[Paleopsych] NYT: Writing as a Block for Asians
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Sun Oct 9 00:59:29 UTC 2005
Writing as a Block for Asians
By EMILY EAKIN
Western theories about Chinese writing have often been tainted by
ignorance and prejudice, oscillating between wide-eyed veneration and
Though he could not read Chinese, Leibniz, for example, held it in
high repute, dreaming of a universal script intelligible to speakers
of all languages modeled on Chinese characters. By contrast, Hegel
dismissed Chinese "hieroglyphics" as primitive. More recently, Ezra
Pound, a famous admirer and translator of Chinese poetry, helped
spread the still-popular misconception that Chinese characters are
simply "ideograms": visual symbols of things and ideas.
Western specialists are better informed today. They now recognize that
the writing systems of East Asia, including Chinese, Japanese and
Korean, are "syllabaries," in which each character corresponds to a
syllable of sound, and in Chinese, at least, a basic unit of meaning
(called a morpheme). By contrast, alphabetic systems rely on letters
that by themselves are pure abstractions: a single letter represents
neither a syllable of sound nor a morpheme. While alphabets tend to be
small, syllabaries can be quite large: there are more than 50,000
Chinese characters, though most people can get by with knowing about
But a better understanding of Asian writing systems has not stopped
Western experts from making grand claims about their virtues and
limitations. The latest scholar to venture into such politically
sensitive territory is William C. Hannas, a linguist who speaks 12
languages and works as a senior officer at the Foreign Broadcast
Information Service, a federal agency in Washington. In a polemical
new book, "The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs
Creativity" (University of Pennsylvania Press), Mr. Hannas blames the
writing systems of China, Japan and Korea for what he says is East
Asia's failure to make significant scientific and technological
breakthroughs compared to Western nations.
Mr. Hannas's logic goes like this: because East Asian writing systems
lack the abstract features of alphabets, they hamper the kind of
analytical and abstract thought necessary for scientific creativity.
The solution he proposes, switching to an alphabet, is hardly novel.
It is an idea that has long been debated in countries like China,
where using a computer keyboard can be a daunting task and people
increasingly fall back on Pinyin, the Romanized Chinese script, for
data entry. And few doubt Mr. Hannas's linguistic qualifications. "I
don't think there's a single other person on the globe who knows all
the relevant languages as well as Bill Hannas," said Victor H. Mair, a
professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of
Pennsylvania who taught Mr. Hannas in graduate school and is the
general editor for the Pennsylvania Press series in which his book
Mr. Hannas insists that he is not criticizing Asians. "I worry that
people will misunderstand my claim that Asians are less creative in
basic science to mean that Asians are lacking in intellect," he said.
"Nothing could be further from the truth."
Even so, some critics flatly reject the notion that Asia has a
creativity deficit and say his argument smacks of cultural
condescension. "It's not flattering," said Jerome Packard, a professor
of Chinese linguistics at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign. "Bill may be right, but I tend not to want to make
those statements. They sound demeaning."
To make his case, Mr. Hannas draws on a raft of data about Asian
scientific research practices, technology piracy and graduate study
abroad, all intended to show that Asians are brilliant imitators but
poor innovators, adept at borrowing and improving on Western science
but not so skilled at making advances themselves. He suggests that the
"thousands of Western technical terms in East Asian languages" are
proof of the "one-sided nature of the East-West science relationship."
He argues that Asian immigrants to the West, who work in an alphabetic
system, do innovative work. And he cites a Japanese Nobel laureate in
medicine, Susumu Tonegawa, who said, "It is very clear that Japan is
making money by taking and applying the fruits of science that the
West creates at great expense."
Yet Nathan Sivin, a professor of Chinese culture and the history of
science at the University of Pennsylvania, said he was not impressed.
"That's nonsense," he said. "One Japanese Nobel Prize in the last 10
years is fantastic compared to Portugal or Norway."
Most of the resistance to Mr. Hannas's argument, however, comes from
linguists who say he is trying to revive a discredited theory about
the connection between language and thought. The idea that the
language you speak affects how you think dates back at least to
Wittgenstein. But it was most famously associated with two
20th-century American linguists, Edward Sapir and his student,
Benjamin Lee Whorf. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, developed
in the 1930's, the mental categories by which people perceive the
world are determined by their language, so that people who speak
different languages can be expected to think differently.
As evidence, Sapir and Whorf cited variations between English and
several Native American languages, claiming, for example, that the
Hopi Indians have no concept of time and, famously, that Eskimos have
more than half a dozen words for snow.
Versions of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were embraced by a number of
scholars. In the 1960's, Marshall McLuhan argued that modern
technologies like television were causing fundamental changes in the
human psyche. And in a 1981 book, "The Linguistic Shaping of Thought:
A Study in the Impact of Language on Thinking in China and the West,"
Alfred H. Bloom, a linguist who is now the president of Swarthmore
College, argued that the lack of a subjunctive tense in Chinese made
it extremely difficult for native speakers to explore "counterfactual"
conceits (for example: if Gisele were fat, she wouldn't be a
When Mr. Bloom tested Chinese and American students on a series of
counterfactuals, he found that the Chinese students were typically
unable to distinguish between events that really happened and false
hypotheticals. The implication, Mr. Bloom argued, is that Chinese is
more concrete than English, and, as a consequence, Chinese speakers
have more trouble with abstract thought than Americans.
But in recent years, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has fallen out of
favor as scholars have come under the sway of new approaches stressing
the universal aspects of language and cognition. In his 1994 book,
"The Language Instinct," Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at
M.I.T., points out that Mr. Whorf never studied the tribes he wrote
about and got much about Hopi and Eskimo languages wrong. "Contrary to
popular belief," Mr. Pinker writes, "the Eskimos do not have more
words for snow than do speakers of English." As for Mr. Bloom's work,
Mr. Pinker cites three cognitive psychologists who found that his
tests contained serious flaws.
Methodological problems very likely mar Mr. Hannas's book as well, Mr.
Pinker said in a telephone interview. Unless one studied all the
cultures that use syllabaries, he said, it would be impossible to show
a connection between the writing system and a psychological phenomenon
like creativity. Moreover, argues J. Marshall Unger, a professor of
Japanese at Ohio State University, how can you be sure writing and not
some other cultural feature is responsible? As Mr. Unger put it, "Why
should learning a particular writing system have a greater impact on
how people think than whether they use telephones?"
Mr. Hannas's book aside, there are other signs that cultural
explanations for variations in thinking patterns may be making a
comeback. In a much-debated new book, "The Geography of Thought: How
Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why," (Free Press),
Richard E. Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan,
argues that the way Asians and Westerners perceive the world is hardly
the same. Mr. Nisbett ascribes these differences to multiple factors,
including education, social philosophies and the environment. (He
chalks up the "relatively slight accomplishments of Japanese science"
to the "Confucian respect for elders that funnels support to mediocre
older scientists instead of more talented younger ones" and a tendency
to avoid debate.)
But he takes pains to say that one culture's mode of perceiving is no
better than another: "The cognitive orientations and skills of East
Asians and people of European cultures are sufficiently different that
it seems highly likely that they would complement and enrich one
another in any given setting."
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