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"Peter T. Daniels" (Email Removed) wrote on 26 Dec 2003:
Tell me, o clever dean, why would someone apply the label "phonogram" to an entity that contains no phonetic element, but only a semantic indicator?

Maybe because 85% of all Chinese characters are phonograms? Those without a phonetic element are primitives that are used as radicals and have names rather than sounds associated with them (i.e. they cannot stand alone as characters themselves but may be used as parts of other characters).
Are you basing your criticism of John Dean's interpretation on the content of the passage cited by the OP or on a reasonable understanding of the nature of Chinese characters? From what I've seen, their nature is not terribly straightforward and the names applied to them are not simple to grasp without a knowledge of a substantial number of characters.
I'm curious about how much you know about Chinese characters, not because I know a great deal, but because I imagine that if you know enough about them to be able to tell John Dean that his interpretation makes no sense and is incompetent, then you ought to know what the passage means without having to wait for a context.

In other words, are you a qualified sinologist? I am not. And I am having the same problem you are with the passage, but I don't think that John Dean's interpretation of what the incompetent English passage says is wrong. My understanding of what it says is exactly the same as his. Two elements are missing from the passage: (1) definition of a phonogram; (2) a clear statement of what the author intended to say.

Franke: EFL teacher & medical editor.
Perhaps if you would identify the author, we would know from their other writings exactly what they had in mind.

What I have is a translation by Gilbert Mattos and Jerry Norman of the monograph entitled 文字學概要 (trans. as 'Chinese ... so, in the mean time, I would appreciate any opinion on how the sentence I quoted should be interpreted.

This sentence is on page 102 of the book (republished in handwritten simplified Chinese in 1988). The original Chinese text reads: "如果祇把在已有的文字上加註音符而成的形聲字稱為轉註字,在已有的文字上加註意符而成的形聲字則仍稱為形聲字,那倒還能使形聲跟轉註的區分顯得合理一些。" Dylan's translation is good. You can find the book at 超星數字圖書館 (www.ssreader.com). Their internal number for the book is 10107111.

The author went on to say that time should not be wasted on quibbling over the exact meaning of "zhuanzhu". I think this might be a good advice.
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I'm afraid I can't make allowances for your interpretational skills. ... ability here I bow to your superior knowledge of incompetence.

Tell me, o clever dean, why would someone apply the label "phonogram" to an entity that contains no phonetic element, but only a semantic indicator?

They might be in error, they might be mendacious. But, of course, what you describe as ''an entity that contains no phonetic element, but only a semantic indicator?'' would actually be* a semantic indicator, containing nothing but itself. What was quoted, however, had to do with " those phonograms which were derived from existing characters to which semantic symbols were added" and so either the original quotee was in error, or lied, or the basic characters were *already phonograms and so the addition of semantic symbols did not tarnish their phonogrammic status. That was the situation presented to us by the OP and which I paraphrased. If the person quoted didn't mean to refer to phonograms they shouldn't have didn't.
John Dean
Oxford
De-frag to reply
Tell me, o clever dean, why would someone apply the ... no phonetic element, but only a semantic indicator?

Maybe because 85% of all Chinese characters are phonograms? Those without a phonetic element are primitives that are used as ... missing from the passage: (1) definition of a phonogram; (2) a clear statement of what the author intended to say.

One doesn't need to know anything at all about the nature and structure of Chinese characters (though as it happens I do know something about them) to know that it doesn't make sense to apply the label "phonogram" to an entity that does not include any indication of sound ("phono-"), which is what John Dean's suggestion about the writer's or translators' intentions did.

Peter T. Daniels (Email Removed)
'If one were to label as zhuanzhu only those phonograms which were derived from existing characters to which phonetic elements ... existing characters to which semantic symbols were added, then the distinction between phonograms and the zhuanzhu would be more rational.'

I piece together this meaning:
"There are characters which are phonograms.
Some of them are formed by adding phonetic
elements. Let us call them zhuanzhu.
At this stage, the distinction between
zhuanzhu and phonogram lacks rationality.
However, there are phonograms formed by adding
semantic elements. Let us call them zhuanzhu too.
Now, the distinction between phonogram and
zhuanzhu is more rational."
Well, yes, that is complete nonsense. So either
the author was drunk, or the translator was
drunk.
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The following sentence is from a monograph on Chinese writing: 'If one were to label as zhuanzhu only those phonograms ... existing characters to which semantic symbols were added, then the distinction between phonograms and the zhuanzhu would be more rational.'

Some guesses, with hypothethical subtext:
Subtext:
Zhuanzhu, or mutually interpretive symbols, are characters that share a common meaning, but have different pronunciations. In essence, one character was to be modified into two slightly different characters with slightly different pronunciations, while retaining the same basic meaning. It was an esthetically pleasing and clever idea in principle, but it wasn't undertaken very systematically. Art has a checkered relationship with rationality. The end result was a rarely used and unsatisfyingly hard-to-define category of characters. Xu Shen left us with a pretty puzzle. Today, there are several equally unsatisfying, competing explanations for the zhuanzhu method of character creation.
Interpretation:
Rather than attempting to cobble together catch-all explanations of the category on which none of us, seemingly, can agree, it might be simpler to move the goal posts. For example, some of the zhuanzhu characters are rather like xingsheng/xiesheng/xiangsheng characters in the sense that they share phonetic components. Others are more like huiyi/xiangyi characters in the sense that they share the same radical, and so on. If we divide the zhuanzhu characters into subcategories based on the apparent similarities between the approach used to create them and the approaches used to create characters in other categories, the distinctions between them will become more evident, and our discussion of the zhuanzhu method will be more rational/scientific.

Best of luck in your research.
"Peter T. Daniels" (Email Removed) wrote on 27 Dec 2003:
One doesn't need to know anything at all about the nature and structure of Chinese characters (though as it happens ... include any indication of sound ("phono-"), which is what John Dean's suggestion about the writer's or translators' intentions did.

You have avoided the issue only to reiterate your criticism. Your sentence contains no support for your criticism except a brand of logic that cannot be applied to language, namely that "it doesn't make sense", which can be said of any opaque idiom in English. All you can say in support of yourself is "as it happens I do know something about them". I know "something" about them too, but not enough to be able to answer the OP's question.
The major problem with your criticism is this: "to an entity that does not include any indication of sound ("phono-")". This is not what John dean said. He said "When no phonetic element is added, but a semantic symbol is added, the character is known as a phonogram." Where does it say in his sentence that no indication of sound is included? You have misread and misunderstood the sentence, it appears.

Add to this the knowledge that some Chinese characters have no separate phonetic but are pronounced, and others, primitives, have no separate phonetic and are not pronounced. The name of the former type of character is also the sound of the character. Therefore, your criticism of John Dean's interpretation seems to me to be poorly grounded.

I think it is necessary for you to demonstrate that you know enough about Chinese characters to justify your criticism.

Franke: EFL teacher & medical editor.
One doesn't need to know anything at all about the ... John Dean's suggestion about the writer's or translators' intentions did.

You have avoided the issue only to reiterate your criticism. Your sentence contains no support for your criticism except a ... I think it is necessary for you to demonstrate that you know enough about Chinese characters to justify your criticism.

Trust me. He's got a point.
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Geoff (Email Removed) wrote on 27 Dec 2003:
Trust me. He's got a point.

If I knew who you were, Geoff, I would be able to decide whether I could trust your judgment. I don't know anything about Peter either. I rarely take things like this on faith. There is always someone who knows the answer; the problem is finding that someone. I think I know someone who can provide an answer to both questions, the one about what the passage means, if anything, and the one about why the author or translator might have used "phonograms" for those characters which are, in his system, not zhuanzhu.

I think that everyone who has looked at the OP's quote agrees that the original is poorly expressed and confusing. I think Peter's objection that " Even an incompetent translation team could not have intended that" gives credit where credit it not due. If the OP's passage is indeed a translation from Chinese, then either the translators were incompetent in one language or the other, or they were presented with a difficult Chinese sentence that seemed to make sense when they rendered it that way into English. Translators are not infallible.
What is Peter's point? What does he know about Chinese characters?

I'm seriously interested in finding out what this passage might mean because I find that what little I know of Chinese characters at this point makes this discussion quite confusing. I also find that what has so far been said by everyone has not clarified anything except how garbled the original English translation is.
I will ask a sinologist friend of mine to look at the original post and offer his opinion. When I get it, I will post it here.

Franke: EFL teacher & medical editor.
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