Changing the Script?

After 2 days in Mongolia I realise that there is/was a Mongolian script, written top to bottom, looking, I suppose, a little like Arabic script. In about 1950, in the Soviet era, it was decided that everything should, from henceforth, be written in Cyrillic script. The mother of my host here went, overnight, from one script to the other. Her daughter never learned the old one. How’s that for stealing a heritage from a people?

I’ve heard the argument made that the transition from Traditional to Simplified script in China was largely to do with this as well - if you prevent people from learning the script that old texts were written in, and then you control the translations, you can control what future generations believe the old texts said, and prevent them from being able to read any old texts that you don’t want them to read.

Do we know how much simpler the new stuff is? It may actually have been an attempt to make it easier to read it (in both China and Mongolia) but with useful side effects.

Not something I hear too often, but must be the most amazing experience![quote=“margaretnock, post:1, topic:7659”]
mother of my host here went, overnight, from one script to the other.

I would imagine that the fear of not doing so was powerful at that time in the USSR, hopefully there’s enough knowledge of that script left to allow for, if not a revival, then an understanding of it.

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I think there are lessons in school, but it is seen as an archaic script. I’ve seen it on one modern monument, and in the city museum. It is of no practical, day to day use. Everything in public is Cyrillic, or English, or both.

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It is shocking. I guess it happened to Pictish/Ogam/Runes. I suppose Egyptian hieroglyhics went the same way. Nawr te, question, our ancestors did not write, all was passed from mouth to ear. Errors clearly creep in, but would that make it easier for the language to survive than one which was written and lost its script?
But @margaretnock you are seeing some wonderful places and people. And we are very very lucky to be able to learn from your experience!! Diolch yn fawr! Pictures very welcome!

Go to my Welsh language blog.
I would love more evidence of it being read.

I’m also posting on FB in English, which I know you don’t do, but it is different stuff. I’m giving myself the challenge, and it is quite a challenge, to write something in Welsh before putting anything up in English.

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The Simplified ones can be a little easier to learn if you’re trying to learn them by rote. The Chinese writing system is difficult to learn as a child in general, simply because the concepts are sometimes simpler than the characters (which can sometimes be made from multiple characters squashed together) and vice versa, which means that children pretty much have to be taught the characters by rote if they’re to be at all literate by the age that we’d normally expect in the West. I can only assume that it was originally assumed that a person would have a decent spoken vocabulary long before they would ever learn to read and write, that way they could be taught to write starting with the simple stuff and building up.

If the idea was just to make it easier to learn to read and write, then something similar to what Sejong the Great did in 15th Century Korea would have been a better idea: Hangul is quite possibly the simplest writing system on the planet - to the point where when it was first created and it fit the Korean language perfectly, somebody who already spoke the language could learn to read and write in it within a day if they had the time to spend all day on it, or within a week or two if they had other things that needed doing. It’s a little more difficult now, because the language evolved and the writing system didn’t evolve with it, but read this and see for yourself just how incredibly easy to learn it is.

Obviously Hangul couldn’t just be taken directly, but a featural system which encodes tone directly into the writing system would make learning to read and write Mandarin far, far simpler than even any of the different attempts to apply the Latin alphabet to the language. It wouldn’t help with Cantonese, but given that in Hong Kong (the main place where Cantonese is still spoken) people still tend to use Traditional characters anyway, this isn’t as big of a problem (and from the perspective of a government that wants everybody to speak Mandarin anyway, no problem at all). Not to mention that people who speak Chinese languages other than Mandarin could still learn the Traditional writing system when they’re older. Many people wouldn’t, but those people are the same people who haven’t benefited very much from the transition from Traditional to Simplified anyway: either they are illiterate in spite of the transition or they would have learned Traditional almost as easily. It’s worth pointing out that they still use traditional exclusively in Taiwan, and people still learn to read and write there.

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There is quite a famous essay called Why is Chinese so damn hard to learn. Google it, or perhaps you know it already. My mother learned Russian for 20 years before spending the next 30 on Mandarin and she introduced me to the essay. It starts off by saying it isn’t at all hard to learn as a billion Chinese speak it without problems. So the real issue is why do Westerners find it so hard and the author lists some of the issues, and some of these are the same with learning Welsh. The ones that spring to mind are the lack of words, in general, that sound like words we already know. There is a proper word for that which escapes me at the moment, but it explains why someone who has learned Spanish is unlikely to have great problems with French. The other issue is that of it taking a long time to learn to use a dictionary. The Chinese because of the multitude of characters, and us because of the (expletive deleted) mutations.

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I can’t imagine waking up and not knowing how to write my name! That’s quite a scary thought. Your world would be so altered. Very similar to a lot of patients’ experiences.

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I haven’t Googled. I just decided it for myself when I realised I could not hear the difference between the various meanings of what we would write as ma. Upward lilt, not a question in Ghinese, a totally different meaning. I declared that if I could not be sure that, when meaning to say someone looked lovely, I was not, in fact, likening them to a dustcart, I could not reasonably expect to learn to speak the language and that a written script using so many characters was impossibly hard. ‘Look and Say’ was a silly way of teaching English kids to read and Chinese is like that!

The language is surviving. Apparently Mongolian is feindishly difficult and not at all like it’s neighbours. (Sound familiar?) It’s spoken and written every day. Until 25 years ago children learned Russian as a second language, now they learn English. It’s accessing their older, or not even that old, texts that has become much more difficult.
Having said that, I believe Japanese has 3 scripts. Time for a headache and a couple of paracetamol I think.

I only knew about the one that uses Chinese characters as an alphabet of syllables!

It does. It has kanji (Chinese characters) for most vocabulary items, hiragana for grammatical items or the occasional vocabulary item which doesn’t have its own kanji and katakana which is used for emphasis (similar to italic text in the Latin alphabet) and for loan words from other languages. Hiragana and katakana are both simple enough to learn, and can be learned really quickly; kanji, meanwhile, takes about as long as learning to write in Chinese. That said, since typing has become more popular, a lot of Japanese teenagers and young adults are forgetting how to write kanji; for short hand written notes, they’re generally just using hiragana, while when they type they’ll type in romaji (the Latin alphabet applied to Japanese), which will output the correct character for them.


I’ve read a similar account from Azerbaijan, which switched from Cyrillic to Latin. (And some older people still remembered switching from Arabic to Cyrillic.)

I can’t find it any more unfortunately – I think there was a series of articles on various aspects of it.

One thing I remember is that they found subtitles had to scroll more slowly as people weren’t as adept at reading the new script as the one they had grown up with, even though in this case at least both were alphabets.

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Apparently all TV in China is subtitled, whether you want it or not, into, I suppose it must be the simplified characters. Even if people speak different languages, or different dialects, all the writing is the same. So subtitling it means that everyone who can read can understand what is being said. I have no idea if TV broadcasts in different languages/ dialects, I suspect not, (apart from an English language channel) but it would be a subtle, or not so subtle way of standardising the language.

That would not surprise me.

Incidentally, the main reason I brought up Hangul was because the Koreans invented it as a replacement for Chinese characters in their own writing - the Chinese characters didn’t fit their language very well at all. Sejong the Great, who wanted everybody to be literate instead of only a tiny minority of scholars, designed the writing system from the ground up to be easy to learn and to suit the language perfectly. With any language where the majority of its speakers are illiterate due to the complexity (or ill fit) of its writing system, there is an argument to be made for doing something along those lines; simply changing some of the symbols but keeping the underlying system basically the same accomplishes little but making older texts basically impossible to read. Having said that, apparently the Chinese government at the time had wanted to swap over to Pinyin (the Latin alphabet with diacritics to represent tonal shift), but Mandarin wasn’t widespread enough.

Depending on the complexity of the older Mongolian script and the literacy levels in the 1930s-1940s (when the first shift from the older script to the Latin alphabet happened, prior to the shift to Cyrillic), it’s entirely possible that the shift away from the older script was intended to make it easier to increase overall literacy amongst the poorer population.

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Slight (!) tangent, but a few years ago I edited a book about Mongolian film music. The Soviets banished Mongolian traditional music for a long time, until all practitioners disappeared (died off, I suppose). Then later on (in the 1980s, I think) there was a slight ‘thaw’ and it became part of the policy to promote a form of Mongolian ‘nationalism’, so they wanted to include ‘traditional’ music in the propaganda films. But all they had left were (pictures of) the instruments; they had to recreate what they thought the music sounded like. Interesting stuff, but as usually happens when I’ve edited something (rather than read it for pleasure) my memory for the details are scanty…

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I have just come back from a folk evening of ‘traditional’ music and dance which looked pretty authentic to me, but hey, what do I know?
But this morning I went out to a temple site which was destroyed by the Mongolians but at the behest of Stalin in the late 30s. In the early 90s, once the Soviet Union was starting to disintegrate, my guide’s father was asked to rebuild one of the temples so rhat there was something for the growing number of tourists to see, which he duly did. In the 30s there had been 300 lamas, monks on site. The thing is that while some were killed, there was a great age range as well. In Asia it’s not at all uncommon for a boy from anyage between 6 and 20 to be a monk for just a few months. Perhaps a bit like summer camp in the States, or going on retreat. So when my guide was doing the rebuilding his colleague, a historian, was doing the research, and there were quite a few people, back in the 90s, who did remember what it was like at the time. The younger ones had fled home, and their homes were quite local, and there was enough information to write a book about the site. So perhaps there were people around to fill in the gaps when it came to music and dance as well.

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We were talking about changing scripts. Kazakhstan is doing it, again.