March 12, 2009
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The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Typing
Increasingly, Chinese people don’t actually have to write (rite? right?) out these characters by hand. More and more, they key them in with mobile phones or at computers. And when they do that, it’s just as easy to ‘write’ a traditional-style, complex, information-dense character as a streamlined new one. (Reason: you key in clues about the character, either its pronunciation or its root form, and then click to choose the one you want.) So — according to current arguments — the technology of computers and mobile phones could actually revive an important, quasi-antique style of writing.
Hmm — Fallows is definitely one-up on me, since he reads Chinese and I don’t, but I wonder whether other considerations (e.g. screen size and corresponding size of characters) might still put some pressure towards some kind of simplification of the character form. A lot of that information-density just turns into noise if it has to be packed into a tiny space.
Alternatively, kids (it’s always kids, at first) might start using “abbreviations” that minimize the number of keystrokes required to type useful phrases — maybe by not choosing the precisely “correct” character but an approximation of it (the root or a related pronunciation or whatever), like our “lol,” “brb,” “btw,” etc.
In short, technology rarely has a purely stabilizing effect on tradition — it might help block a particular chirographic attempt at reform/revolution, but only to displace it in favor of its own matrix. (And yes, I just quoted Spock from The Wrath of Khan.)