Sesame Street Gets B. B. King to Sing Some Bizarre Metaphysics


The usual mistake we see among literate people regarding scripts is to give written language priority over verbal language: e.g., without the letter 'b,' the word 'bird' could not exist. (If you look, you can find many, many real examples of this kind of error: here is one. This is a site for educators, and it forwards the nonsense that "Chinese is a pictorial language": No, no, the Chinese script may be more or less pictorial, but the Chinese script is just a way to represent various languages such as Mandarin and Cantonese: the script is not a language, and there is no such language as "Chinese." And the various languages spoken in China are no more "pictorial" than are English or Russian or Tagalog.)

But the lyrics King sings are far worse: they actually say that the things whose names start with 'b' could not themselves exist without the letter! OK, sure, as adults, we can all dismiss this as a funny way to compose a song about a letter. But this show is intended for little kids, who could easily believe that unless certain letters exist, the actual things whose names that start with that letter in their own language could not exist without that letter: that is just the sort of magical thinking that educators should be trying to dispel, not reinforce!

9 comments:

  1. Either I don't understand this at all, or I disagree with the part about Chinese.

    It was my understanding that the Chinese "pictures" map directly to concepts. So, for most languages, the 'map' looks something like:

    written language --> spoken language --> concept

    But for "Chinese", it looks something like:

    written language --> concepts <-- spoken language

    So, for example, there is no way to 'sound out' a Chinese "picture" the way you can sound out an English word. You either know it, and can use it even without a spoken word to attach the meaning to, or you don't know it and it is unintelligible to you. And so because of this, there is no good way to transmit information about the sound of words, and various dialects of "chinese" tend to diverge very quickly.

    (Yes, they have pinyin, but that is a modern invention...which it is my understanding many/most Chinese have little respect for, because it allows young Chinese to speak/"read" words for which they have no understanding -- exactly something we can do in English, and consider a strength because it helps us to learn new words!)

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    1. Chinese *script* is indeed pictorial in origin. But a script is not a language, and furthermore there is no such language as "Chinese."

      Look at it this way: Chinese languageS can be and have been transcribed in the Latin alphabet: when written that way, does "Chinese" suddenly cease to be a "pictorial language"?

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    2. By the way, one certainly can sound out Chinese characters ... most of them, not all of them. Mostly they are actually made of two pictorial parts, and the one on the right indicates roughly how the character is pronounced. So, you just have to be familiar with the much smaller set of pictures that are used as right-side parts. I've done this, and I'm not very good at reading Chinese at all. Sometimes when I see an unfamiliar character, even when I can't consciously remember how the phonetic segment is pronounced, I think to myself "hmm, I'll bet this is pronounced like so ..."

      More significantly, the "Chinese pictures map directly to concepts" model is flawed. With the exception of a few that are of more recent vintage, each Chinese character represents one syllable of a word from Old Chinese. Since 99% of Old Chinese words were monosyllabic, almost all of the characters also represent a single word. A small subset of the characters are an attempt to draw pictures that represent the meaning of the word in question. But every character is linked tightly to a particular syllable of a particular word. Note that when there are two words for the same concept ... for instance, Chinese has two words for "dog", so there are two characters that mean dog. If the characters mapped directly to concepts, you would only need one character to represent dog.

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    3. Hmmm... didn't know that...

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  2. I don't know. If you ask Chinese, I think they will tell you the written language loses something when Anglicized, as with pinyin, but the spoken language does not necessarily lose that much. So you can't really 'encode' written Chinese into a Latinized form without pretty significant loss of information. (Or even from written Chinese into one of the spoken Chinese languages, for that matter...) I am not sure that they don't regard spoken and written language as two entirely different things.

    Basically, I think we experience written language in a way fundamentally different from the way they do, because of the essential disconnect between picture and sound. So you can't systematize them together like this (as you could with pretty much all European languages, as far as I know.) Maybe if the Chinese written language came from just one dialect, it might work within that system, though. I do think Cantonese actually has it's own written system, so it might apply there.

    But maybe I'm wrong. What book is this from?

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  3. Ok, so I talked to my wife, and she says you are basically right.

    But if that's the case, I don't see why they make such a big deal about their written language...

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    1. They like their *script*. There's nothing wrong with that.

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    2. Yeah, I can see that. Some Western people like calligraphy, etc, too.

      But that doesn't really seem to capture/account for the whole sentiment. I still think there is something unique there that we can't relate to.

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    3. Maybe they like it because it really provides something "extra." But the chief point is to differentiate a *language* from a *script* it happens to be written in. The language is first and foremost spoken, and the script is always derivative. Turkish was written in an Ottoman script until 1929, and a Latin script thereafter, but this was not a change to the language, just to how it was represented in writing.

      Highly schooled people tend to confuse the writing system for the language, but it is a standard point among linguists that the spoken language is the "real" thing.

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