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Tl;dr From a linguistic pov, the monosyllabic nature of Chinese language itself, plus the invention of compound ideograms saved the day. Politically, China being geographically isolated helped preserve the language into the 21st century. Monosyllabism Chinese languages are monosyllabic. Each syllable corresponds to its own word. Unlike polysyllabic languages like English, which treats ‘about’ as one word, Chinese languages would transcribe ‘about’ such that the seemingly dependent ‘a’ takes the place of a full, complete and separate word as well. For example, imagine I am inventing a writing system for English from scratch and I currently have the symbol ‘sing’ which is a picture of a person holding a mic. The sound /sing/ occurs frequent enough - like in ‘sourcing’, ‘single’, ‘missing’, ‘hissing’ - that I would eventually come to the discovery that.“, even though t mean different things, I can totally use this ‘sing’ symbol for these words and be understood.” Eventually, I might even use ‘sing’ for syllables that sound similar but not the same, like ‘signature’, ‘buzzing’, ‘losing’, ‘symphony’, ‘symbol’, ‘sickle’. These small differences in pronunciation won’t matter, because a reader can disambiguate the meaning using other syllable symbols of the word. Monosyllabic languages do not have this advantage. As a scribe, representing similar sounds with the same symbol would be problematic because there is no way to help disambiguate which word I meant. If I want to phonetically borrow a word for its sound, I have to be extremely careful. With this, you can see the pictograph ‘sing’ being reused everywhere in a polysyllabic language, so much that our man-with-mic pictograph can successfully abandon its meaning, which is essentially what a phonetic writing system is. A monosyllabic language would not see this over-borrowing everywhere, so even when borrowed this new meaning would be so internalised that eventually it acquires that new meaning. You know what other languages are polysyllabic? Sumerian, Egyptian and Mayan! T are the only other 3 languages that developed their own writing system from scratch. Eventually, due to their polysyllabic nature t developed varying degrees of phonetic spelling in their writing system. Compound Ideographs 會意 People might not realise it, but the moment the Egyptians, Mayans and Sumerians independently invented the all-so-familiar concept of phonetic spelling, t made a permanent decision to pursue a more phonetic writing system. You see, logographic scripts all eventually face the one same problem. How do we represent concepts that we simply can’t draw? ‘Take a rest’, ‘eat something’, ‘servant’, ‘buy’ etc. T chose to spell according to how t pronounced it, early Chinese on the other hand, t chose to spell it too, but according to its meaning. And somehow, like the Chinese never figured out phonetic spelling, the other logographic scripts never figured t could draw a MAN resting beside a TREE to mean REST. (i.e. 休) While phonetic spelling weakened the symbol’s connection with its meaning, this newfound use of a symbol’s meaning further strengthened that connection. More generations of scribes have to remember the meaning of these symbols because t occur not only by themselves but also when in conjunction with other symbols. Political And Cultural Independence China’s geographical isolation protected China from the other civilizations of Eurasia, and even when China was conquered the Chinese writing system never stopped to become the language of the government. In other words, the Chinese language never lost its ruling or majority status like how Egypt, Maya and Sumer had it. Generations upon generations were educated in the Chinese language because it was the language towards a secure path as a government official. Logographic writing systems are actually not that different from other writing systems - t all die when there is no motivation in learning them. For example, when Egypt still maintained much of its autonomy, the Egyptian Hieroglyphs - or rather, a version of that, the Hieratic - flourished. (Side note.Ever wonder how Egyptians manage to record every business transaction, every government paperwork in this flowery script? Well, no. It was more like the upper part of this, Hieratic. Hieratic is just the handwritten version of the Hieroglyphs.) Anyway, back to our topic, although by the stage of these pictures the Egyptian writing system has largely been phonetic, there were still many non-phonetic elements that helped to disambiguate meaning, not unlike Chinese. Demotic, another writing system that was purely phonetic replaced Hieratic as the more popular script, around when the Greek conquered Egypt. However, Demotic was still based off of the original Hieroglyphs and Hieratic; it was just simplified. The final blow was when Egypt was conquered by the Romans. Demotic was progressively less used in life, and replaced by a Greek-based alphabet called the Coptic alphabet. I don’t think the Chinese has ever been overshadowed by any other culture as devastatingly as this. I don’t blame the Egyptians. Logographic writing needs government support to survive. Conclusion The inherent monosyllabic nature of Chinese languages encouraged and preserved the 1-to-1 relationship between a symbol and a spoken word, and this 1-to-1 relationship discouraged phonetic spelling of most words to avoid confusion. Lacking a new way to represent more abstract words, Chinese developed compound ideographs which further strengthened the word with its meaning. And lastly, the long tradition of using the Chinese writing system in the government further sustained the growth of the writing system. Further Reading (If you want to learn more) A. Rebuses 假借字 - words borrowed to mean something else - exist in abundance in Chinese. However, it is not accurate by definition to treat them as signs of Chinese leaning towards a phonetic writing system. Although these rebuses have abandoned their initial meaning, t eventually acquired another meaning and stopped at that. It never develop to the stage where the symbol ‘A’ came to mean so many things that effectively we would be better off relating the varying definitions of ‘A’ with sound. B. Like the other 3 homegrown writing systems, Chinese did develop our own phonetic notations. Like I said, t were merely hindered by the monosyllabic nature of Chinese. Unlike rebuses which are words borrowed to mean something else, these characters don’t bear meaning at all - t just represent sounds. To use them, we add extra hints, called radicals in Chinese and determinatives in Egyptology. T are characters like 昜, 韋, 僉, 甬, 雚 etc. Ask the average Chinese what t mean, and most will tell you t just plain don’t know. These characters are familiar to the average Chinese reader because t appear everywhere serving as phonetic symbols, not because t carry meaning themselves. In other words, you see the character 僉 representing sound in 臉, 劍, 檢, 薟, 瞼, 簽 etc, but so seldom by itself. I mean, this is the hallmark of phonetics, right? So, in a way, Chinese did develop and internalise our own native albeit incomplete system of syllabaries. C. And, how do I prove monosyllabism - my central argument - to be the one true root factor? Well, just look at the Japanese writing system. Japanese is polysyllabic. T inherited the Chinese writing system and with time t managed to reduce the Chinese writing system to only 50 symbols - a feat that the Chinese never achieved on their own. You can kinda say the Japanese are the Akkadians of the East, who inherited the Sumerian cuneiform and molded it to fit their own language. The progress towards a more phonetic script is seen even now in Japan. More and more words are spelled out in phonetics instead of using the corresponding logographic symbol. The Egyptians and Mayans experienced exactly this - a slow but sure abandonment of or alternative to logograms. D. And, how do I know so certainly that the Chinese writing system will be reduced to a mere phonetic writing system without government support? Well, it has happened. Just look at Hokkien. Hokkien branched out from Old Chinese and took a separate route in its evolution than other Chinese languages like Cantonese, Shanghaiese, and Mandarin. Unlike Mandarin, which is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan, and Cantonese, which is the official language of Hong Kong, Hokkien has no official use as a written language at all. While there might be small pockets of academics writing Hokkien properly with etymologically correct Chinese characters, that is far from the norm now, happening in 2017. The vast majority of Hokkien speaking population just spell Hokkien phonetically, either using the Mandarin pronunciation of the Chinese characters or just outright writing with the Latin alphabet. The resemblance to the Egyptian decline and death process is uncanny. Example.For further reading beyond further reading. a. Wen Shen Teo's answer to Is Chinese writing similar to Egyptian Hieroglyphs in the way t work? b. Wen Shen Teo's answer to Why are Chinese characters so different from the writing systems used for other languages? EDIT 2.Wow, I left this answer to rot, and just recently found out I have 84 upvotes now! Yippee!
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