to that the number of times that native Chinese speakers simply forget how to read or write characters in their own language, and you'll understand that the density of expression is a poor compensation prize for the many difficulties with which the writing system is encumbered.

"Replacing" the characters with a solely phonetic system would not do, since so many different characters have identical pronunciations – it would make it impossible to trace the origin of as well as the semantic ideas behind the words that are represented in the visual forms of the writing system (besides the fact that it would create many ambiguities and difficulties in understanding the written language – especially for foreigners who will have even more difficulty discerning the correct meanings of the words from the context, because there would be a lot more possiblities to choose from).


This is a common myth. The same was said of Japanese, and it turned out to be untrue in that case as well. In fact so many Japanese themselves now use a Romanized phonetic alphabet or the hiragana/katakana phonetic alphabets instead of the traditional kanji characters (all children are taught Romanization in school, so everyone already knows it from an early age), that it's clear that the writing is on the wall for kanji. In the case of Chinese, young children in Taiwan use the 注音符號 phonetic system invented in 1910 before they are taught the characters. Unsurprisingly, they find no difficulty reading and writing in this phonetic system. Many foreigners in Taiwan and China (as in Japan), use either 注音符號 or Hanyu Pinyin (a Romanization system for Chinese), without problems. Native Chinese speakers learn completely non-factual stories about the historical relationship of the characters to their meaning (the true history of which has been lost in the case of thousands of characters anyway; historical Chinese dictionaries were riddled with mistaken etymologies and false meaning attributions to characters in their own language), so it's clear that knowing or not knowing the 'true' origin and original semantic ideas behind the words is completely unnecessary. It's just a matter of the mnemonic that works for you.

The fact is that the origin and original semantic ideas behind the characters are largely unimportant. They are not represented in the visual form of the characters in the way that many Westerners imagine; much of what is written and read about semantic and symbolic representation in Chinese characters is both way out of date and completely inaccurate. In reality the vast majority of Chinese characters have shapes which are completely arbitrary, and which have no intrinsic relation whatever to their semantic or phonetic meaning; many of them can be pronounced in at least three or four different ways, for a start, with a completely different semantic meaning each time. This arbitrary assignation of meaning to symbol is one of the most unfortunate facts about the Chinese writing system, and one of the reasons why it's so difficult to learn. I would recommend reading this and this.

People who speak Chinese on a high level are constantly aware of the written forms while in conversation – several word plays and puns used in conversation are based on the fact that there are several different characters that have an identical or similar pronunciation; besides, this awareness enables them to avoid ambiguities and misunderstandings by providing enough descriptive context (or body language) to ensure that the listeners will not mistake the word they want to say for a different word that has an identical sound. Thus one can see that the Chinese writing system is extremely important to the language and the speakers of the language and therefore should not be replaced.
Firstly, there are few people who really speak Chinese 'on a high level' like this; normal people don't speak 'literary Chinese', and hardly anyone can remember the classical literary Chinese and its characters, through which they typically slept (or tried to sleep), in junior high school, not least because almost no one bothers to use it anymore. Secondly, as I've already explained, the ambiguities and misunderstandings in verbal communication result from the weaknesses of the language, and people typically have to resort to clumsy workarounds in order to compensate. It's not simply a matter of using 'enough descriptive content or body language'.

The fact is that the Chinese writing system has been changed dramatically and radically many times over its lengthy history, and will happily continue to do so without any of the dreadful disasters which some people fear will accompany such changes. The characters could be replaced with a phonetic system (of either English characters or Chinese characters), without any major losses and with considerable advantages to be gained. As much as I enjoy the characters myself, I look forward to that inevitable moment in time. Without such a change, Chinese certainly cannot become a global language, which is a major concern of some in the Chinese government.

But I fear we have strayed considerably offtopic. Perhaps there's a place for this discussion elsewhere on the forum.
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MAubrey
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Re: Jonathan Burke

Post by MAubrey » July 28th, 2011, 2:04 pm

Considering how terrible English supposedly is for communication, you sure have communicated quite a lot.
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Michael Christensen
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Re: Jonathan Burke

Post by Michael Christensen » July 28th, 2011, 8:07 pm

Jonathan_Burke wrote: But I fear we have strayed considerably offtopic. Perhaps there's a place for this discussion elsewhere on the forum.
I fear so too. There are a few things I might like to comment on, but I'd rather wait until we find a more appropriate place. However, I can't resist stating the following three brief points:


1) The Hebrew scribes have successfully resisted the implementation of minuscules into their language – up to this day!

2) Contrary to what you seemed to be suggesting, the "cultural revolution" of Mao (of which the unfortunate "simplification" of the language was a part) inflicted a great deal of serious damage to the Chinese culture and its people. People that have personally experienced this so-called "revolution" have told me that they (and many others) feel culturally "uprooted" (if not severly traumatitzed) because of it.

3) While developments – which can either be simplifications or the reverse: "sophistications" – are a natural thing in any language, I'd rather prefer that they come about naturally instead of by force or artificial prescription by some government.
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Jonathan_Burke
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Re: Jonathan Burke

Post by Jonathan_Burke » July 28th, 2011, 9:23 pm

MAubrey wrote:Considering how terrible English supposedly is for communication, you sure have communicated quite a lot.
It isn't terrible for communication. It's just not as efficient as it could be.
Michael Christensen wrote:
2) Contrary to what you seemed to be suggesting, the "cultural revolution" of Mao (of which the unfortunate "simplification" of the language was a part) inflicted a great deal of serious damage to the Chinese culture and its people. People that have personally experienced this so-called "revolution" have told me that they (and many others) feel culturally "uprooted" (if not severly traumatitzed) because of it.
I agree that the cultural revolution of Mao inflicted serious damage on the Chinese culture and its people. I'm not talking about that. I'm referring to the several language simplification efforts made by the Chinese government in the 20th century, of which Mao's was actually one of the latest. The introduction of the simple phonetic system in the 1920s during the 'Mass Education Movement' was a great success.
De Francis wrote:Perhaps the greatest success of the script was achieved by its use in the Mass Education Movement. In the early twenties, when he was promoting his five-year plans to wipe out illiteracy in Changsha, Chefoo, and other cities under such slogans as "An illiterate nation is a weak nation," James Yen was also beginning his initial experiment with the use of the phonetic script.21

For a time he gave up the attempt in the face of the strong opposition which he encountered "from practically all sides," but later he tried again after the movement had acquired somewhat more prestige.22 The Mass Education Movement used the phonetic script only as an adjunct to characters, that is, as a means of learning the established ideographs, and made plain that the symbols were not to function as an independent form of writing. 23

The new script was said to have been well received by illiterates. Even those who had studied characters first in one or two years of primary school demanded to learn the symbols. "The Phonetic Alphabet is simpler than characters," they said. "After we have learned it we can read any book." 24 Indeed, it was even suggested by one writer that only by the use of the phonetic symbols could the Mass Education Movement achieve any real success.

He maintained that the results were negligible with mass education in characters owing to their difficulty, and that even the "Thousand Character Theory" would provide no solution, so that the only way out was to use the Phonetic Alphabet and characters together, as in Japan. 25
This widespread use of the phonetic system did not cause cultural destruction or dislocation. It was received overwhelmingly positively, especially by those who benefited the most from it; the traditionally illiterate members of society. The same was the case for the various simplification movements, of which Mao's was just one of the latest.
Michael Christensen wrote:3) While developments – which can either be simplifications or the reverse: "sophistications" – are a natural thing in any language, I'd rather prefer that they come about naturally instead of by force or artificial prescription by some government.
Well that's a matter of personal preference of course, not related directly to the point under discussion.
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