A Review of Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of

 Writing Systems, by John DeFrancisNote 1

Visible Speech is in many ways a sequel to the author's earlier "The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy."  But where the previous work concentrated on a single language, this new one sets out far more ambitiously to account for all written forms of language everywhere with a single all-embracing theory.  He is successful in many ways, and his attempt to explain and integrate such diverse approaches to writing as Yi, Mayan, and Sumerian into his theory along with better known alphabetic and character-based systems is worthy of study if only for the large number of source materials he has united in one place.

His basic thesis is also worthy of respect, at least at first glance.  DeFrancis holds that all writing systems in all ages and cultures are essentially little more than attempts to represent phonetic utterances by written symbols.  Since the main objection to such a generalization might come from students of Chinese, a field where DeFrancis' authority goes virtually unchallenged, his thesis would appear to be invulnerable.  But it is precisely here that this author, perhaps not unlike scholars in other fields, goes one step too far and turns a reasonable theory into near-despotism.

Both here and in his earlier work, DeFrancis declaims furiously against all those who even dare to suggest that there might be elements of "picture-writing" or, worse, an attempt to represent ideas, in written Chinese.  In a display of stunning erudition he singles out and passionately denounces those non-sinologist authorities who have catered to this view and even castigates those sinologists who have in any way encouraged its development.

For those familiar with Chinese, it is easy to see the justification for his anger.  Half-truths about the structure of Chinese have indeed encouraged the view that it is essentially a form of "picture writing," while it also contains, as DeFrancis quite correctly points out, an apparatus for representing sounds.   All of this is fairly familiar to advanced students of Chinese.

But this is where the author begins to promote his own form of unreason.  Just as previous authors and scholars have promoted the "picture-writing" thesis, so DeFrancis would now seemingly launch another equally unbalanced view of Chinese characters, that they are mainly used to represent sound.  One suspects that if DeFrancis had his way, he would install special electronic devices on all computers and typewriters everywhere to detect any statement about the Chinese language and send it hurtling out to him for his appropriate correction/censorship.  And he even constructs an entire history and theory of writing to prove that his thesis is true for all languages, including Chinese.  While he is of course right for most other languages, it is still Chinese and its children that cause all the trouble.

Despite all of DeFrancis' insistence to the contrary, Chinese still contains definite elements of symbolic--if only occasionally pictorial--representation.  On the simplest level, all characters for different kinds of fish, birds, or plants all have a "fish, "bird," or "plant" symbol in them.  Thus, while the English sentence "Cassowaries were a problem that year" might send non-ornithologist readers scurrying to their dictionaries, they would be able to read and readily understand the equivalent Chinese sentence, thanks to a "Big Bird" symbol, even though they had never before seen the Chinese character for "cassowary."  On a higher level, there is also a symbol for verbs of physical action and another for verbs of motion.  And beyond this there are also symbols for characters expressing emotion or mental processes and a pair of symbols for denoting bodily parts or illness.

It is certainly not a perfect system, but it is also certainly not a phonetic one and despite DeFrancis may be arguably described as related to meaning, symbols, even pictures.  The point is, which this author seems to prefer to ignore, that Chinese handles both, though perhaps neither with stunning accuracy.  The real problem may be that the structure of Chinese is so difficult from a western point of view that even competent linguists are unable to grasp  it without a full-scale attack on the language, even after a well-organized and detailed explanation, which tends to hypnotize them and put them to sleep.  Even advanced students have trouble explaining the conceptual problems involved to non-specialists and may tend to revert to half-truths just to get something across.

It was of course Leibniz, as DeFrancis points out, who greatly contributed to the western mythology that Chinese might serve as a superior linguistic vehicle for representing human thought in a more advanced pictorial manner than mere alphabetic writing.  In his quest to demolish all who repeat this notion, the author misses out on one special irony that provides a kind of climax to this entire discussion.  One recent author who swallowed the Leibniz line whole is none other than the French scholar "Étiemble," author of Parlez-Vous Franglais?  In his work L'Écriture, Étiemble embraces Leibniz wholeheartedly and looks forward to a time when French will be written using Chinese characters.  It seems odd, to say the least, that the author who has done most to defend French from one foreign language, should also have done everything in his power to encourage the incursions of another.

In summation, this is a work excellent for its erudition and specialized grasp of a difficult subject.  That it goes too far in one particular direction is probably excusable and also perhaps more typical of scholarship in general than is supposed to be the case.

This piece was originally commissioned by Language International in 1990 but was never published due to editorial changes at that publication.

1. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1989. back to text

This article is Copyright © 1990
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.

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