The Ideographic Myth

The concept of ideographic writing is a most seductive notion. There is great appeal in the concept of written symbols conveying their message directly to our minds, thus bypassing the restrictive intermediary of speech. And it seems so plausible. Surely ideas immediately pop into our minds when we see a road sign, a death's head label on a bottle of medicine, a number on a clock. Aren't Chinese characters a sophisticated system of symbols that similarly convey meaning without regard to sound? Aren't they an ideographic system of writing?

The answer to these questions is no. Chinese characters are a phonetic, not an ideographic, system of writing, as I have attempted to show in the preceding pages. Here I would go further: There never has been, and never can be, such a thing as an ideographic system of writing. How then did this concept originate, and why has it received such currency among specialists and the public at large?

Origin of the Myth

The concept of Chinese writings as a means of conveying ideas without regard to speech took hold as part of the chinoiserie fad among Western intellectuals that was stimulated by the generally highly laudatory writings of Catholic missionaries from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The first Western account of the fascinatingly different/Chinese writing was the comment made by the Portuguese Dominican Friar Gaspar da Cruz in 1569:

A revised version of this chapter appears in Difficult Characters.

The Chinas [Chinese] have no fixed letters in their writing, for all that they write is by characters, and they compose words of these, whereby they have a great multitude of characters, signifying each thing by a character in such sort that one only character signifies "Heaven," another "earth," and another "man," and so forth with everything else. [Boxer 1953:161-162]

Cruz's remarks about Chinese were given wider currency when they were repeated by Juan Gonzales de Mendoza in a book that went through thirty editions in the principal European languages before the end of the century.

A more authoritative description of Chinese writing was advanced by the renowned Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). His original manuscript, written in Italian, was not published until 1942, but it was used by a fellow missionary, Nicola Trigault, as the basis for a "liberal version" in Latin that was published in 1615 and went through ten editions in various European languages in the next few decades (Ricci 1942: CLXXVI-CLXXVII). From this Latin version of Ricci's observations, European readers learned that the Chinese have a system of writing "similar to the hieroglyphic signs of the Egyptians" and that they "do not express their concepts by writing, like most of the world, with a few alphabetic signs, but they paint as many symbols as there are words." Readers also learned that "each word has its own hieroglyphic character," that "there are no fewer symbols than words," and that "the great number of characters is in accord with the great number of things," though thanks to combining them the characters "do not exceed seventy to eighty thousand" (Trigault 1615:25-29, 144).

The Popularity among European scholars of these early works on things Chinese is matched by the huge eighteenth-century collection of missionary reports and essays entitled Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences, les arts, les moeurs, les usages, &c des Chinois, par les missionaries de Pekin. Here the discussion of Chinese characters was introduced in an article signed "Ko, Jés." He was one of a number of Chinese converts who spent some time in France and provided information to the missionaries. In his discussion of the characters the author presented the view that

they are composed of symbols and images, and that these symbols and images, not having any sound, can be read in all languages, and form a sort of intellectual painting, a metaphysical and ideal algebra, which conveys thoughts by analogy, by relation, by convention, and so on. [Mémoires 1776:24]

This view was taken up and expanded on by the well-known Father J. J. M. Amiot in a longer article in which he described characters as

images and symbols which speak to the mind through the eyes -- images for palpable things, symbols for mental ones. Images and symbols which are not tied to any sound and can be read in all languages. ... I would be quite inclined to define Chinese characters as the pictorial algebra of the sciences and the arts. In truth, a well-turned sentence is as much stripped of all intermediaries as is the most rigorously bare algebraic demonstration. [Mémoires 1776:282-285]

It is a curious fact, however, that while the notion that Chinese writing conveys ideas without regard to sound was widely held, no special name appears to have been coined for it. Westerners had made the acquaintance of Chinese in the sixteenth century. Friar Gaspar da Cruz, as noted above, referred to the Chinese symbols as "characters," and the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignani, who visited Macao in 1577, referred to Chinese characters as "that innumberable multitude of exceedingly intricate ciphers which pass for writing" among the Chinese (Bartoli 1663:147). It seems that for the next 250 years and more Chinese writing was referred to simply by such noncommittal terms as "characters" and "symbols."

It was not acquaintance with Chinese but decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing following Napoleon's conquests in North Africa that led to the coining of several expressions related to the ideographic idea. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English term "ideographic" was first used in 1822 to describe Egyptian writing. The French term "idéographique" was first used in the same year (Robert 1977:957). This was the very year that the French scholar Champollion announced his success in deciphering the Egyptian script. It turns out that the English term represents a direct transliteration of the French expression coined by Champollion in a celebrated letter announcing his discovery (Champollion 1822; Anonymous 1822).

Decipherment of this script had long been impeded by the notion that it was symbolic of ideas, particularly mystical or spiritual ones. It was not just the discovery of the famous Rosetta Stone, with its bilingual text in three scripts (Hieroglyphic Egyptian, Demotic Egyptian, and Greek) that made this possible. As Gordon (1968:24) stresses: "The decipherment of Hieroglyphic Egyptian required the replacement of the deep-seated notion of symbolism by the correct view that the main (though not the only) feature of the script is phonetic."

Champollion's success in deciphering the Egyptian script was due to his recognition of its phonetic aspect. He believed that what he called "the alphabet of the phonetic hieroglyphs" existed in Egypt "at a far distant time," that it was first "a necessary part" of the hieroglyphic script, and that later it was also used to transcribe "the proper names of peoples, countries, cities, rulers, and individual foreigners who had to be commemorated in historic texts or monumental inscriptions" (1822:41-42). These insights won by Champollion are supported by the succinct description of the Egyptian system of writing made by a recent authority: "The system of hieroglyphic writing has two basic features: first, representable objects are portrayed as pictures (ideograms), and second, the picture signs are given the phonetic value of the word for the represented objects (phonograms). At the same time, these signs are also written to designate homonyms, similar-sounding words" (Brunner 1974:854). The same authority also stresses that "hieroglyphs were from the very beginning phonetic symbols. ... Egyptian writing was a complete script; that is, it could unequivocally fix any word, including all derivatives and all grammatical forms" (Brunner 1974:853-855).

Champollion, however, overemphasized the use of "phonetic hieroglyphs" in transcribing foreign names (in his account this seems to be their only use), and he also obscured the significance of his own discovery by calling the Egyptian symbols "ideograms" and the writing "ideographic." Moreover, referring to the use of the symbols to write words foreign to the language, he added (1822:4): "The Chinese, who also use an ideographic script, have exactly the same provision, created for the same reason." It is ironic that the scholar who demonstrated the falsity of the old belief in Egyptian as symbolic and nonphonetic should have helped to popularize terms that powerfully reinforced the popular misconception of both the Egyptian and Chinese systems of writing.

The Essence of Writing

This misconception involves the precise nature of writing -- not Egyptian or Chinese writing but all forms of writing. The problem is not so complex as we make it out when we let ourselves get bogged down in consideration of detailed differences among the great varieties of writing. It becomes quite simple if we limit consideration of the written forms, be they signs or symbols or characters or pictures or whatnot, to the principles involved in the two basic aspects of form and function.

As to form, there is nearly unanimous agreement that writing started with pictures. As to function, there is less agreement. Did an Indian or Egyptian or Chinese picture of the sun convey an idea directly, or did it evoke a spoken word and through this intermediary convey the meaning?

Gelb insists on viewing the question in terms of two stages in the development of writing. In the first stage, in which he places what he calls "forerunners of writing"(1963:59), the symbols are clearly pictographic in form, though he prefers to call them "descriptive" or "representational." Just how did they function in conveying meaning? Gelb is not very clear, except in a negative sense of how they did not function in systems such as those of the North American Indians. In these systems the symbols did not represent specific sounds. Indeed, Indian pictographs were not even formalized or conventionalized and never transcended a sort of ad hoc quality in that they most often dealt with specific situations, were aimed at specific persons, and lacked generality or continuity in time. A typical example of Indian pictography, one in which it comprises more than the usual isolated symbol or two, is a message passed on by an Indian agent from a Cheyenne father to his son informing him of the transmission of $53. Another is a come-up-and-see-me-sometime invitation from an Ojibwa girl to her lover (Gelb 1963:31-32). Both require elaborate interpretation to be understood by anyone but the immediate persons involved. For the latter the symbols apparently comprised a sort of prearranged code. As noted by Mallery, the author of the most exhaustive studies available of the pictographs of American Indians, "comparatively few of their picture signs have become merely conventional. ... By far the larger part of them are merely mnemonic records" (1886:15-16). The meager information contained in the Amerindian pictographic symbols stands in contrast to the great amount of knowledge about the economic, social, religious, and other aspects of Sumerian, Egyptian, and Shang societies that can be obtained by reading their voluminous written records.

In the second stage, the pictographic form may be carried over from the first but the wholly new principle of using them to represent sounds makes its appearance, at first haltingly, then increasingly, until it eventually becomes the dominant feature. At this point, "full systems of writing" come into being (Gelb 1963:60).

One must insist on this clear dividing line between the two stages of writing. If we look only at the surface similarity in the depiction of objects in various forms of writing, we shall overlook the significance of the use of a particular picture or sign as a purely phonetic symbol. To lump together the writing of the American Indians and the early Chinese and Egyptians because of some similarity in graphic forms is to fall victim to the kind of befuddled thinking that is indicated by calling all of them pictographic or ideographic.

This point is of such overriding importance that we must pursue it a bit further by viewing Chinese writing in terms of the two-stage approach. Suppose we illustrate the matter by taking up once again the character for "wheat." We can summarize its form and function in the two stages as follows:

Stage 1, the era of protowriting akin to that of the American Indians, is assumed but not attested. We have no record of such a stage, although some evidence of pre-Shang writing is beginning to emerge (Aylmer 1981:6; Cheung 1983), but since elsewhere attempts at writing started with the drawing of pictures, we assume the same for Chinese. Whether the pictures were vocalized -- that is, represented concepts that were expressed orally in one definite way -- is a matter of disagreement. In any case there would be no indication of their having a specific phonetic value.

By the time we come to Shang writing we are already well into stage 2: real writing. It is not a completely new stage, however, as there are overlaps in certain areas. The chief overlap is in the form of the symbols. These are identical in the two stages, or perhaps those in the second stage are somewhat more stylized, a matter of no particular importance. There may be overlap also for the first function, that of representing, either directly or indirectly, the concept "wheat." The second function is, however, completely new in that it introduces the rebus use of the pictograph meaning "wheat" to represent another word with the same sound but with a totally different meaning. The rebus idea can be illustrated in English by the use of the four following pictographs depicting a human eye, a tin can, a seascape, and a female sheep or ewe:

eye can sea ewe

Taken together these pictographs make no sense as meaning-symbols but do make sense as sound-symbols: eye can sea ewe. The rebus idea seems obvious to us since we use it in children's games, but it actually constitutes a stupendous invention, an act of intellectual creation of the highest order -- a quantum leap forward beyond the stage of vague and imprecise pictures to a higher stage that leads into the ability to represent all the subtleties and precision expressible in spoken language. Writing is now directly, clearly, firmly related to language: to speech. If there was ever any question whether a symbol had a sound attached to it, this now receives a positive answer. In the earliest form known to us, the character for "wheat" was borrowed to represent the word "come" precisely because both were pronounced in the same way.

In human history it seems that the idea of using a pictograph in the new function of representing sound may have occurred only three times: once in Mesopotamia, perhaps by the Sumerians, once in China, apparently by the Chinese themselves, and once in Central America, by the Mayas. (Conceivably it was invented only once, but there is no evidence that the Chinese or the Mayas acquired the idea from elsewhere.) The idea that was independently conceived by these three peoples was taken over, as were at times even the symbols themselves, though often in a highly modified form, by others who made adaptations to fit a host of totally different languages. One of the major adaptations, generally attributed to the Greeks, was the narrowing of sound representation from syllabic representation to phonemic representation (Gelb 1963; Trager 1974), after an earlier stage of mixed pictographic and syllabic writing (Chadwick 1967).

The precise form in which the words in these languages are represented is a matter of quite secondary importance. With regard to the principle, it matters little whether the symbol is an elaborately detailed picture, a slightly stylized drawing, or a drastically abbreviated symbol of essentially abstract form. What is crucial is to recognize that the diverse forms perform the same function in representing sound. To see that writing has the form of pictures and to conclude that it is pictographic is correct in only one sense -- that of the form, but not the function, of the symbols. We can put it this way:

QUESTION: When is a pictograph not a pictograph?
ANSWER: When it represents a sound.

The use of the pictograph for "wheat" to represent the homophonous word ləg ("come") transformed the function of the symbol from pictographic depiction of an object to syllabic representation of a sound. This change in function has been the essential development marking the emergence of all true systems of writing, including Chinese.

Sinological Contribution to the Myth

The fact that some Chinese pictographs have not undergone a change in form parallel to the change in function has tended to obscure the significance of the change that did take place. As a result, the phonetic aspect of Chinese writing is minimized by many people, even specialists in the field. Creel in the United States and Margouliès in France are leading exponents of a view that has been taken over, in even more simplistic form, by the public at large. Both scholars are aware that there is a phonetic aspect in Chinese writing. Yet their attention is so narrowly focused on the nonphonetic aspect that their otherwise useful contributions to learning (especially Creel's informative and readable The Birth of China) are unfortunately diminished. Their discussions of Chinese writing are confused and contradictory -- at one time seeming to say one thing, at another something else, but coming down ultimately to a conclusion, that is completely untenable.

Creel (1936:91-93) says:

That Chinese writing was pictographic in origin does not admit of question. On the other hand, Chinese is not, and was not three thousand years ago, a pictographic language in the sense that it consisted of writing by means of pictures all or most of which would be readily understood by the uninstructed. ... The Chinese early abandoned the method of writing by means of readily recognizable pictures and diagrams. ... It was in part because the Chinese gave up pictoral [sic] writing that they were able to develop a practicable pictographic and ideographic script, with comparatively little help from the phonetic principle. To draw elaborate pictures of whole animals, for instance (as is done on some of the Shang bones), is too slow a process. The course taken in many parts of the world was to conventionalize the picture, reduce it to a simple and easily executed form, and then use it to represent homophonous words or parts of words. The course the Chinese have chosen has also been to conventionalize and reduce, but they then use the evolved element for the most part not phonetically, but to stand for the original object or to enter with other such elements into combinations of ideographic rather than phonetic value. This parting of the ways is of the most profound importance.

The last two sentences are the crux of Creel's thesis. Where Boodberg and others, as noted earlier, see phonetic elements, Creel sees elements that are conventionalized or reduced forms used "to stand for the original object or to enter with other such elements into combinations of ideographic rather than phonetic value." This emphasis on ideographic symbols that are merely conventionalized forms of pictographs leads Creel into the fanciful explanations of Chinese characters that were so sharply condemned by Boodberg. Boodberg's refutation contained in learned journals known only to specialists could do little to counter the impact of Creel's views expressed in his popular The Birth of China. Here Creel says: "We have specialized on the representation of sounds; the Chinese have specialized on making their writing so suggestive to the eye that it immediately calls up ideas and vivid pictures, without any interposition of sounds" (1937:159).

If we take this statement at face value without qualifying it with "What the author really meant to say was ..." -- a practice that runs the risk of misinterpreting what the author meant -- the statement is absurdly false, as can be attested by any reader of this book who has not studied Chinese. Simply look at the characters sprinkled throughout the work and note how many or how few immediately call up ideas and vivid pictures without any interposition of sounds.

The qualification that we hesitate to read into Creel's statement is suggested by the author himself, but in the same specialized journal mentioned earlier and quoted to the effect that Chinese is not "a pictographic language in the sense that it consisted of writing by means of pictures all or most of which would be readily understood by the uninstructed." But if the ability to grasp an idea "immediately" or "readily" from symbols that are "a practical pictographic and ideographic script" though not "pictoral writing" is limited to those who presumably must be classified as "the instructed," this makes the otherwise absurd statement inanely true. For it is equally true that the instructed can immediately grasp an idea whether it is expressed in Chinese characters, in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in Japanese kana, or even in our less than perfect English orthography. All literates are conditioned, like Pavlov's dogs, to respond to certain culture-bound stimuli. The written word "chicken" evokes in my mind precisely the same picture -- or pictures -- as the written character (or ), except perhaps that in the first case I may salivate in anticipation of Kentucky fried chicken and in the second of chicken cooked in soy sauce.

Apart from the error of thinking that Chinese characters are unique in evoking mental images, where Creel and others from Friar Gaspar da Cruz right on down go astray in their characterization of Chinese writing is to succumb to the hypnotic appeal of the relatively few characters that are demonstratably of pictographic origin and to extrapolate from these to the majority if not the entirety of the Chinese written lexicon. The error of exaggerating the pictographic and hence semantic aspect of Chinese characters and minimizing if not totally neglecting the phonetic aspect tends to fix itself very early in the minds of many people, both students of Chinese and the public at large, because their first impression of the characters is likely to be gained by being introduced to the Chinese writing system via some of the simplest and most interesting pictographs, such as those presented at the beginning of Chapter 5. Unless a determined effort is made to correct this initial impression, it is likely to remain as an article of faith not easily shaken by subsequent exposure to different kinds of graphs. This may also explain the oversight even of specialists who are aware of the phonetic aspect in Chinese characters, including such able scholars as Li and Thompson (1982:77), who refer to Chinese writing as "semantically, rather than phonologically grounded" and consider that a character "does not convey phonological information except in certain composite logographs where the pronunciation of the composite is similar to one of its component logographs." It takes a profoundly mesmerized observer to overlook as exceptions the two-thirds of all characters that convey useful phonological information through their component phonetic.

Myth vs. Reality

A limited number of pictographic or semantic characters, like the limited number of what Bolinger (1946) Calls "visual morphemes" and Edgerton (1941) "ideograms in English writing," or even the extensive but still limited systems such as mathematical or chemical notation, cannot be considered indicative of full systems of nonphonetic writing that can function like ordinary orthographies to express nearly everything we can express in spoken language. The fact is that such a full system of nonphonetic writing has never existed. The system of Chinese characters, the Sumerian, Accadian, and Hittite cuneiform systems, and the Egyptian hieroglyphic system were none of them complete systems of semantic writing. For Sumerian and Accadian, Civil (1973:26) provides figures summarized in Table 8 showing the relative importance of phonetic versus semantic elements in various texts. With respect to Egyptian, Edgerton says that "of the total number of signs in any normal hieroglyphic or hieratic text, the overwhelming majority will not be ideographic at all but phonetic" (1940:475). The same is true of Chinese, as was shown in great detail in Chapter 5.

Semantic Versus Phonetic Aspects of Cuneiform Symbols
Symbols Sumerian Accadian
Syllabograms 36.4-54.3% 85.6-95.7%
Logograms 60.3-42.8% 6.5-3.5%
Classifiers 3.1-2.9% 7.6-0.7%

Nonphonetic symbols occur in every writing system. But using the existence of these symbols, however numerous, to conclude that whole systems not based on sound have existed, or even that such systems are possible, are unwarranted assumptions that lead inevitably to the complete obfuscation regarding the nature of writing that is expressed in the Ideographic Myth.

This myth, it is apparent, exists in two aspects. Both must be rejected. The first is that the Chinese characters constitute an existing system of ideographic writing. This has been shown to be factually untrue. The second aspect is the validity of the ideographic concept itself. I believe it to be completely untenable because there is no evidence that people have the capacity to master the enormous number of symbols that would be needed in a written system that attempts to convey thought without regard to sound, which means divorced from spoken language. A few, yes, as in any writing system, including English with its numerals and other "visual morphemes." Even quite a few, given the large number of Chinese syllabic signs and graphs without good phonetic clues. But while it is possible for a writing system to have many individual "ideographs" or "ideograms," it is not possible to have a whole writing system based on the ideographic principle. Alphabetic writing requires mastery of several dozen symbols that are needed for phonemic representation. Syllabic writing requires mastery of what may be several hundred or several thousand symbols that are needed for syllabic representation. Ideographic writing, however, requires mastery of the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of symbols that would be needed for ideographic representation of words or concepts without regard to sound. A bit of common sense should suggest that unless we supplement our brains with computer implants, ordinary mortals are incapable of such memory feats. The theory of an ideographic script must remain in the realm of popular mythology until some True Believers demonstrate its reality by accomplishing the task, say, of putting Hamlet or at least Lincoln's Gettysburg Address into English written in symbols without regard to sound.

Objections to the Term "Ideographic"

We need to go further and throw out the term itself. Boodberg proposed doing so years ago when he sharply criticized students of early Chinese inscriptions for neglecting the phonological aspect of Chinese writing and for "insisting that the Chinese in the development of their writing ... followed some mysterious esoteric principles that set them apart from the rest of the human race." Boodberg added (1937:329-332):

Most students in the field have chosen to concentrate their efforts on the exotically fascinating questions of "graphic semantics" and the study of the living tissues of the word has almost completely been neglected in favor of the graphic integument encasing it. ... The term "ideograph" is, we believe, responsible for most of the misunderstanding of the writing. The sooner it is abandoned the better. We would suggest the revival of the old term "logograph." Signs used in writing, however ambiguous, stylized, or symbolic, represent words.

The last sentence should be given the utmost emphasis: Chinese characters represent words (or better, morphemes), not ideas, and they represent them phonetically, for the most part, as do all real writing systems despite their diverse techniques and differing effectiveness in accomplishing the task.

Boodberg's objections to describing Chinese writing as ideographic were anticipated by a century in a remarkable book by Peter S. DuPonceau. The author, a leading scholar who was president of the American Philosophical Society, was one of the outstanding general linguists of the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States. Although his work has been briefly noted by Edgerton (1944) and by Chao (1940), it has not received the attention it deserves among Chinese specialists. I must confess to having failed to check his views until quite recently, a failure which has put me in the position of reinventing the wheel. For DuPonceau, with an insight that is truly astonishing in view of the limited sources available to him, presents cogently reasoned arguments against the notion of Chinese as an ideographic script and against the whole concept of ideographic writing. His presentation, though faulty in some points (as noted by Chao 1940), constitutes what is probably the most extensive refutation yet written of the Ideographic Myth.

DuPonceau (1838:106-107) summarizes the background of the ideographic concept by noting the general opinion that Chinese writing

is an ocular method of communicating ideas, entirely independent of speech, and which, without the intervention of words, conveys ideas through the sense of vision directly to the mind. Hence it is called ideographic, in contradistinction from the phonographic or alphabetical system of writing. This is the idea which is entertained of it in China, and may justly be ascribed to the vanity of the Chinese literati. The Catholic at first, and afterwards the Protestant missionaries, have received it from them without much examination; and the love of wonder, natural to our species, has not a little contributed to propagate that opinion, which has taken such possession of the public mind, that it has become one of those axioms which no one will venture to contradict.

But DuPonceau does venture to contradict, and in no uncertain terms. In a succinct statement which might well serve as a credo for all students of Chinese to memorize, he concludes (1838: xxxi):

  1. That the Chinese system of writing is not, as has been supposed, ideographic; that its characters do not represent ideas, but words, and therefore I have called it lexigraphic.
  2. That ideographic writing is a creature of the imagination, and cannot exist, but for very limited purposes, which do not entitle it to the name of writing.
  3. That among men endowed with the gift of speech, all writing must be a direct representation of the spoken language, and cannot present ideas to the mind abstracted from it.
  4. That all writing, as far as we know, represents language in some of its elements, which are words, syllables, and simple sounds.

The conclusions obtained so long ago by DuPonceau are matched by the equally insightful observations of his contemporary, the French sinologist J. M. Callery. In the introduction to his syllabary of 1,040 phonetic signs Callery states (1841:i):

If the works of the illustrious Champollion had not already proved conclusively that the Egyptian hieroglyphics, previously regarded as symbolic signs, are, for the most part, nothing but phonetic signs, that is to say, signs destined to represent the different sounds of the language, I would perhaps not dare to raise my feeble voice to say before the scholarly world that the Chinese characters are also, for the most part, nothing but phonetic characters intimately tied to the sounds of the language, and not symbolic or ideographic signs, as has generally been believed up to now; however, since the barrier of prejudice has been overcome, and in almost all the sciences the eminently rational procedure of observation has been adopted, I am hazarding to put under the eyes of the public the result of my researches on the phonetic system of Chinese writing.

It is a pity that "the eminently rational procedure of observation" adopted by DuPonceau and Callery has been so much neglected by modern scholars. It is disheartening to see how pervasive is the idea that the Chinese in the development of their writing have followed, in Boodberg's words, "some mysterious esoteric principles that have set them apart from the rest of the human race." It is particularly disheartening to see levelheaded scholars suddenly taking leave of their critical faculties when confronted by Chinese characters. One reason for the pervasiveness and tenacity of the myth, I am now convinced, stems from the use of the word "ideographic." The term itself is responsible for a good deal of the misunderstanding and should be replaced, since its repetitious use, as in the big lie technique and in subliminal advertising, insidiously influences our thinking.

Boodberg has suggested that it be replaced by the term "logographic," others by "morphemic." These terms have been widely adopted in academic circles, but many scholars apparently see no real difference between them and "ideographic." In his discussion of Sumerian writing, Civil (1973:21) quotes a French writer who uses the term "idéographique"; Civil follows it immediately with the bracketed explanation "[i.e., logographic]." A college textbook on linguistics (Geogheghn et al. 1979:131-1) equates the two terms in the following statement: "In logographic writing systems each character that is used represents either a concrete or abstract concept or idea. (For this reason, they are also called ideographic.)" Kolers, who believes that "there are two major writing systems in the world today, the semantic and the phonetic" (1970:113), makes no distinction between the two concepts underlying the two terms in his confused references to Chinese writing as a system that is "not phonetic" and contains logographic compounds" that are "derived from pictures" and are "intuitively appealing" (1969:353, 357, 360). These typical examples show that the term "logographic" is simply being taken as a fancier equivalent for "ideographic" and is not fulfilling the expectation of Boodberg and other sinologists that it would help avoid misconceptions regarding the basic nature of Chinese writing. Both terms are inadequate and misleading because they fail to indicate that the process of getting from graph to word/morpheme involves the phonetic aspect of the latter and because this failure leaves the way open to the idea that we get from graph to word/morpheme by means of some nonphonetic, in a word, "ideographic," approach. Only the adoption of some such term as "morphosyllabic," which calls attention to the phonetic aspect, can contribute to dispelling the widespread misunderstanding of the nature of Chinese writing.

The term "ideographic" has been used not only by those who espouse its basic meaning but also by others who do not necessarily accept the concept but use the term out of mere force of habit as an established popular designation for Chinese characters. I find, to my chagrin, that in my previous publications I have been guilty of precisely this concession to popular usage without being aware of the damage it can cause. As a repentant sinner I pledge to swear off this hallucinogen. I hope others will join in consigning the term to the Museum of Mythological Memorabilia along with unicorn horns and phoenix feathers.