Archive for May, 2007

homophonic characters

In the realm of restricted composition, there is Ernest V. Wright’s Gadsby, which avoids the most common letter ‘e’ in English.

In Chinese, there is this elementary passage which plays on the homophone issue of spoken Mandarin Chinese. Every character in the entire passage is pronounced “shi” (with varying tones), but nevertheless at this level the passage would make no sense if recited. But, written in the Classical Chinese idiom, the passage makes perfect sense when read visually (and isn’t particularly difficult to comprehend even for a modern reader).


This is one demonstration that written Chinese can hold significant semantic content beyond phonetic value, a mechanism that has been key for tying together diverging spoken dialects over a thousand years.