Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Chinese typist deserves respect

In his book, “Mother Tongue", Bill Bryson explains the difficulty of designing a typewriter to type out Chinese letters:

Since every word requires its own symbol, Chinese script is immensely complicated. It possesses some 50,000 characters of which about 4000 are in common use. Chinese typewriters are enormous and most trained typists cannot manage more than about ten words a minute. But even the most complex Chinese typewriter can manage only a fraction of the characters available. If a standard Western typewriter keyboard were expanded to take in every Chinese ideograph, it would have to be about fifteen feet long and five feet wide.


An article in “Wired” carries a photograph of a monster typewriter on display at a museum in Barcelona and explains how it worked.



The only part that resembles a QWERTY typewriter is the rubber roller at the back. From there, things quickly become absurd. Take a close look and you’ll see that the flat bed is in fact full of tiny metal symbols, similar to a letter case used for traditional typesetting.

In that case there are a couple of thousand characters, and other cases can be swapped in as needed. You’ll notice that there’s no keyboard — instead, the operator uses the levers to line up a kind of grabber over the required letter. Then he hits a switch and the letter is moved up to the paper and the letter printed. Slow? Very. Apparently a good typist averages just 20 characters per minute

What about computers? The “Wired” article adds:

It doesn’t get much easier with computers, either. Because Chinese is made up of meaningful symbols instead of letters built in to words, a keyboard simply can’t contain everything without being the size of a table. To get round this two methods are commonly used. Wubi is similar to actually drawing the ideograms — the typist hits keys one by one to build up the picture from a series of strokes marked on each key. This is then translated into the correct symbol.

Better is Pinyin, which involves typing the letters phonetically in Roman letters (the ones we use). The computer then translates these into symbols. This is still something of a pain, but short of dropping their entire alphabet, what are the Chinese to do.

Here’s a photo of a Chinese keyboard that I came across today and which prompted me to come up with this post. (via)





Bill Bryson, in the same book that I referred to in the opening para, points out another limitation of the pictorial language:

The consequences of not having an alphabet are considerable. There can be no crossword puzzles, no palindromes, no anagrams, no games like Scrabble, no Morse code. In the age of telegraphy, to get around the last problem, the Chinese designed a system in which each word in the language was designated a number. Person, for instance, was 0086. To this day in China, and other countries such as Japan where the writing system is also ideographic, there is no logical system for organizing documents. Filing systems often exist only in people’s heads. If the secretary dies, the whole office can fall apart.

 

3 comments:

ramesh said...

i will never envy the chinese typist

Anonymous said...

The circular keyboard is one of Google Japan's April Fool's jokes:
http://gizmodo.com/5506688/google-japans-drum-keyboard-not-quite-practical

And there is a system of ordering characters. Chinese dictionaries 'alphabetalise' words by their most noticable "radical" - the building blocks of each character - which themselves are listed by the number of pen strokes required to write them (which is more intuitive than it sounds for someone who already knows how to write it).

I feel Bill Bryson is being a little unfair in his book about the English language. Asking where the palindromes are in Chinese is like asking why fish don't climb trees.

There's plenty of word-games Mandarin can play, like writing half of a word as graffiti with part of the wall forming the rest, or a grammatical poem using only the sound "shi".

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