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On the Road to Danfeng

There’d been a brief foray a few years ago into the hallowed halls of academia. Evensong and a college dinner. Oxford. Spent the night in Elizabeth Taylor’s bed. Admittedly about thirty years after she’d stayed there with Richard Burton. But I felt certain we’d both admired the same decor. Not sure if the college had a Chair in Linguistics, but if it did, I doubt my recent discovery would warrant a nomination.

Largely conceptual. How do English speaking Chinese switch between their largely pictorial symbology and the rather more phonetic Roman alphabet? Pondered it for a while. Then a revelation. Whilst stopped to read my own map. They’re different representations of the same thing. Both symbolic.

Simplified Chinese characters are ostensibly pictograms, each constructed of a series of pen strokes. One Chinese character equating to one English word. In English, or any language using the Roman alphabet, individual letters replace discrete strokes. Simple really.

And just as the Chinese see a word when looking at a character, English speakers do exactly the same with a series of letters. With sufficient vocabulary, and practice, individual letters are not sounded. Rather, it is just a shape, immediately and subconsciously recognisable as a word. Just like a pictogram.

An example. Look at the image below. "Popland". Instantly recognisable because it consists of two familiar word shapes – "pop" and "land".

Popland - web

But, faced with, in all probability, a less familiar word – or shape – like valetudinanan, good chance you’re a bit slower pronouncing it. Scrutinising individual letters, or small groups of them, to work out how to say it. Not exactly Road to Damascus I admit. It was Danfeng.

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