Must Chinese be visual?

It is hard to understate the importance of the Chinese characters to the Chinese language.

It is claimed by Chinese speakers that the Pinyin system (the official system for using the Roman alphabet to write the sounds of Mandarin Chinese) is not enough to convey meaning because so many words sounds the same. They need the visual elements in the characters to distinguish words.

This may seem like nonsense. People don’t use characters when they talk on the phone in Chinese. Context is enough to distinguish the meanings of homophones. And yet, Chinese speakers imagine the characters when they’re listening.

Kids who don’t know the characters yet could, theoretically, just learn to read Pinyin and associate the meanings to the sounds and to the Pinyin representations of the sounds, which is similar to what every kid with an alphabetic language does.

Adult Chinese speakers read faster with characters than with Pinyin because they already know the meanings of the characters, whereas if they try to read Pinyin, they have to translate the Pinyin into sounds before they can understand the words. They would need to practice reading Pinyin a lot to be able to read as fast without characters.

Furthermore, the characters provide intelligibility between types of speech that the Chinese tend to call dialects but that are sometimes considered separate languages.

Chinese pride in Chinese characters may seem like sheer masochism. Non-phonetic writing systems are an undeniably heavy cognitive burden. But if China abandons characters, it’s also abandoning centuries of its own history, poetry, and art. How could anyone really be in favor of that?

I also don’t know.

In Singapore, the answer to a question will often be “I also don’t know.” The implication is that the asker doesn’t know and that the answerer is thus the second person who doesn’t know.

We Americans don’t say ‘also’ in English when we don’t know unless at least one person has already failed to answer the question.

In Singapore:

“Where can I get some good Italian food?” asked Amelia.
“I also don’t know,” said Bob.

In the US:

“Where can I get some good Italian food?” asked Amelia.
“I don’t know,” said Bob.
“I also don’t know,” said Cindy.

Cindy is the second person to say the phrase “I don’t know.” The word ‘also’ is just there to emphasize the echo. But probably Cindy wouldn’t even use ‘also’. She’d probably say “me neither” or “I don’t know either.”

Redundanancy

Today at Parkway Parade I saw a sign on a cosmetics store that said “powerful-strength line-reducing concentrate”.

I read it as an advertisement for a reducer of ‘strength lines’ and momentarily wondered what a ‘strength line’ was and why it was bad. Then I realized there was a hyphen. The advertisement was for something that reduces lines (i.e., wrinkles). If you write ‘powerful’, though, you don’t need the word ‘strength’.

This strikes me as a very Singlish bit of syntax, though the company that makes this bizarrely named product is American.

In Singapore I keep hearing people here say things like “I like the red-color one.” They should just say “I like the red one,” because ‘red’ is already a color, same way ‘powerful’ is already a strength.

I also hear ‘large size’. The phrase ‘medium size’ makes sense, because all kinds of things can be medium in ways that have nothing to do with size. Things can be medium temperature, or medium cooked, etc. But ‘large’ is always a size, so we don’t say “I would like a large-size coffee, please.” Sometimes we say “I need a size large,” though probably not “I need a size large t-shirt.”

Of course, it’s not just Singlish that is subject to redundancy: don’t we all say ‘ATM machine’ and ‘PIN number’?

And Kiehls wasn’t using Singlish. I just thought they were.