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Why didn't the Japanese adopt a fully phonetic alphabet system?

...But it's still around. 124 million Japanese people and at least a million non-native speakers use it. And a lot of those who have learned it may acknowledge it was challenging, but very few of them seem to think abolishing kanji is a good idea. Is it possible they know something you don't?

Saying Japanese know something we don't? That cuts both ways. Most of the rest of the world know the convenience and ease of a simpler writing system, even if they are not really book smart experts on such a subject. Most people are not, and cannot clearly label all or even most of the pros and cons.

People who studied something don't want to abolish it? Yep. Who wants to change things in such a way that they spent potentially months of their life learning a now useless art. That would be like a skilled factory painter screaming "Bring on the robots!"

And while pretty much all Japanese may use this system of theirs, they are the only ones in the entire world of 6 billion people that I know of currently using such a mixed up, inconsistent, confusing and time consuming system of writing. The only other people I know of with this much madness in their system was the ancient Egyptians, and we still would not be able to decipher that insanity if we never got the Rosetta Stone.

You don't learn it through rote memorization, you learn it through exposure and relating it to what you've already learned.

Its both. Rote memorization plays a HUGE role. It gets easier over time, yes, but this is due to relations with what you learned through rote, which is massive.


You learn that the etymology of the word is baked right into the word itself.

That's a pro. But the most insignificant pro ever and hardly fool proof, truly accurate or consistent.

When you learn kanji, you learn to appreciate and respect it. You don't seem to have learned much, so you don't seem to have much respect.

I think I pretty much summed that up with the factory painter analogy. Although I will say that kanji can be interesting and obviously took a lot of time to create and be made into what it is....but that is hardly a good basis for a written language.



This argument has been hashed out many times over, and many people seem to think that they know how to better structure a language that is not their own, but when you look at their argument it usually comes down to "kanji is/was/seems hard to me, so it shouldn't be used," and their proposed solution leaves Japanese a poorer language.

Yes we have heard the argument for change a million times. Yet nobody EVER suggested any other language adopt a similar strategy to the Japanese writing system.

And while Japanese love to say that kanji is "hard", that is not at all the problem. What it is is an inefficient, time consuming pain in the *** just to learn how to read and write, something pretty much everybody else simplified a long time ago. Even the Chinese are consistent with their written language making it not so bad even if they use pictograms too.

When I was in elementary school, adult encyclopedias were completely accessible to me, by myself, in the corner with a dictionary close by. Not for Japanese kids and that stifles learning.

There is a boatload the Japanese can and should learn from outsiders. And that one also works in reverse. But we are talking about a people who seem to have not even learned the value of zero yet. When they make kids books, they use spaces but use them improperly because they don't disjoin articles from other words. They don't use or seem to have a proper kanji for zero, and as a fix, inserting the kanji for ten in numbering. They have not revalued the yen leading to huge numbers even for fairly regular purchases. Their counting system ignores the commas in numbers they use everyday and so every single one of them expresses confusion with these big numbers they are forced to use so much. In short, Japan needs few hard kicks in the *** from the boot of reform to the point its not even funny anymore. Kanji is just the biggest example.

Hell, I have seen English speakers not be able to read the spellings of some names, but at least they could offer a close guess. Here in Japan I have seen so very, very many people, especially TEACHERS who should be the least confused, have no clue how to read a person's name, names being at the very CORE of human communication.

And now, even old people can't remember how to write kanji because of smart phones. This dinosaur should have died long ago.
 
eenglesh kood bee ritten liek this, but it is vaeree unnatural and cawziz reeding and righting too bee inordinetly dificult.

I LOVE this!!! Despite Juli trying to make it seem hard or crazy, anyone who understands what is happening will see the opposite. I read and understood that much faster than a first grader would read the same sentence "properly" spelled. The only reason it seems strange at all is because we did not grow up with it. If everyone spells like that, in a few years it would be as natural to everyone as today's spelling, same as it took you years to feel English spelling was natural...you just forgot cause it was so long ago.

Even in English we sight read words...we generally do not phonetically suss them out as we did in first grade. We sight read English words the same as kanji is sight read. Its amazing how people don't realize they are sight reading, and don't understand that it was just seeing that word a hundred times that way that made them able to do that. But its a HELL of a lot easier to deal with the 52 block letters of the English alphabet than it is all those damned kanji parts even if sight reading is the general rule in both languages.
 
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They don't use or seem to have a proper kanji for zero
The kanji for zero is 零. Not used very often as far as I'm aware (because of the number of strokes, I assume?), but it's there.

They have not revalued the yen leading to huge numbers even for fairly regular purchases.
We in the U.S. split up our currency into two different forms, and then we use decimal numbers. What's the sense in that? Japan's currency system just uses one form of currency and plain old integers, nice and simple. I think it's a superior system.

Their counting system ignores the commas in numbers they use everyday
Or, the commas ignore the counting system they have been using for much longer. Perhaps that is the defect. Maybe commas should be at every fourth digit, or not used at all. Or maybe rather than e.g. "600,000,000", "六億" should be used because it's much easier to read.

Despite Juli trying to make it seem hard or crazy
More like point out that it takes effort to adapt to something totally different from what you're used to. That's a major disruption for everyone involved, so it just isn't going to happen. People have lives to attend to; you can't ask them to re-learn how to spell because the government says so, unless you're North Korea, perhaps.
 
Saying Japanese know something we don't? That cuts both ways. Most of the rest of the world know the convenience and ease of a simpler writing system, even if they are not really book smart experts on such a subject. Most people are not, and cannot clearly label all or even most of the pros and cons.

People who studied something don't want to abolish it? Yep. Who wants to change things in such a way that they spent potentially months of their life learning a now useless art. That would be like a skilled factory painter screaming "Bring on the robots!"

And while pretty much all Japanese may use this system of theirs, they are the only ones in the entire world of 6 billion people that I know of currently using such a mixed up, inconsistent, confusing and time consuming system of writing. The only other people I know of with this much madness in their system was the ancient Egyptians, and we still would not be able to decipher that insanity if we never got the Rosetta Stone.

Its both. Rote memorization plays a HUGE role. It gets easier over time, yes, but this is due to relations with what you learned through rote, which is massive.

That's a pro. But the most insignificant pro ever and hardly fool proof, truly accurate or consistent.

I think I pretty much summed that up with the factory painter analogy. Although I will say that kanji can be interesting and obviously took a lot of time to create and be made into what it is....but that is hardly a good basis for a written language.

Yes we have heard the argument for change a million times. Yet nobody EVER suggested any other language adopt a similar strategy to the Japanese writing system.

And while Japanese love to say that kanji is "hard", that is not at all the problem. What it is is an inefficient, time consuming pain in the *** just to learn how to read and write, something pretty much everybody else simplified a long time ago. Even the Chinese are consistent with their written language making it not so bad even if they use pictograms too.

When I was in elementary school, adult encyclopedias were completely accessible to me, by myself, in the corner with a dictionary close by. Not for Japanese kids and that stifles learning.

There is a boatload the Japanese can and should learn from outsiders. And that one also works in reverse. But we are talking about a people who seem to have not even learned the value of zero yet. When they make kids books, they use spaces but use them improperly because they don't disjoin articles from other words. They don't use or seem to have a proper kanji for zero, and as a fix, inserting the kanji for ten in numbering. They have not revalued the yen leading to huge numbers even for fairly regular purchases. Their counting system ignores the commas in numbers they use everyday and so every single one of them expresses confusion with these big numbers they are forced to use so much. In short, Japan needs few hard kicks in the *** from the boot of reform to the point its not even funny anymore. Kanji is just the biggest example.

Hell, I have seen English speakers not be able to read the spellings of some names, but at least they could offer a close guess. Here in Japan I have seen so very, very many people, especially TEACHERS who should be the least confused, have no clue how to read a person's name, names being at the very CORE of human communication.

And now, even old people can't remember how to write kanji because of smart phones. This dinosaur should have died long ago.
My intended point was that the more you study a language system, the more you understand the reasoning behind it. It may not always be the most logical outcome, but the cause and effect becomes clearer. The deeper understanding breeds a deeper respect for the language, and piques a greater interest in studying it.

I recently gave a listen to Mark Forsyth's Etymologicon, which was a delightful romp through the history of English vocabulary, and served as a reminder to just how unaware we are of the convoluted history of English as we use it. Despite its seemingly simple writing system, English is a complex mishmash of influences that is sometimes reflected in its spelling, which is an absolute nightmare for EFL students. But how strong is the academic movement to establish "textspeak" (which is arguably simpler) as the new standard spelling convention, for the sake of those EFL students? As the world's de facto lingua franca, it seems that English would be more compelled than Japanese to give itself a simpler and more standardized spelling structure, like that of Spanish or French.

When you first encounter a kanji you don't know, you can either get discouraged by it or get excited to learn a new thing. I think there's value in fostering the latter mindset, and not completely rearranging someone else's language just to make it feel more accessible. It seems to me that the majority of people that are arguing for abolishing kanji have studied just enough to realize that kanji literacy doesn't come easy, but not enough to appreciate it beyond their frustration.

I believe that the changes to a language need to be made to first serve the native speakers of that language and solve their communication problems, so I agree about the names of people and places, which frequently pose problems for native speakers. But abolishing kanji altogether seems a bit like cutting out your liver to cure your alcoholism.
 
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...please convince the U.S. to go metric.
Not going to happen. You'd have more productive use of your time trying to convert everyone else away from metric. Not going to argue which is "better" or "worse". We're just stubborn as heck over here, for better or for worse. We'll keep our inches, feet, furlongs, fortnights, pounds and I'm sure there's measurements in toes in there somewhere.
 
Not going to happen. You'd have more productive use of your time trying to convert everyone else away from metric. Not going to argue which is "better" or "worse". We're just stubborn as heck over here, for better or for worse. We'll keep our inches, feet, furlongs, fortnights, pounds and I'm sure there's measurements in toes in there somewhere.
As same as we will keep on using the Japanese writing system. That's johnnyG-san's point.:emoji_wink:
 
Short answer: they don't have enough phonemes.

This contributes to two things: the more contextual nature of their spoken language, and why not using kanji anymore would be a huge communicative loss for written communication. There are so many words in Japanese that are phonetically the same but written differently that it's just too hard.

This ends up in a large gap between the form of oral and written communication. Note that English has this gap too (e.g. "their, they're, there", "duck, duck" "park, park"), it's just not as big.

It's an interesting question why Japanese ended up with such a small phonetic range. They absorbed Chinese words, but did so without absorbing their tonal system, and also with keeping local pronunciations.

My guess is it's something related to their consensus-seeking, non-assertive culture. To calque new words and use new pronunciations, you need more baseline assertiveness. However absorbing foreign words as-is doesn't: you just take a copy of something externally produced, so there's little room for disagreement about it (e.g. kanji). Katakana probably ended up as a twisted attempt to somehow combine those two contradictory processes (taking words supposedly as-is, but without sounding different to other people by using new phonemes).

Either way, it's not going away, and will just get worse as they do the same thing with languages like English (absorbing the words without absorbing the pronunciation).

They'd have fared much better if they'd had a calque institute, like Iceland and France, to absorb foreign words into local equivalents, or at the very least stopped absorbing foreign words they already have a word for (e.g. "glider").

You generally lead some form of strong leader (like Ataturk in Turkey) to conduct language reform though, so it's not going to improve anytime soon.
 
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It's an interesting question why Japanese ended up with such a small phonetic range. They absorbed Chinese words, but did so without absorbing their tonal system, and also with keeping local pronunciations.
They probably didn't have much exposure to spoken Chinese. When people brought back texts, scrolls or whatever back from China they didn't come with the audio books version.

Katakana probably ended up as a twisted attempt to somehow combine those two contradictory processes (taking words supposedly as-is, but without sounding different to other people by using new phonemes).
Katakana began as a phonetic shorthand. So in that sense it makes perfect sense that they would use it for foreign words as well. Even from the beginning they were using it for foreign words i.e. Chinese.

They'd have fared much better if they'd had a calque institute, like Iceland and France, to absorb foreign words into local equivalents, or at the very least stopped absorbing foreign words they already have a word for (e.g. "glider").
I'm glad that didn't happen. 外来語 is one of the easiest things about the language if you're an English speaker which is where most those words come from. Just knowing katakana you can read many important words such as ビール、スーパードライ、ウィスキー、ヘネシー、バーボンロック、カシスソーダ、コカコーラ、グレイグース、ジントニック、ウーロンハイ、レモンサワーなど
 
It's an interesting question why Japanese ended up with such a small phonetic range. They absorbed Chinese words, but did so without absorbing their tonal system, and also with keeping local pronunciations.

My guess is it's something related to their consensus-seeking, non-assertive culture.

But the Japanese phonology did, in fact, expand, likely influenced by the incorporation of Chinese loan words. I'm referring to the addition of sound features such as gemination (the sokuon), the moraic nasal (ん), and palatalization (the yōon).

Do you have a patronizing theory which explains these changes?
 
Old Japanese also had the phonemes /ï/, /ë/, and /ö/, 8 vowels, not 5.
ye, wi and we were also lost, more recently. Meanwhile, the list of regular-use kanji keeps growing.
 
Old Japanese also had the phonemes /ï/, /ë/, and /ö/, 8 vowels, not 5.
ye, wi and we were also lost, more recently. Meanwhile, the list of regular-use kanji keeps growing.

Exactly the kinds of things I would expect from a consensus-seeking, non-assertive culture. Typical.
 
HonSolo, you do realize that English vocabulary is constantly growing too, right?

But really, if you want an intelligently designed language, maybe you should stick to Esperanto. Or maybe Klingon. Real-life languages that evolve over time always have inconsistencies, oddities, and difficult nuances. Japanese is no different, and neither is English, French, Latin, Chinese, or Vietnamese. That's why you get over it and learn the language as it is, because that's how its speakers use it and there's nothing you can do about it.
 
This is the main thing for me. Japanese written phonetics don't carry tone, which I cannot say for certain differentiates what would be similar in kana in speech, but it has been addressed before. I would be open to receiving new info.

It's such a pain to try and sift through all the possible translations of a word written in kana in a kana-exclusive environment (specifically hiragana). Of course it relies on context much of the time, but this was one of the extremely irritating things that I struggled with a year or more back (weirdly enough it's easier to differentiate meaning in speech?). It was a beginner's mistake and bad parsing. And also concerning beginner's mistakes would be assuming a particle to be part of the word it modifies. With the way kana is written, the spacing can be confusing to someone who is new to reading in that environment. It's actually easier in roumaji. People are more likely to write "anata no inu" than "anatanoinu" even though in hiragana, the second is what seems to be more normal. You might also see the equivalent of "anatano inu", but I'm not sure. Basing this off memory.

While kanji can be a rough experience, we're much better off with them.

EDIT: Even though you don't seem enthusiastic in general to learn Japanese, you might like to try reading things with furigana to see how you can use kanji in the way it's used phonetically. Reading kanji can be tricky too!
This piece is perhaps the best considered of all in this thread. Unfortunately it seems that none of the contributors are qualified linguists. Would you ask a non-architect to discuss buildings? Some people might, but the opinions would be those of amateurs, as here. Nobody seems to consider that (1 ) conversation works perfectly well in Japanese, and even a university professor's lectures can be understood by his students (I was one for 25 years). (2) Has anyone done a survey of the front page of major Japanese newspapers? I have, and for the Asahi and Nikkei, there was only one case on the whole page when kanji was necessary to determine meaning.

Kana alone would not be a solution – although the Genji Monogatari was of course written entirely in hiragana.

No-one makes the point that kana cannot represent all the sounds of standard spoken Japanese. If you know Japanese, you will know what I mean: there are cases when a word ends in a consonant, and when there are geminate consonants within a word. So the alphabet is the only solution. I – like all the other career diplomats of a certain number of countries in Tokyo – learned conversational Japanese entirely with alphabetic texts (the Jorden-Chaplin set; I have used these texts myself in teaching the language at university level).

There are not nearly as many homophones as many contributors seem to think. When we are considering kanji compounds, there are very often only two or three homophones – if that many. The obvious solution where there is confusion is to use variations in spelling as is done in English (way/weigh). Of course word boundaries would need to be respected, and punctuation would be important. No-one seems to realise that there is no distinction between upper and lowercase in Japanese kana-majiri. The ability to use capitals in alphabetic Japanese would be an advantage. This is still at an experimental stage, but readers might recall Ishikawa Takuboku's Rômaji Nikki.

Some readers make the point that Vietnamese uses the alphabet quite successfully, and that Korean uses phonetic script. These examples should not be forgotten--the languages concerned being much more dependent on kanji than Japanese.

Last but not least, a switch to the alphabet would solve the enormous problem of the approx 60,000 mostly English words badly distorted by representation in katakana. The result might hopefully be the ability to pronounce English properly.

(PhD, Linguistics, Tokyo)
 
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Well, as you might already know, this subject has been discussed in Japan for a long time (250 years or so). (新聞の紙面チェックされるくらいですから日本語のウィキペディアでも大丈夫ですよね?)


The following is a well-known example. It's obvious which is easier and faster to read and recognize the meaning.

Uraniwa ni wa niwa niwa ni wa niwa niwatori ga iru.
うらにわにはにわにわにはにわにわとりがいる。
裏庭には二羽庭には二羽鶏がいる。

although the Genji Monogatari was of course written entirely in hiragana.
I don't know where you got it from, but 源氏物語 was written in 漢字仮名交じり文. The following picture is the first page of the Volume 11 花散里 in 定家本. The first column of the page is ひとしれぬ御心つからの物おもはしさはいつと (Hentaigana are changed to hiragana).

Genji_Hnachiru_Teika.png
 
This piece is perhaps the best considered of all in this thread. Unfortunately it seems that none of the contributors are qualified linguists. Would you ask a non-architect to discuss buildings? Some people might, but the opinions would be those of amateurs, as here.

Are you aware that forums are typically run and populated by volunteers and other amateurs? Some of us have substantial experience with Japan and Japanese, and an interest in using that experience to help others. We do, in fact, discuss buildings, also tax, law, economics, history, etc., all from our own perspectives and from our experience. It is an exceedingly common thing on forums. I am surprised that you should take issue with this. Having finished with that throat-clearing, I too have to take exception to a couple of points you try to make

No-one makes the point that kana cannot represent all the sounds of standard spoken Japanese. If you know Japanese, you will know what I mean: there are cases when a word ends in a consonant,

I do know Japanese, and I don't know what you are talking about. The only possible consonant-ending for a Japanese word is ん, unless you are speaking about some archaic form of specialized speech. In any event, I would like to hear more about Japanese sounds that cannot be expressed in kana.

I am also curious about the comment that Vietnamese and Korean being much more dependent on kanji than Japanese. It would seem to be quite the contrary since those two language do not, in fact, rely on kanji, while Japanese, on the other hand, still does.

There are not nearly as many homophones as many contributors seem to think. When we are considering kanji compounds, there are very often only two or three homophones – if that many. The obvious solution where there is confusion is to use variations in spelling as is done in English (way/weigh).

This too seems to be a bold statement in want of some factual evidence. This idea that there are not many homophones in Japanese is simply ridiculous. The idea that "only two or three" homophones per word wouldn't pose any problem for a phonetic-based writing system is also ridiculous. And the idea that any homophones could be remedied by a spelling variation when the very spelling system doesn't allow for variation, makes the whole section an absurdity.

Has anyone done a survey of the front page of major Japanese newspapers? I have, and for the Asahi and Nikkei, there was only one case on the whole page when kanji was necessary to determine meaning
This too demands a bit of interrogation. Of course a literate person can likely determine meaning most of the time, with a bit of effort, if a story is converted to a phonetic syllabary only. It does not mean it can be easily, rapidly, or universally understood, nor does it mean the readers would embrace the change. An English newspaper could, by and large, be understood if you struck the word "the" from all stories. It doesn't make it a good idea. (And I'm slightly curious about this survey you did...is it a genuine, peer-reviewed study, or just a random sample you took upon yourself).

Apologies for the hard pushback, but you seemed to have joined us looking for an argument, so I feel somewhat obliged to give you one.
 
...
No-one makes the point that kana cannot represent all the sounds of standard spoken Japanese. If you know Japanese, you will know what I mean: there are cases when a word ends in a consonant, and when there are geminate consonants within a word. So the alphabet is the only solution. I – like all the other career diplomats of a certain number of countries in Tokyo – learned conversational Japanese entirely with alphabetic texts (the Jorden-Chaplin set; I have used these texts myself in teaching the language at university level).
...
Could you please elaborate on what you mean by consonant-final words? I could take a guess but I'd like to know what you're talking about before I address this point.

...
There are not nearly as many homophones as many contributors seem to think. When we are considering kanji compounds, there are very often only two or three homophones – if that many. The obvious solution where there is confusion is to use variations in spelling as is done in English (way/weigh). Of course word boundaries would need to be respected, and punctuation would be important. No-one seems to realise that there is no distinction between upper and lowercase in Japanese kana-majiri. The ability to use capitals in alphabetic Japanese would be an advantage. This is still at an experimental stage, but readers might recall Ishikawa Takuboku's Rômaji Nikki.
...
Am I reading this correctly? Your solution to make homophones distinctive is to throw out not only kanji, but kana as well, switch everything to Romaji and then... write words differently so they aren't actually phonetically spelled at all, like we do in English? I find it surprising that you're a linguist and would suggest that English is anything but a hot mess whose predominance in the world is solely the result of colonialism. That you would suggest using English spelling as a new standard for Japanese phonetics is downright appalling.

I find all this wildly eurocentric; how is your solution supposed to make Japanese easier to read for anyone who isn't already familiar with English? Using your own example, how would you explain how and why we spell "way" and "weigh" as we do?
 
Try googling: S. MacObicin linguistics and you get only one hit--this post here. This is almost a googlewhack, which is to find a search query that returns only one result. (And I say "almost", since a googlewhack is supposed to be two words found in a dictionary, so a proper name as one of the words doesn't really count.)

Screen Shot 2021-04-17 at 5.36.02.png



Don't take that poster seriously. They are a troll (which is a synonym for 'internet a$$hole').
 
Try googling: S. MacObicin linguistics and you get only one hit--this post here. This is almost a googlewhack, which is to find a search query that returns only one result. (And I say "almost", since a googlewhack is supposed to be two words found in a dictionary, so a proper name as one of the words doesn't really count.)
...

Don't take that poster seriously. They are a troll (which is a synonym for 'internet a$$hole').
Never send a (potentially fake) linguist to do a(n amateur) phonologist's job
 
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Maybe he's a smart linguist? I don't use my real name on most forums either. Although I do use this one quite a bit so I'll definitely get more hits than that.
 
When you're a little too eager to talk up your accreditation
 

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