[This is a guest post by Paul Shore.]
The 2022 book Kingdom of Characters by Yale professor Jing Tsu is currently #51,777 in Amazon's sales ranking. (The label "Best Seller" on the Amazon search-results listing for it incorporates the amusing mouseover qualification "in [the subject of] Unicode Encoding Standard".) I haven't read the book yet: the Arlington, Virginia library system's four copies have a wait list, and so I have a used copy coming to me in the mail. What I have experienced, though, is a fifty-minute National Public Radio program from their podcast / broadcast series Throughline, entitled "The Characters That Built China", that's a partial summary of the material in the book, a summary that was made with major cooperation from Jing Tsu herself, with numerous recorded remarks by her alternating with remarks by the two hosts: https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510333/throughline (scroll down to the May 26th episode). Based on what's conveyed in this podcast / broadcast episode, I think many people on Language Log and elsewhere who care about fostering a proper understanding of human language among the general public might agree that that ranking of 51,777 is still several million too high. But while the influence of the book's ill-informed, misleading statements about language was until a few days ago mostly confined to those individuals who'd taken the trouble to get hold of a copy of the book or had taken the trouble to listen to the Throughline episode as a podcast (it was presumably released as such on its official date of May 26th), with the recent broadcasting of the episode on NPR proper those nocive ideas have now been splashed out over the national airwaves. And since NPR listeners typically have their ears "open like a greedy shark, to catch the tunings of a voice [supposedly] divine" (Keats), this program seems likely to inflict an unusually high amount of damage on public knowledge of linguistics.
Throughline specializes in tracing the historical roots of events and situations of current concern. It's produced by its two hosts, Mr. Ramtin Arablouei and Ms. Rund Abdelfatah, plus a staff apparently numbering almost a dozen. Mr. Arablouei, who's Iranian-American (though he speaks with what sounds like an African-American accent, which I mention just to forestall confusion on the part of readers who might end up listening to the podcast/broadcast), holds a B.A. in Psychology and History from St. Mary's College of Maryland, a smallish liberal-arts college that offers little in the way of linguistics curriculum (though it has, interestingly, a language faculty member named Jingqi Fu who's recently worked on documenting the Lemo dialect of the Bai language of Yunnan province). Ms. Abdelfatah, who's Palestinian-American, holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Spanish from Princeton, though she apparently never thought to incorporate any learning about linguistics into her study of either of those subjects. Actually, on the evidence of this episode "The Characters That Built China", it'd seem that not a single member of the show's staff, or Jing Tsu herself, has ever heard so much as the first lecture of a Linguistics 101 course, the lecture in which it's explained that writing systems are not language and that confusing the two has historically been almost lethal to rational thinking about linguistics. The two hosts do seem, however, to have one dominating NPR-style notion about language in their heads, namely the idea that if you or your parents or grandparents have a relatively recent immigrant background, then you should pronounce your own name with absolute native-language-phonology authenticity, no matter how elusive to the ears of your listenership that pronunciation might be (listen to the hosts' name pronunciations at the 47:43 mark); but that on the other hand, that respect should not be extended to the names and words of any other language, except possibly Spanish. It follows that Mr. Arablouei and Ms. Abdelfatah, who'd probably dismiss as a racist anyone who questioned the wisdom of their native-language-phonology name pronunciations, make no serious effort to pronounce the Chinese names and words in the episode accurately, gleefully failing to render even an acceptable English-like approximation of many of the vowels and consonants, and of course ignoring the tones. Ms. Abdelfatah even says "Beiʒing"!
Here, in rough order of appearance in the episode, are some of the nuggets of ostensible wisdom that listeners to the episode are presented with, together with some square-bracketed, italicized commentary of mine (those nuggets expressed directly by Jing Tsu are marked "[JT]"). Note that the most frequent underlying fallacy appearing in these statements is the idea that the Sinographic writing system is "the Chinese language", to the point where doing away with the characters would actually cause "the Chinese language" to have died (wait, did Jing Tsu actually say that? did she actually mean that? well, yes . . . and no . . . and yes . . . and no . . . and . . . in any case, how are these cogitations of hers Yale-worthy?).
— [JT] "[Chinese is] the oldest living language we have that is still used." [She really means the Sinographic writing system, sort of.]
— [JT] "[The] Western alphabet has twenty-six letters. And once you've learned these twenty-six letters, you can compose any word you want from basically all Indo-European languages. [Speakers of some of those Indo-European languages should perhaps share their thoughts on this subject with JT.] [Chinese, on the other hand, is] not made of letters, but is made of strokes". [The hinted-at notions here that alphabetic writing is foreign to the true nature of "the Chinese language", and that such things as pinyin are at best a somewhat distasteful compromise with the demands of a Western-dominated world, come to be more fully developed towards the end of the program.]
— In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western hostilities towards and incursions upon China threatened to "destroy" "the Chinese language", and in doing so destroy Chinese culture and the Chinese nation as well. [Note the resemblance to General Jack D. Ripper's fears, in the film Doctor Strangelove, of an international communist conspiracy attempting "to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids". Note also that JT avoids the corollary that if "the Chinese language" were to be "destroyed" by the depredations of the West, then it can only follow logically that the majority of the Chinese populace would be left with no language. How would JT explain that reductio ad absurdum? Her idea of a linguistico-political threat, which seems to particularly involve Westerners' suggestions of introducing alphabetic writing, comes to be a recurring theme in the program.] The key to countering this linguistico-political threat was initiating a "fight to modernize Chinese as a language", mainly through proposed and actual writing reforms of various kinds as well as confirmation of Mandarin as the standard dialect, a fight that "represents the beginning of China's climb to being a superpower".
— In the year 1900–which, according to Mr. Arablouei, was the first year of the twentieth century–the reformer Wáng Zhào 王照 (1859-1933) introduced his new, roughly-fifty-symbol writing system [the now-long-disused Mandarin Harmonic Alphabet] for "the Chinese language". According to Ms. Abdelfatah, no one had ever before attempted a "purely phonetic representation" of Chinese characters. [Did you hear that from your graves, Padre Lazzaro Cattaneo, and Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles, and all of your foreign-devil Romanizing kind? You and your work have all just been cancelled by the wokesters at Yale and NPR! Note, by the way, that the episode's repeated talk about "phonetic representation" is really referring to wholly or almost wholly phonemic representation: none of these script innovators was actually contemplating a systematic representation of the allophonic variability of Mandarin (or other) phonemes.] Wáng Zhào's system, we are told, constituted a "simplifying" of "Chinese", and a "new version of the language". The system "would let people of other dialects sound out words in Mandarin" . . . but, says JT bafflingly, it would also help non-Mandarin-speakers "hear how [a character is] pronounced in their own dialect as well as the standard dialect". [JT seems to have simply misspoken here, actually meaning "hear how [a character is] pronounced in the standard dialect in addition to merely already knowing how that morpheme is pronounced in their own dialect"; but the inclusion of her remark-gone-awry in the program just goes to show that someone linguistically knowledgeable should've been involved in the editing, so that the remark could've been excised. As things stand, it's just one more thing that'll confuse both knowledgeable and uninformed listeners.]
— [JT] The only reason Mandarin came to be endorsed as the national standard dialect at the 1913 Conference on Unification of Pronunciation was the stubbornness and force of character of Wáng Zhào. "It could've been any other dialect [that became] the national language, because [. . .] a language is a dialect with an army and a navy". [Actually, the figurative army-and-navy issue is precisely a major reason it was unlikely that something other than Mandarin might've become the national language; the sentence is another of JT's misstatements. And she seems to think that the facts that Mandarin was the dialect of the national capital, and already had a huge number of speakers, and was by long tradition already pretty much the national standard, were irrelevant to its being chosen.]
— [JT] All Western libraries, even the Library of Congress, are alphabetically organized. [Has JT never noticed that the libraries of her alma maters U.C. Berkeley and Harvard, and of her current university Yale, predominantly use the subject-based Library of Congress system?] Good library organization was a massive challenge for mid-twentieth-century China to overcome, a problem whose resolution was crucial for national renewal. [This may actually be a legitimate point, but the program makes it seem slightly absurd by overstating it, and by failing to place it in the context of the PRC's push to vastly increase the number and accessibility of libraries nationwide. There's also no explanation of why Dewey Decimal or some other already-extant subject-based system wasn't chosen; and the program seems to take the position that the radicals-and-strokes system didn't exist, with Ms. Abdelfatah claiming that "Chinese characters didn't have a distinct order like the A-B-C's".] What JT calls the "Character Index Race" lasted three decades and was ultimately won by a new Sinograph-analysis-based system [one that's never fully explained] created by a librarian named Dù Dìngyǒu 杜定友 (1898-1967). The two hosts tell us that his accomplishment went beyond librarianship, constituting a pioneering step in "organiz[ing] the written language" and in "fus[ing the Chinese language] with modern technology", with the former achievement in particular being "essential to the survival of the Chinese language".
— When Mao came to power, he made simplifying Chinese a high priority. [Referring, as always, not to the language itself but to writing: specifically, character simplification and the development of pinyin.]
— [JT] Pinyin is "a standard Romanization system for Chinese [. . .] one single, unifying way of representing Chinese characters in Roman letters [. . . b]asically a first standardizable proposal and scheme for how you represent Chinese in letters", the main reason for whose creation was to achieve compatibility with global communications technology. [Around this point the program admits that there were some pre-pinyin Romanization systems, but as can be seen here JT implicitly condemns them as somehow being not unifying and not standardizable.] Pinyin [she continues] was an answer to the question "Do we build a modern technological environment for the Chinese alone, or do we find a way to coexist with existing alphabet infrastructure?" [Again, the theme of alphabetic writing being a distasteful but necessary compromise with the outside world.]
— [JT] In discussing the role of pinyin in elementary literacy education, JT switches, without signaling the switch, between discussing how Mandarin-speaking learners use it and how non-Mandarin-speaking learners use it, a switch facilitated by her indiscriminate use of the word "Chinese" to encompass both types of learners. [A prime example of someone who could benefit from Confucius's doctrine of the rectification of names! This passage in the program would, I assume, be almost impenetrably confusing to listeners not familiar with the subject.]
— In keeping with Throughline's style of constantly alternating among different speaking voices, an unidentified Chinese-accented voice says "Sometimes people wonder if they can only learn Pinyin and ignore the actual [sic] Chinese characters. The short answer is no!". [It's not explained whether this is supposed to mean "no, not at the present time" or "no, both now and in the future". I suspect most uninformed listeners will assume the latter.]
— [JT] In conclusion, although the various twentieth-century writing reforms have caused a certain degree of loss to "the Chinese language", loss that's even comparable, though in a smaller degree, to the ongoing process of language extinction worldwide, in the end the loss was worth it because it helped "the language" "survive". But if the characters ever go, the language will suffer that death that "outside pressure" already attempted to inflict upon it in the past. At least, that's sort of what she seems to be saying. But anyway, so far "the Chinese language" and Chinese civilization have survived. Yay!
So once again we have a mainstream- or near-mainstream-media setback to public understanding of linguistics, the Sinitic languages, and the Sinographic writing system. In fairness, it’d be excessive to expect the Throughline production team to have learned about the science of linguistics and created a respectable linguistics-oriented podcast/broadcast in the relatively short time they presumably had available; but if even one member of that group had ever taken a linguistics course or read a serious linguistics book–remember, this is NPR, the intellectually superior radio network–that person might've been able to alert the others that Kingdom of Characters was not a respectable basis for an episode, and that if the team wanted to do an episode on this general subject they'd want to devote an unusually large amount of preproduction, production, and postproduction time to it, in order to get things right within what for most people is a pretty obscure field.
As the program came to an end, there was an unintentionally humorous moment, namely the spoken credit "Fact checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl". What does it mean to be the fact checker for a production that gets things so overwhelmingly wrong? I was reminded of the story of how, for the chaotic, psychedelic 1967 James Bond parody movie Casino Royale, co-director Val Guest (one of five) declined the offered title of "Coordinating Director" because, he argued, accepting that credit for such a hopelessly uncoordinated production might be a professional embarrassment. I wonder whether, if by some miracle public knowledge of linguistics improves in the coming decades, Mr. Volkl will live to regret taking the credit he took.