Friday, January 19, 2007

Culture vs Logic

Last week a fellow student in my History of the English Language shared a frustration with the textbook. The text is A Biography of the English Language by Celia M Millward. In an early chapter on writing systems Millward devotes a short section to syllabaries. Such systems may represent syllables but have limited or no way to differentiate between individual phonemes. She gives an example of the Japanese katakana and hiragana syllabaries, each of which uses 46 signs and some diacritics. Because Japanese syllables are relatively simple these few symbols are all that is necessary to represent every word in the language.

Millward explains that the Japanese system blends the kana syllabic symbols with the highly regarded Chinese characters--purely for reasons of "prestige." Here then she comments that the Japanese writing system "illustrat[es] how cultural factors may outweigh logic and efficiency in determining the written form of language."

My fellow student explained that she has some knowledge of Japanese language and writing, even if only by investigation, and the author's claim greatly offended her. In fact, based on this she announced that she hates the book. She believes the writer is biased.

I'm not sure I agree that this shows any bias or unfair judgment. I don't know enough about the Japanese writing system, but if Millward is claiming by a standard such as number of strokes and limitation of appropriate use that the Chinese logograms are more cumbersome than the Japanese kana the evaluation is reasonable. Since I know neither the data nor the argument I choose to defend her claim on other grounds.

It is no insult to claim that cultural factors influence writing systems. It is true of every language and every writing system, even the IPA. Why does the IPA use two symbols to represent affricates? Perhaps because of the influence of the French linguists whose native phonology contains no affricates. Perhaps. Why does the English language spell with so many silent "E"s? It's certainly more cultural than it is efficient.

And Millward does not make the claim that Japanese uses a more illogical system than other languages. She says it illustrates the phenomena. Perhaps she should have added that it can be said of all languages. Millward's stumble here is in the lack of a context for the logic. There is of course logic even in the choice to use a more complicated system when a more simple system is available. Logic requires the establishment of certain premises. If A then B is the most basic premise, and even though one may value another premise, say if A then C, that is not to say that only one of these is logical. Millward should clarify which logical premises the Japanese system ignores in favour of prestige.

But it's not an offensive flub.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe your classmate had a tragic childhood event involving culturally biased authors, and that is what offended them so.


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