Thursday, August 7, 2014

Chinese, the Language of the Future

The future is now
I’ve seen recent claims that parents who want their children to succeed in the future should be encouraging them to learn Mandarin, and some schools have offered Mandarin to fairly young children. I am skeptical of this, however, I was not surprised to find that the idea is not new.

China was quite a different place in 1911, when the San Francisco Call published a short article in which the cited a professor[1] who said that Chinese[2] would be “the language of the future.” More than a century has passed, and there are some who still think that Chinese is the language of the future.

This is what the San Francisco Call said on August 7, 1911:
Professor Believes It More Suitable Than Volapuk
Prof. Pietro Rivelta repudiates Volapuk and Esperanto. He says that the Chinese tongue will be the language of the future. He bases his deflation on the fact that Chinese characters represent ideas. A character which to the Chinese represents the sun will represent the sun to all the world. Unfortunately of rate professor, the Japanese, who use the Chinese characters, are dissatisfied with the system, and there is a learned society in Japan which has drawn up a program to supersede the present method of reading and writing. It proposes to take the 26 letters of the English or French alphabets and to add to them some 19 or others taken from the Greek and Russian. The proposed reform has not yet received official cognizance.
Well, it’s clear that in 2014 there are more children learning Mandarin than Esperanto and Volapük combined. Me, I agree with D. O. S. Lowell, who was headmaster of Roxbury Latin about this same time: start them off on Esperanto. And that’s without even believing that Esperanto will be “the language of the future.”

Still, Rivelta's idea about the Chinese symbols is sheer nonsense. Yes, you can create a symbol that just about anyone understands quickly to mean "sun" in whatever language they speak. That's not going to help them with the Chinese word for "brotherhood." Besides, according to Google Translate, the Chinese characters for "sun" are 太陽, which doesn't make me think of the sun (and, yes, I looked up the traditional characters, not the simplified ones). The Call might have asked the professor to write out "sun" in Chinese for their article.

I was not, by the way, able to find Professor Rivelta anywhere.

Update: Further thought: Why was anyone thinking of Volapük in 1911?

Second update: Someone who can actually read Chinese has told me that the symbol for "sun" is 日. No offense intended, but if I were asked what 日 meant, I would say, "dresser." That's what it looks like to me, Professor Rivelta. Who knows what he was looking at that felt so universal to him.

  1. Well, maybe a professor. I’m not believing a 1911 designation of professor without the name of an institution of higher learning.  ↩
  2. It’s my understanding that most of the spoken Chinese in the United States in the early twentieth century was Cantonese, however, the written form is that of Mandarin. Of course, Professor Rivelta may not have been talking about Cantonese.  ↩

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