A 2,000-year-old language in the 21st century / by David Hu

In the age of Twitter and SMS it seems ideal if all of our thoughts were easily communicable andthoroughly understandable in 140 characters or less, online or otherwise. This fantasy world would require a concise language with words that are very specific in meaning and don't overlap each other. Inconveniently, English is a language that easily has over hundreds of thousands of words and, by some accounts, surpassed one million words sometime in the early 21st century. In comparison, Chinese--a language with roughly 2 to 3 times the number of native speakers--has only about 50,000 characters (up to 100,000, depending on sources), a small portion of which is actually used day-to-day.

'Chinese (language)' written in Mandarin, literally as 'Middle (Kingdom's) language'

'Chinese (language)' written in Mandarin, literally as 'Middle (Kingdom's) language'

One may (rightly) point out that comparing the two languages is like comparing apples to oranges; Chinese words are actually various combinations of monosyllabic characters. A more proper exercise might be to compare the 50,000 Chinese characters to the 26 letters of the alphabet. Furthermore, what counts as a word cannot be satisfactorily defined, even though thousands of new words are officially added to the Webster Dictionary every year.

Nonetheless, there are some traits for legitimate comparison (likewise, apples and oranges are both common, edible fruits). First, Chinese (Mandarin, specifically) and English are two of the three most spoken languages in the world (Spanish being number two). And second, while English is the de factointernational business language, Chinese is rapidly closing in--even if only by the sheer number of people speaking it in an exploding consumer market.

What, then, makes them fundamentally different? For one, it's a safe bet to say that English has many more words that mean the same thing--the Chinese language simply doesn't have nearly as many characters or words to share among all the different ideas. There are many more ways to express an idea in English, and fine-tuning and clarifying it can often be done through word selection alone. On the other hand, any given Chinese character can represent vastly different concepts, significance, and attitudes--leaving the interpretation of a word or phrase to be, at its worst, muddy and unreliable, but at its best, fantastically imaginative and deeply philosophical for its audience.

The question, therefore, that begs to be answered: in a world being built on efficiency, accuracy, and relentlessness, how does the Chinese language fit in? What purpose can it meet beyondbeing simply a means of spoken and written communication?