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The Cultural Identity Within Asian Writing Systems

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Essay title: The Cultural Identity Within Asian Writing Systems

The Cultural Identity Within Asian Writing Systems

The style of Asian writing seems to be completely different from that of the western writing systems. For starters, many western languages are phonetic: words are spelled out with symbols that represent sounds. The way that a word looks has nothing to do with the meaning of the word. On the other hand, the most recognized form of Asian writing, Chinese characters, are completely pictographic. A single character is correlated to one sound or meaning. To convey more complicated meanings, pictographs are either combined into new pictographs, or multiple characters are simply used in succession. The meaning of words is depicted through pictographs, but for the most part, there is no information about their pronunciations. Asian and western languages appear so different because they had evolved in isolation from each other for hundreds of years. However, the evolution of each group of languages is similar. Whether Asian or western, languages borrow from each other and evolve together when they are in close quarters.

Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are perfect examples of languages that have evolved together because they are spoken in countries that are so close together. Their cultures are also arguably similar when compared to western cultures. All three have used Chinese characters exclusively as their writing system for a period of time and parts of the Korean and Japanese vocabularies are actually derived from Chinese. Up until a few hundred years ago, the three written languages have developed quite closely. But in the present day, the three systems appear to have taken very different evolutionary paths. The Korean language has developed a phonetic alphabet system for use in addition to Chinese characters, the Japanese language now utilizes two phonetic systems as well as Chinese characters, and Chinese language is still completely written in Chinese characters. The obvious reason for the divergence of these three languages seems to be completely out of necessity: no matter how similar the spoken languages are, the three languages still are in fact, three different languages belonging to three different countries that have spoken languages that have evolved three different ways. However, an underlying issue of national pride and identity may be partially responsible for the differences as well. Cultures often identify strongly with their languages, and the Japanese and Koreans may have been simply searching for a sense of cultural identity while the Chinese are proud of their writing system. Cultural identity may not be the primary reason that the languages have evolved differently, but it definitely is a factor.

The spoken language for each culture had also been in place long before any written language had been developed. To the outside listener, the three spoken languages may seem similar at first sight, but a speaker of one of the languages will agree that Chinese is completely different from Korean and Japanese. There is good reason for this too, as Chinese belongs to a family of languages known as the Sino-Tibetan family. Sino-Tibetan languages are all monosyllabic and tonal. This means that every spoken word only consists of a single syllable: more complex words are created by stringing together multiple words. In addition, being a tonal language means that changing the tone of a word changes its meaning completely. The way that Chinese is tonal is different from the notion of English being a tonal language because while tones sometimes change the connotation of sentences in English, the meaning of each word is changed in Chinese. Mandarin Chinese has four tones: high, low, rising, and falling, but other dialects of Chinese have varying numbers of tones. Japanese and Korean on the other hand, are theorized to be Altaic languages, which the same category that Turkish falls into. The language was brought to them by nomadic horsemen who lived in the Altai Mountains of central Asia (Katsiavriades). In fact, parts of northern China spoke Altaic languages at one point, but the language reforms put forth by the first emperor of China, Shi Huangdi, standardized the language all across China (Noll). Altaic languages are polysyllabic and non-tonal, meaning that a word can be composed of many different syllables, changing the pitch of a word does not change its meaning. Sino-Tibetan languages embody exactly the opposite traits (Katsiavriades).

The Chinese script was the first writing system to emerge from that area. Records of its usage date to as early as the eighteenth century BC, and the language had been standardized in the third century BC during language reforms. The oldest records involve a style of writing called the oracle bone script, and was used during ancient Chinese rituals. The earliest Chinese characters were just

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