Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: September, 2014

On Romanization (2)

 Romanization was a key issue from the start for Western linguists working in Asia, but it eventually became a key issue for the Asians themselves.

The Chinese thought very seriously about it. Following the Revolution, many Communists in particular thought that the only way to spread universal literacy among the Chinese people was to Romanize the language. This point of view continued to make headway on into the 1950s; yet eventually it was decided to keep the old writing system but simplify it. And that was what the Chinese did, as we know.

Romanization has always been associated with revolutions. The outstanding example nearer the Western world was Turkey, where the revolutionary leader Kemal Atatürk gave up the Arabic writing system for Turkish and romanized the writing of the language in 1928. Here was a conscious decision to turn away from the Middle Eastern world and turn towards Europe instead. Of course, grand gestures do not in themselves change deep cultural patterns. Whether Turkey has ever succeeded in becoming a European country rather than a Middle Eastern one is a moot point.

Meanwhile, doing without romanization has turned out to be the right decision for China. Literacy with the simplified character set has worked. Yet the debate is not entirely over. Some think that traditional Chinese writing should be abandoned.

Romanization still seems a very alien and un-Chinese step to take. And yet Communists must have said to themselves: if we can adopt our ideology from Marx and Lenin, who were Westerners, surely we can adopt the Western alphabet too. They did not feel a resistance to things Western as being non-Chinese, since the Communist movement was of European origin anyway.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. By simplifying their characters, the Chinese have cut themselves off from the Taiwanese and the overseas Chinese – as well of course as the Japanese and the Koreans (but they go their own way anyway). These others are slow to follow, but may eventually do so for practical reasons, if they can overcome their bias against Beijing.

I for one am glad the Chinese have stuck to their characters, even if taking steps to simplify them to some extent. If they had given them up, the other Asians would eventually have followed suit, and one of the great intellectual achievements of mankind would have been lost, or at least become obsolete. And that would indeed have been a great impoverishment.


On Romanization (1)

In the late 18th century, Sir William Jones went to India and discovered Sanskrit. He realized that the language was related to the ancient and modern languages of Europe. This was the beginning of Indo-European linguistics. It opened a new phase of European contact with the civilisations of Asia – at last there was a bridge between the two continents.

Jones went on to write his “Dissertation on the Orthography of Asiatick words in Roman letters” in 1794. If Europeans were going to study the sacred, learned and literary books of the East, they were going to have to find a reliable way of transcribing words, because these languages used other writing systems.

Jones must have been looking at Sanskrit works on phonetics like Panini. He realised that there were two approaches to transcription: one that gives the surface pronunciation, and one that incorporates the etymology and the morphology that bind word forms together. Today we would say: a phonetic and a phonemic transcription. Jones was the first to see this and state it clearly.

After Jones, Romanization became a key tool for studying the Asian world, and it fed back to European linguistics in the form of more and more sophisticated phonetic transcription.

Then the question also arose: would Romanization be a good idea for the languages of the East? Should they adopt the Roman alphabet? A few Asian languages made the leap under European colonial domination, like Vietnamese. The question of Romanization as part of modernisation also arose for the Chinese, and even for the Japanese, but in the end they never went that far. Pinyin Romanization remains as a useful auxiliary tool which nevertheless has not replaced Chinese characters.

Romanization was the major issue for European linguists in contact with Asia, because they framed all problems from their own Western perspective. When they proposed sweeping Romanization, Europeans were under the assumption that alphabetic writing as in the Roman alphabet was the pinnacle of all possible writing systems. It did not occur to them that it was no accident that other civilisations had their own writing systems and stuck to them because they happened to be the best way of writing those languages.

Jobs for the next generation (2)

Last week I echoed Vancouver journalist Chuck Chiang’s complaint that Asian parents in Canada want their young to go to university, not into the trades. They want doctors and lawyers. But if we end up with a glut of young doctors and lawyers, how are they all going to get jobs? And in the meantime, who’s going to repair the washing machine?

It’s not just Asian parents who want their offspring to go to university, as I commented; it is part of a general attitude in the host society. There is another side to this, though. Young people themselves in North America want university education and think they have a right to it. But they want it for a different reason from their parents.

They want to be free for a while. They want extended adolescence. And in a way, they’re right. Leaving high school at eighteen or so, you tend not to know what you really want, or even who you are. A degree course at university is a great time, a time when you can think and discuss with other people about all kinds of things. You listen, and start to think for yourself. The informal learning is as important as the formal. That is what universities are or should be: a place where young people can hang out and explore their options – and the options of society as a whole.

Society has shown itself willing to facilitate this desire by constantly adding to the number of universities, usually by giving existing local colleges degree-granting powers. The thing is: can we really afford this? And are we doing the young people any favours by putting off the need to find a job for a few years?

In Switzerland, where I live, most young people are not concerned with the dream of university. They do an apprenticeship, get a job, and that’s it. There are apprenticeships for everything under the sun. They lead to good qualifications and a good start in the working world. Of course, these young people are missing out on something. They will never have that space of freedom in which they learn to think for themselves. Maybe one day they will regret it. But probably not. Because you never miss what you don’t know about.

Jobs for the next generation

Journalist Chuck Chiang, writing in the Vancouver Sun, has echoed Canadian Employment minister Jason Kenney’s recent appeal to immigrant parents there to let their children go into the trades.

The background to this story is that provinces like British Columbia are trying to make up in a hurry for the shortfall they have in skilled and technical trades. They need these trades to support industry, whereas there are more universities than ever, churning out graduates who find it hard to get a job.

Chiang writes that Asian parents (like his own) want their youngsters to go to university because of the social status involved. Quite true. But when he says “that was Asia, this is Canada”, he is going a bit too far. In fact, these parents have only adopted the attitude prevalent throughout the English-speaking world that trades – occupations where you may be skilled, but you probably get your hands dirty – are not suitable occupations for the respectable middle classes. It comes from the old idea in England of the “gentleman” who didn’t do anything so prosaic as to work for a living, and certainly had no manual skills.

North America is more commercial and workmanlike and less class-ridden than England, but the prejudice against trades persists. The middle classes have “white-collar” jobs. “Blue-collar” jobs are for the working class. Joining the middle class requires working at a white collar job – and sending your youngsters to university.

How did places in North America get by without skilled workmen all these years? The answer is simple: it imported them. In B.C., for example, just about all the skilled tradesmen that you dealt with were imported, often from the German-speaking world.

Now the interesting thing is that the German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) have never had the idea of the cultivated, amateurish gentleman like in England. To be sure, they produced very literate types of people, but also very technical types. These latter were needed for German industry. The educational system was divided up to meet all these needs. Technical colleges were built up alongside traditional universities and were second to none. Most importantly, there was the system of apprenticeship.

Except for those going to Gymnasium (the academic stream of secondary school, usually lasting till the age of 20), young people have been directed early on into apprenticeships for trade and technical occupations. The apprenticeship gets them into the world of work in a supervised mode. They learn not only how to do the job but also how to function in the world of work. The result is a steady supply of skilled technicians for industry and indeed for all the machinery on which everyday life now depends. Another result is low youth unemployment in places like Switzerland, where I live. Here you get a sense that society really believes in full employment, and doesn’t just shrug its shoulders if young people find it hard to get a job.