A Fish Called「魚」: Characters and the Myth of Difficulty

Despite the progress in surmounting cultural barriers between East and West over the past few decades, most people brought up with an alphabet still seem to feel that the character-based scripts used in Japanese and Chinese present a formidable psychological obstacle to further engagement with these languages. This is understandable given the way in which such writing systems are generally presented to the outside world, even by their own native speakers. Myths such as “three alphabets and thousands of characters” are still widely prevalent, and continue to deter all but a determined few from taking up the challenge. But the truth is somewhat different. Seen from the perspective of systems analysis, there is in fact only a low-order degree of difference between the two types of script. This presentation will look at the ways in which alphabetic and character-based writing systems are much more similar than is generally realised, and show how the unsystematic nature of English spelling can actually present a greater memory burden than characters.