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December 10, 2012


How ironic to render a phrase about people behaving in a spirit of brotherhood - in a fashion that offends a lot of people.

That is a very interesting observation that I didn't really think of. I could see getting upset if it were in one of those faux Chinese fonts like these, but is SWC like that? I interpreted the upset that Chinese (and my wife) felt at seeing this was 'I should understand this, but I don't, so there is something wrong in using these elements to write this out'. Which assumes a sort of 'ownership' of an aspect of language that is interesting. One could parallel it with the "upset" that native English speakers have when they hear some variety of English or creole that they don't acknowledge as acceptable (like Singaporean English or Tok Pisin). That also baffles me a bit, cause I'm well aware that there are places you can go where everyone is speaking English but you have no idea what they are saying, so that sort of ownership seems strange, though I understand it a bit better than 'owning' an alphabet.

Interesting, but sort of not-in-the-spirit of hanzi/kanji to have elements of characterized organized without any quasi-systematic order. This would appeal to me more if it used hanzi for more than than just matching primitive shapes to roman characters and composing words to kind of follow the rules of complex characters. The logic of complex characters is much different than the linear logic of phonetic words, though. To me, hanzi is much more about the particular grammar of how radicals combine to form a character. I don't think it's accurate that this demystifies hanzi when it drops the most interesting part of it.

I would be more interested in someone making 2-3000 characters combining simple English words as radicals to match the hanzi dictionary -- placing elements in the same place and finding ways to turn words into enclosures when needed. I'd be interested in using such a dictionary to make literal translations of kanji. Seems like it might be a good way to learn how to read before I've learned all the kanji, spot common compounds, etc.

Yes, well westerners have a more "flexible" relationship with words and text.

As I saw when explaining to Chinese colleague how a Russian word written in Cyrillic could be sounded out by connecting similar letter shapes to Greek, then noting the Latin/Greek terms with similar sounds when used in English.

I have the sense that Chinese have a very different relationship to their writing system than we do. I remember when I was in high school that we had a presentation by a number of exchange students who had been with the school for the year. There was one Chinese student, and his presentation was his name. He had written his name in brush writing, and apparently that was impressive. I didn't get it at all.

The best I can figure out is that it feels as though we are mocking their writing, and possible their writing system has some sense of sacredness...?

I wonder how much of the offense in this case is because the SWC is a second level cultural attack.

That is, it isn't just using fake characters. It is attacking the very concept of a character being basically a picture of a thing, rather than an arbitrary symbol for a sound.

That would explain why someone who isn't Chinese (e.g. someone who is Japanese) would also be offended. Even though Japanese does use some phonetic symbols (kana), the characters-as-symbols concept is still deeply rooted in the orthography.

I could see getting upset if it were in one of those faux Chinese fonts like these, but is SWC like that?

It looks to me like it pretty much is. It's an alphabet; not only that, it's the Roman alphabet, using Chinese characters that superficially look like the corresponding Roman letter. The only novelty it has compared to the Roman alphabet is that is organizes the letters within a word into a square and in a semi-arbitrary order (actually one can see the first letters are the main keys, and other than that are arranged left-to-right, top-to-bottom). That is quite interesting but it has nothing whatsoever in common with Chinese writing except in the most superficial imaginable sense where words correspond to a compound symbol that fits within a square. And the use of Chinese characters to correspond to the Roman letters is again completely gratuitous and reflects nothing but the superficial similarity between the symbols' shapes.

I guess there is a reason to use Chinese symbols for this, which is that they are already set up to be fit into square ideograms. But most of that is probably simply that our eyes expect to see Chinese symbols fit that way while it would "look weird" with Roman symbols; it would actually be very simple to re-jigger Roman letters to fit that way without unimaginatively borrowing another writing system's symbols.

So it is difficult to understand why you'd pick Chinese characters for this project, except as an effort to make the result "look Chinese", and that strikes me as playing on the whole exoticism thing.

It's all the more interesting that someone would set this up that there already exists an alphabet that sets its phonemes up into squares that each correspond to a word, and I can personally attest to how suprisingly easy and pleasant it is to read and understand : the Korean alphabet. (which also uses Chinese-like characters, but it's more understandable in that cultural context, and the stated origin of the characters is much more imaginative : they're supposed to imitate the shape of the mouth when it makes each of those sounds)

I messed up on the Korean alphabet; it doesn't set whole words into a square but just syllables. It's still a good example of an alphabet that stacks its phonemes into squares instead of lining them up.

it's clever.

i can't imagine being upset at this.

i can imagine the kind of person who is eager to be upset by things being upset by this.

I guess cleek's comment was too upsetting for the thread to continue.

Since Chines characters are in large part phonetic and not ideographic, it seems odd to think that SWC somehow subverts the basis of the characters.

I think users of the Latin alphabet do have a different view, perhsps because the script/language link is so weak, with many languages using nearly the same script. Compare South Asia, where every language gets its own script.

@wj "It is attacking the very concept of a character being basically a picture of a thing, rather than an arbitrary symbol for a sound."

My impression is that most hanzi characters do not make sense as literal pictographs, although many of the primitive elements do make sense in that way. Rather there's a logic in how characters are composed of basic radicals that's got a sort of grammar of its own that's separate from what you'd get if you replaced the basic elements with less abstract images. So you're right that it drops the pictographic aspect of hanzi, but I think it's missing an even more important part in how radicals relate to each other as well... which generally follows the left-to-right, up-to-down, out-to-in order that's used to organize English words into mock characters here, but there are many exceptions and important aspects of the language that are totally absent here. For example, character meanings often depend primitive elements that don't just contain or sit adjacent to other elements but actually have strokes that pass through one or more elements.

Also, I'm still very early in learning kanji, but I think several of the SWC characters are taking some pretty big liberties. "E" seems particularly off to me, but that's probably a product of my ignorance as much as anything.

? Can't read it at all

I've seen some of Xu Bing's original SWC installations, but I learned more from Mark Rosenfelder's attempt to explain how Chinese characters really work by imagining a roughly analogous writing system for English:


Neat link that I make clickable


We just had a talk here by a chinese scholar who specializes in Nüshu, which is a syllabic script derived from Chinese and used exclusively by women in Jiangyong Prefecture, Hunan Province. The talk was fascinating, but unfortunately, she spoke in Chinese, and it was translated into Japanese, making it shorter.

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