Phonetic Indicators in Writing Systems Essay

Phonetic Indicators in Writing Systems Essay

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Writing systems, no matter what type, have a common goal: to represent and record a spoken language. To do this, systems have two primary options. They can either convey semantic information or they can represent the language’s phonetic sounds. Most languages do both, but the degree of each varies on a case-to-case basis. For example, although there are not many phonetic markers in traditional Chinese writing, it provides many semantic clues that are not even represented in the spoken language! English writing, on the other hand, has semantic indicators to an extent, but is primarily composed of phonetic representation. While all types of writing systems have advantages and disadvantages, the emergence of phonetic indicators in traditionally logographic writing systems, as well as the general popularity of alphabetic, consonantal, and syllabic writing systems, indicates that society today tends to value writing systems that convey mostly phonetic information over those that convey mostly semantic information.
In Chinese, which uses a logographic writing system to represent mostly semantic information, each character represents a single syllable. However, because many syllables have multiple meanings, multiple characters may represent the same syllable, which can lead to confusion. Chinese writing also provides very little phonetic information. In fact, only 23 percent of Chinese characters are fully regular, meaning they communicate all three types of Chinese phonetic information—onset, or the initial sound; rime, or the vowel sound; and tone, or the inflection of the vowel (Chen et al., 2003). A very interesting example of the way Chinese conveys information can be found on, where all the characters derived from the...

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... not discernible without writing. When reading English, it is possible to see a suffix such as “-cide” and realize that the word has to do with the killing of something. However, a word like “countryside,” although the last syllable may be pronounced the same in speech, does not mean “to kill one’s country”!
Iconicity is an important factor in understanding written language, as well, but the iconicity of Chinese is less obvious now. In the early days of language, an iconic character was very useful. For example, the Chinese character for “woman,” when it actually resembled a woman, could be understood even by people who did not speak Chinese. However, these iconic characters were complex and took a considerable amount of time to write, so as time passed, they became simplified. Now the Chinese character for “woman” hardly resembles a woman at all (Robinson, 2007)!

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