Should we all write in Chinese? | BBC Ideas



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Most of us know what these emojis mean. . . and these numbers.

But what if everyone in the world always used the same writing system, while still speaking completely different languages?

It is actually not a myth to say that writing unified the Chinese cultures.

There are many many small groups of dialects in China, but we all use this one written system which are the characters.

That makes things easier for people speaking different languages.

How do they understand each other?

By written language, which is great!

Like emojis and hieroglyphs in ancient Egypt, Chinese doesn't use an alphabet based on sounds, but symbols denoting meaning.

So how does Chinese work?

Each character represents a word or a concept, and you stack them together like Lego bricks to build more words.

Some of them also look like what they represent.

A mountain may look just like a mountain with a peak in the middle.

And fire resembles some blazing logs.

Put them together and you get volcano.

Lots of the writing is the same between China and Japan.

I know this bit is dog. . . So, like, my dogs are really cute, I guess?

Chinese is the most concise written language in the world, so we'd use less paper.

And it looks beautiful!

For centuries, people have tried to invent the perfect universal written language, and Chinese has actually been considered before.

Universal language schemes were particularly popular in the 17th century.

People would have assumed that the origin of language theologically was in the Garden of Eden, so the whole world would have spoken one language.

But then with the Tower of Babel languages were broken into a multitude of languages.

They reckoned that it would take a universal language. . . To get us back the Heaven.

Francis Bacon assumed that a language like Chinese and its writing system would have qualified, because of this special relationship between the sign and what it symbolised.

But there's a problem!

Because Chinese characters often represent whole words, there are a lot of them.

Tons. . . How many are there, Hongping?

Oh I'm sorry, I don't know.

I don't know.

Obviously, it's too many.


8,000 or 9,000?

A million?

Not quite, but it is is very hard to say.

That dictionary has around sixty four thousand characters.

If you know five thousand characters you're doing very well.

While some of them look like what they represent, most of them don't really.

In fact, some of them are incredibly complicated.

This one has 57 strokes.


Oh my God!

What do you think it means?

It's actually the name of a kind of noodle.

Oh right. It's "biang"!

This one word means that noodle? !

Yep, in fact. . . Chinese is so complicated that, since the 1950s, a simplified system of characters has been used in mainland China, along with a romanised alphabet called pinyin.

So Chinese characters might not become a universal writing system any time soon. . .

The trouble is not just inventing one, but getting people to use it.

It wouldn't be easy for the whole world to agree on the same set of meanings.

Language needs a cultural context.

You cannot really just borrow or create.

Maybe it's actually our different languages that make us special. . .

Every year we lose hundreds of languages from this planet, and I would fear that a universal language might lead to cultural impoverishment.

For now, perhase we should just stick to emojis.

I use very simple "like" and "dislike" and then I design my own sometimes.

How do people know what they are then, David?

They have to guess!