Conference--Sound and Symbol in Sinography

Tue, Jun 19, 2018 (All day)
202 Jones

Do Chinese characters convey words, syllables, ideas, morphemes, and/or images? Is the answer to that question the same for contemporary vernacular writing as for the highly formalized “mnemotechnic notation” (Granet) of Literary Sinitic? Does the historical spread of Sinographic writing to Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and other language communities across East Asia reveal an underlying continuity to its use, or rather the arbitrariness of its function?
Bernard Karlgren’s popular Sound and Symbol in Chinese, first published in Swedish in 1918, is paradigmatic of a key aporia in analysis of the Chinese writing system: on the one hand, contrary to the western mythology of the ideograph, Karlgren points out that “nine-tenths” of Sinographs have some phonetic indicator. However, he quickly demurs, while it is true that “to some extent” Sinographic writing was in the past a phonetic script, “it is not anymore”—language change has divorced the many dialects of modern China from the Old Chinese homophone groups reflected in their writing system.
In the hundred years since Karlgren’s statements, research on Sinographic writing has been further enriched by new archaeological discoveries, the development of neurological approaches to analyzing processes of reading, and by the growth of comparative work that treats Sinographic inscription as a pan-East Asian phenomenon and as one script in the world history of writing. This special meeting of the Colloquium on Literacies across East Asia (CLEA) reconsiders our current state of understanding of the history, diversity, and potentials of Sinographs as a medium of writing.
Presenters: Murielle Fabre (Cornell University), Zev Handel (University of Washington), Sowon Park (UC Santa Barbara), James Unger (the Ohio State University)
Organizers: John Whitman (Cornell University), Brian Steininger (Princeton University), John Phan (Columbia University)

Pre-registration is required. For more information or to register, please contact Brian Steininger (

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