Sunday, January 4, 2009

Simplified Characters: Introduction

(Font issue: If you want to get the same look and feel on the blog as in the pdf-files you will have to buy and install the very nice font Attic from Three Island Press. It’s a pretty “Harry Potter font” and will cost you $US49. Yes, fonts are still way too expensive! More people would buy if each font was between $US 15-20. Once upon a time I could afford to buy fonts like this, but not today.)

There will be some small subsections/labels here over time when this blog gets up to full speed next week or so. One will be about the process of SIMPLIFICATION of Characters. Right now I will spare you the historical fact (mostly because I’m too lazy/busy to look them up).

If we let it be sufficient to say that Chinese Characters has gone through (at least) two parallel simplification processes: One in China and one in Japan. Sometimes this has resulted in the same result or at least very similar results. Below is one example where the process has been close but not really hit the mark:

To the left we have the traditional character for what we can simplify to “reality”, shi2. Next is the simplified character in use in China today and finally the Japanese version (jitsu). To complicate the matter a bit, the traditional character is still in use in Japan, but is A Very Rare Character, here merely telling that I don’t know the frequency listing for this character apart from being below 2500 in EDICT.

Below is what will be called An Ugly Simplification (Made in China). In this case someone deemed it necessary to reduce the already simple character for “wagon/car” to the monstrosity to the right. Not only did it not save more than three strokes, but it is also more difficult to write – and get it good! – than the original. I have gotten used to simplified character but the second stroke – the almost, but not entirely 90 degrees ‘hook’ just don’t fit into the already existing hanzi aesthetics.

As if it wasn’t bad enough with the full character, it’s even worse where it appears in composite character as a component:

Yes, the simplified characters are admittedly faster to write, but what a world of difference in Look and Feel!!! ”UGLY” is perhaps too strong a word, but artificial is what I consider this particular simplification.

Below is hat I consider as an entirely successful simplification where the general look and feel of the character has been saved despite a really dramatic simplification: lovely (Heisig) or beautiful.

Once again the character to the left is identical in traditional Chinese and Japanese. The bottom part of the full character above is the “ka” in the Japanese word for baka (na) i.e. stupid:

Why horse (left) + deer became stupid in Japan is something I really have no clue about. In Chinese it merely signifies a particular type of deer, as far as I’ve been able to tell.

According to the etymology sources the character is a pictogram of the “antlers of the deer”. So what is an antler? According to Cambridge it is “a horn with branch-like parts which grows on the head of a usually male deer”. is nothing but the antlers, then. I think it’s kind of cute that the two strokes in the traditional character also have been simplified down to one stroke. A dramatic simplification well done. Neat.

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