Friday, April 8, 2005

"You Saved Me!"

Reader Taryn M. emails me this great letter:

"Hey! I know you get tons of emails but I just wanted to say that I love your site. Reading it help me realize that I do NOT want or need to get a tattoo in Japanese, Chinese, or any language that I don't understand. I saw how ridiculous it can look when someone has nonsense on him or her either because they were misinformed or just thought certain characters looked cool/pretty/neat.

I think that those who do it think of those languages as just pictures and symbols without realizing their importance to their respective cultures. It's like instead of getting PEACE tattooed on them in fancy English script or whatever; they say 'I'll get its equivelent 'picture/symbol' in Japanese or Chinese'.

That said, its a fad that will be around for a LONG time. But thanks again for your enlightening website."

One thing has always bothered me is when people referring to Chinese and Japanese characters as "symbols". Granted, the Chinese writing is not formed like English alphabet, but the definition of "symbol" is:

Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible.

Symbol may be fine to use a crow's feet inside a circle to represent the concept of "peace", but when used in a linguistic sense, they are not symbols. They are characters.


  1. It seems like one thing that has gotten lost in Western pop culture is the use of calligraphy. Part of the appeal of Chinese words is that they have a brush-stroke, calligraphic appearance. Problem is, the only time you see tattoos of the Roman alphabet in calligraphic script is in gang insignia or something (ok ok i know i'm overgeneralizing ridiculously, don't kill me). If people came up with pretty lettering and used that to tattoo 'PEACE' in Roman letters on themselves, that would look great.


  2. I think you're being unnecessarily harsh on the whole "symbol" thing. All words and letters are symbols, regardless of the language. They, through convention and association, represent sounds and/or words in their corresponding language. Writing is inherently symbolic. Hell, for that matter, language itself is a system of symbols and nothing more. The only reason "tree" means what it does, for example, is because that's what the English speaking population has, through convention and repetition, come to agree it means. Words in and of themselves are nothing, it is only through association and convention that they mean anything at all.

    Now when people insist on calling hanzi/hanja/kanji "ideograms"/"ideographs," that really gets my goat.

  3. Your definition of "symbols" makes sense, but it's not quite accurate. The meaning of a symbol can often be open to interpetations, whereas a word always has very well-defined meanings.

    A dollar sign ($) is a symbol, which, to different people, could mean different things: currency, wealth, greed, success, etc.

    A Nazi swastika signifies the SS party, symbolizes Ayran supremacy to some people, but evil to others.

    In short, a symbol merely symbolizes. But a word always MEANS something.

  4. Words are defined, anthropologically, as symbols.

    Sorry about that.

  5. Kevin, I see what you're saying, but I have to disagree. You say a word "always MEANS something." Two things - why does it mean something? A word in and of itself is nothing more than a collection of letters (when written) or phonemes (when spoken). It only means something because the community that speaks that language has come to a consensus at some point that it has that particular meaning. The word itself means nothing. And secondly - to use your examples, a $ means something, a swastika means something, and "cow" means something; where does the difference come from? In what way are they inherently different?

  6. Although a "$", or any other symbol, means something, it's usually only a symbolic meaning, not the kind of concrete, definite meaning that a word almost always possesses.

    When someone uses a symbol, he usually does it to express something symbolic. Otherwise, he would just express it in plain language.

    The word "cow", if it's just a word, means one thing only. But if you have a picture of a cow, it could be an allusion to the beautiful countryside, like the "cow boxes" that Gateway Computer uses for packaging. It could be an allusion to power and strength, like the Chicago Bulls. The literal meaning of the word "cow" only means "a 4-legged mammal that produces milk." But the symbolic meanings, in the above cases, are "the great outdoors", "power", and "strength".

    Hence, we have the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words."

  7. Words are just another kind of symbols. You may think that they have very definite concrete meanings, but they don't. The mere fact that the utterance "Chicago bulls" usually doesn't refer to bulls in Chicago should serve as example to counter your argument.

    Also, consider stenography. Isn't that just using symbols as words?

  8. "You may think that they have very definite concrete meanings, but they don't."

    They don't? Really? Every word is clearly defined in a dictionary, surprisingly.

    Whatever "Chicago Bulls" means (bulls in Chicago, or the name of a basketball team), its meaning is still CONCRETE. There is nothing symbolic about its meanings that can be open to different interpretations. When you see the words or speak the words "Chicago Bulls", you DON'T think of Gateway, and you DON'T think of Merrill Lynch, with its bull-like logo. But when you see a PICTURE of a bull, you can interpret it in many ways you want, depending on how it looks, and what it reminds you of. That's the difference between a PICTURE (symbol) and a WORD.

    Same thing happens when a psychiatrist shows you those index cards with little pictures on them and ask you what they mean, you may think of a lot of different meanings.

    Stenography is just a method for writing a language in shorthand, with no attempt on altering the meanings of the words of the language. A language written in shorthand still retains the concrete meanings of the original unabbreviated writing.

  9. If every word were clearly defined you wouldn't have arguments over meaning, for one. And if words had concrete meanings, sarcasm, irony, punnage, and wordplay in general wouldn't be possible.

    And you say that when someone sees/hears "Chicago Bulls," regardless of whether the meaning is bulls in Chicago or the team, they don't think of Gateway, or whatever. Well, when someone sees $, they don't think of trees, or UFOs, or whatever, right? When someone sees a swastika, they don't think of marshmellows, or semiconductors, do they?

  10. Still, there are certain linguistic rules and conventions governing the use of sarcasms, ironies, puns, and various figures of speech, and you always have to stay within certain boundaries in the meanings you want to convey. The fact that languages are able to express concrete and specific meanings is because there are rules (grammar, idiomatic usages, etc.)

    But with pictures and symbols, there are no rules and you can basically interpret them any way you want.

    One can easily associate "$" with "trees", as in the phrase "money doesn't grow on trees."

    Though a bit of a stretch, but if someone thinks computers are "evil", he might associate the swastika sign with semiconductors.

    And I can associate "swastika" and "marshmellows" by simply saying they are both things that I hate. Perhaps too fancy, but who is to forbid or refute someone making such an association?

    The whole point, as I said in my first post on the subject, is that pictures and symbols are always open to all sorts of interpretations, whereas language and words are much more literal, better defined than pictures, which is why languages were invented: so we could have a more efficient and evolved means of communication to convey specific ideas to one another.

  11. characters and letters are technically symbols, that is, something that has been given an arbitrary association to something else. there is nothing inherent in the look or sound of 涼 ("liang") to represent in the human mind the idea of "chilly" or else there would probably be a lot more languages that referred to the idea of "chilly" as "liang." the same goes for the word "weasel." there is nothing inherent in this collection of letters (which themselves have been arbitrarily attached to certain sounds) that refers to the animal represented by the "weasel." in the same way, "♥" is a symbol that has taken on the meaning of "heart" or "love." they're all technically the same sort of thing.

    whether something has a "concrete" meaning or not does not have anything to do with whether it's a symbol or something else. or perhaps i just don't understand what you mean. i would argue that "$" has just as much meaning as the word "cow." "$" represents the idea of money, dollar, etc. depending on the context, and "cow" represents the idea of the animal that we refer to in english as a "cow." if you so chose, however, since neither "$" or "cow" have inherent meanings attached to it, you could use the word "cow" to represent the idea of money, and "$" to represent the idea of the animal we refer to as a cow.

    however, i feel like people shouldn't refer to chinese characters as "symbols" anyway, because in colloquial speech, a symbol has come to refer to things like $ or %. you won't hear people saying to each other "what's that symbol for when a word is misused in an often funny way?" because that will usually evoke in the mind signs or pictures like "$" and "♥" instead of words like "malapropism," tho they're all symbols.

    chinese characters are much more like words than they are what is conventionally thot of in english as symbols, so why refer to it as a symbol, when the word "symbol" has connotations that slightly degrade the idea and do not take into account the complexity of the chinese character? it's not wrong, but it's not completely correct either.

  12. But, in a way, aren't Hanzi and Kanji pictures? At least some of those Hanzi and Kanji that are combinations of different characters put together, always have like a small story to tell. For example (and I only know this from Japanese for sure, so don't flame me if this doesn't apply to Chinese), in the Kanji for 'man' (男), you can find two characters put together: 'field' and 'power'. Now, when you come to think of it, it does make a lot of sense. Men are the 'power' on the 'fields', or at least that was the case in agricultural culture. When talking about 'a rest' or 'resting' (休), we use a Kanji that combines of two characters: 'person' and 'tree' - doesn't that automatically lead you to an image of a person leaning to a tree -> rest? Now this form isn't applicable to all combined Kanji (or Hanzi, for that matter), but it can in some ways be lead from some.

    And yet I must say that I do agree about Hanzi or Kanji not being symbols. Not because the line between a symbol or a word would be clear or anything, but just for the sake of us calling our written language 'words'. I don't think there is anyone on the face of this earth who would claim that, "I wrote an essay of 500 symbols." Hanzi and Kanji are words too, just a bit different from what the Westerners have been used to. And in a way I think Kevin is making sense there, since symbols are more open to interpretations than words.

  13. To the last Anonymous - if you ever see this:
    this admirably handles your ideographic idea. Some Chinese characters/kanji are ideographic, but they are well and truly in the minority. Most ideographic etymologies you'll find are artificially made up to satisfy the widespread "Chinese is made of pictures, not words" bullshit belief.

  14. I couldn't have put it more beautifully myself, Tian, no matter how much i agree with you on the "symbol" issue.