If you follow my blog, you know that I have questions sent to me sometimes, and this is one of several that were sent to me today I thought might be of interest to you. Let’s take this question a step at a time because there is a lot that can be said.
First of all, when I was traveling in Japan when I was a university student, I met some Chinese in the Youth Hostel where I was staying. They told me they couldn’t speak Japanese, but they were getting along just fine. They also couldn’t read the Japanese alphabets, hiragana and katakana. However, they understood the kanji, the Chinese characters that the Japanese use. They explained that they didn’t know how the Japanese pronounced them, but the Chinese characters carry meaning, and they understood the meaning of what they saw. I have learned since then also that the Chinese have simplified some of the Chinese characters, but the Japanese are still using the original form. If the Chinese know the original form, it would be easier for them to understand the Japanese signs, but these Chinese students I met weren’t struggling to find their way. They could understand the kanji the Japanese put on their signs. The Chinese use more Chinese characters than the Japanese, so they are more likely going to be able to understand the kanji. The Japanese going to China will understand some of the signs, but there are a couple of problems. They don’t learn as many originally as the Chinese do, and the Chinese have changed some of them with time.
As far as the Koreans, only the scholars in Korea know the Chinese characters now. They call them hanmoon. They also use an older form of the Chinese characters than the Chinese do. However, the average Korean can’t read the hanmoon. The Koreans have gone to using the hangul, the Korean alphabet for everything. They have simplified their language, and I am grateful as a foreigner. When the Koreans go to Japan, the scholars could read the signs in the same way the Chinese students could read the signs. They would know the meaning, but not the Japanese pronunciation, only the Korean pronunciation. The average Korean couldn’t read the signs in Japan at all. However, the average Korean actually finds Japanese as one of the easier languages for them to learn. The Japanese grammar and the Korean grammar mirror one another. The word order is the same as well as the grammatical constructions and concepts. There are several words that are similar, and a few are the same, but they are totally differnet languages and are not as similar as two Latin languages would be.
As far as the Chinese, the average Chinese can’t read the hiragana or katakana from Japan, and neither can they read the hangul from Korea. However, some may read the hangul if they are Han Chinese. You see, there are many different languages in China, not just one. There are at least 14 major languages. Many Koreans don’t realize that a large portion of China was Korea in ancient times. The people who live in those areas still speak an old dialect of Korean at home and then speak Mandarin Chinese when they go to school. If a Korean travels to those areas of China, they can speak to those people in Korean and be understood. I knew a guy who was always going to China to preach, and I asked him if he spoke Chinese, and he said he didn’t. However, he said where he was going, the people all spoke Korean. I met a Han Chinese girl at KCU, the university where I taught, and she had come from China to study here in Korea and had no trouble understanding. She couldn’t speak English, so she was working really hard at forcing me to speak Korean and became the first person I had a conversation with in Korean.
I have a friend who is a Chinese teacher from China here in Korea. He told me that the Chinese used to only use the Chinese characters when they wrote, but there was no particular order they had to be written in. People just wrote them, and they carry meaning. However, when the people went into China and began teaching English, the Chinese realized they had no grammar and decided they needed a grammar. They adopted the English word order as part of their grammar. They also use the post position articles like Japanese and Korean. Their language is completely different from Korean and Japanese. Mandarin Chinese is actually a tonal language, as some of the other Chinese languages are. As I said, there are at least 14 major languages being spoken in China. In fact, some of them use other alphabets other than the Chinese characters. The Arabic alphabet is even used by one of the groups in China. Everyone seems to think that Chinese is as homogeneous as Korea or Japan, but it isn’t.
However, even though the Japanese are homogeneous as a people, they are not with their language. The Japanese that most foreigners learn is actually Tokyo ben, the Tokyo dialect, that is considered standard Japanese. Every part of Japan has a different dialect, and it is more different than just an accent like we have in English. For example, to say “let’s go” in Tokyo ben, they say “ikimasho.” However, in Ibaraki, they say for “let’s go,” “igubei.” I have even heard them say “iko’ for “let’s go,” but I don’t know what dialect that is. The same thing happens with the Chinese characters they use. There is a standard set they all learn in school. However, from prefecture to prefecture in Japan, they use different kanji (Chinese characters). Some Japanese have explained to me that when they move from one part of Japan to another, they have to learn new kanji every time or they can’t read the signs in the new place. If the Japanese want to speak to Japanese in other parts of Japan, they learn the Tokyo dialect. My Japanese son in law is from Okinawa, and he went to Tokyo especially to learn the Tokyo dialect to speak with other Japanese.
I used to be under the impression that if I studied enough Chinese characters, that I had the key to the orient. It is one key for some of the orient, but not for all of it. There is a little sharing back and forth between China, Korea, and Japan, but not as much as we would wish to make it more profitable to learn the Chinese characters. There is a certain amount of understanding in each place, but life goes on and things change, and even though all three countries originally learned the same characters, they aren’t completely they same any more, and most Koreans can’t even read them now a days.