A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How can the Chinese use computers, since their language contains so many characters?

December 8, 1995

Dear Cecil:

How on earth can the Chinese and Japanese use computers, given that their writing uses thousands of different characters? The keyboard must look like something off a Wurlitzer pipe organ.

Cecil replies:

Nah, it looks pretty much like any keyboard, and using it is a piece of cake. All you have to do is adhere closely to the following six hundred steps. You might want to pack a lunch.

(1) Figure out which of the 50,000-plus Chinese characters you want to use. It shouldn't be necessary to point out that each character stands for a word or concept (usually) rather than a sound as in English. However, I did have one guy recently who thought Chinese had 50,000 different sounds and wondered why we English speakers felt we had to scrape by with a few dozen. Also, lest 50,000 characters seem a little extreme, I should point out that you can get by with about 3-4,000.

(2) Try to remember how to pronounce said character. This is fairly simple. Each Chinese character has one syllable, and in Pinyin, the official pronunciation system used in mainland China, there are 403 possible spoken syllables. Syllables can be pronounced with one of four tones (level, rising, falling, and falling-and-rising), each tone giving the syllable a different meaning. The tones account for what many westerners regard as the singsong quality of east Asian speech.

(3) Enter the syllable into the computer phonetically using Roman (i.e., our) letters. This takes up to six keystrokes plus, in some programs, one more keystroke for the tone. Typically this pops up a menu of possible characters, six characters or so at a time.

(4) Page through the characters looking for the one you want. With 50,000 possible written syllables but only a few hundred possible spoken ones, each spoken syllable can have as many as 131 different meanings (average: 17), each with its own character. You could be paging quite a while, and you still might not find the character you want — no program includes all 50,000. (Answer to obvious question: in speech you figure out the meaning from the context. Never let your attention wander during a Chinese conversation.)

(5) Hope like hell you speak Mandarin, the most important of the seven or eight major Chinese dialects. Although written Chinese is pretty much the same throughout China, spoken Chinese can vary dramatically and some dialects are mutually unintelligible. The Pinyin pronunciation system and Pinyin-based word processors are geared toward Mandarin. If all you speak is Cantonese, you'll have to use an alternative input method, which can involve stroke analysis, numerical codes, or other matters even more frightening.

(6) Having found the character you want, tap one more key to enter it into your document.

Net result of steps 1 through 6: one syllable. That's all you need for some simple words, but many modern terms are multisyllabic compounds. For example, one Chinese news service renders "World Wide Web" as "Ten-Thousand-Dimensional Web in Heaven and Net on Earth." Mercifully, this condenses a bit in Chinese. Nonetheless if I were typing a letter to Mom in Shanghai, I think I'd allow most of the day. Some programs do let you use abbreviations and other shortcuts to speed up the process.

So, if you're Chinese, do you hate computers? On the contrary, you think they're great, because the alternative is to write out your damn language longhand. Although educated Chinese pride themselves on their calligraphy, the process doesn't lend itself to speedy communication, since one Chinese character can have as many as 36 strokes. (Max per English character: four.) You could try a Chinese typewriter, but they're clunky and expensive. A computer with decent Chinese word processing software, in contrast, lets you achieve a reasonable approximation of touch typing, assuming you use the same program long enough. (Every program is different, needless to say.)

This is just Chinese we're talking about. Japanese, now … they say Japanese is really complicated. Sad to say, we don't have space to discuss it here. Just get down on your knees and thank G-O-D for the A-B-C's.

Chinese characters

Dear Cecil:

Regarding your column on Chinese word processors, you can't really get by with only 3,000 to 4,000 characters [for basic literacy in Chinese] … My own estimate is that a vocabulary of 10,000 to 15,000 characters is required to read ordinary materials without needing a dictionary every few minutes.

Dear Cecil:

Although I don't want to split hairs, I feel that one can actually get by with even fewer than "about 3,000 to 4,000" Chinese characters. I recall reading of a study … where it was discovered that only a few hundred characters were normally used in Chinese-language newspapers published on Taiwan.

Cecil replies:

Damien, meet James. When you guys figure this out, let me know.

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