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on 12 August 1998
This is not only the best book I know about Chinese, it is one of the best books I know about language. DeFrancis, a University of Hawaii professor who is a distinguished author of texts for English speaking learners of Chinese, attacks a whole web of misconceptions about the Chinese writing system, in particular, the notion that it works by representing concepts or ideas, rather than sounds and words.
The point of attack is a wonderfully whimsical chapter framaed as the notes of a [fictitious] international committee established by the Japanese government during WWII to create a way to write English in kanji -- adapted Chinese characters -- for occupation and reculturation of America. The committee consists of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese scholars. In the course of presenting the problems facing the group (against the historical background of the problems in adapting Chinese characters to Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese) it becomes obvious how misleading and wrongheaded is the idea that Chinese writing somehow embodies thoughts rather sounds in spoken languages.
In the subsequent chapter, DeFrancis examines in detail the components of the concept-writing idea -- what he calls "myths" about Chinese characters. In the course of these expositions, a reader not only learns a great deal about Chinese languages (there are many) and their written representation, but also about the basic process by which _any_ language is written. (DeFrancis later developed these ideas into another book, "Visible Speech," also recommended.
"The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy" remains controversial: some of the myths DeFrancis attacks are held by Chinese about their own language, and DeFrancis is emphatically a non-fan of the Chinese writing system. But DeFrancis argues his case with elegance, deep knowledge, skill at presenting examples which make his points with intuitive directness, and passion. The best part is a reader needs no prior knowledge of Chinese or linguistics at all to appreciate it, only an interest in how people communicate. I recommend it highly to anyone who has this interest in any form.
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