How Pictorial is Chinese? And Does it Matter?

Contributions of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society 18:317-319 (2010)
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It has often been said that the Chinese script is pictorial or ideographic, and that this is one of the reasons why Chinese tend to think more analogically than logically, and why in the past the natural sciences developed to a lesser degree in China than in the West. These are strong claims. They have often been oversimplified and exaggerated, but I think there is something to be said for them. Here I will focus on the first question. I will argue that Chinese characters still have semantic features that create image-like qualities in a wider sense: not mere resemblances between sign and object, but family resemblances in semantic fields. The fact that Chinese is an isolating and monosyllabic language is essential in this.

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Christian Wenzel
National Taiwan University


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