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Good Woman Child Language (Talking Characters in Taiwan)

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Things to raise casually in Taiwan.

To test the hospitality of your hosts in Taiwan, one may choose to innocently suggest that their Chinese characters look pretty complicated, so simplifying them might be a good idea.

The reason to simplify things -- which China under the communists did but Taiwan did not -- was (if you believe the communists) to promote literacy; some characters are very complicated, and learning to read and write was very difficult. On the other hand, you might hear, the traditional characters are essential to understanding and connecting with the ancient culture, to advanced brain development, and to achieving aesthetic elevation. Also, not destroying the ancient culture.

Why is this ongoing, raging debate breaking news for family inequality? The discussions about characters led me to Chinese Characters for Beginners for the plane home from Taipei. And my recent concentration on language regarding union or marriage types (homogamy and heterogamy), on the one hand, and sexual dimorphism / gender on the other, made me sensitive to my first lesson. In it, I learned that to make good, you need woman (nǚ):

plus child or son (zǐ):

equals good (hǎo):

On the other hand, if you combine farm/field (tián):

and strength (lì):

you get one version of male (nán):

Source: Character images from About.com, translations from lots of places, such as this one. Ironically, these are such basic characters that they weren't affected by the simplification program.

I was already assuming language shapes our thinking. But it's impossible not to marvel at how people who learn Chinese versus English from infancy have such identical brains to begin with, learn to think so differently, and yet can communicate with each other in such profound ways. In that, I'm apparently up to about 1972 in the lay-person's understanding of linguistics theory:

One traditional argument against the existence of an innate language learning faculty is that human languages are so diverse. The differences between Chinese, Nootka, Hungarian, and English, for example, are so great as to destroy the possibility of any universal grammar, and hence languages could only be learned by a general intelligence, not by any innate language learning device. Chomsky has attempted to turn this argument on its head: In spite of surface differences, all human languages have very similar underlying structures; they all have phrase structure rules and transformational rules. They all contain sentences, and these sentences are composed of subject noun phrases and predicate verb phrases, etc.

What about gender, then? Obviously, languages differ but are deeply gendered. But now, the next time someone sees a common pattern of gendered behavior, and attributes it to genetics or evolution, I'm going to ask them to first demonstrate that the pattern holds among people who aren't exposed to any language at all (and raised by parents who haven't been exposed to language either). Otherwise, the influence of ancient cultures is impossible to scrub from the data.

On language, simplification is only one thing we should have heated debates about.

Cross posted from the Family Inequality blog.

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