Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Nu shu and Other Women's Writing Systems
A week or so ago, I finished reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It's a good, quick read, not-too-dense historical fiction, set in nineteenth century China. The story is one woman's tale of her arranged lifelong friendship with another woman, her "old same." Really, though, it's the story of a writing system. The focus throughout the book is on the importance of literacy, and what an effect learning the "secret" women's writing had on the main character's station in life. While the story was of course interesting, the information about nu shu at the end of the book was even moreso.

According to the book, and other stuff I found online, nu shu was a writing system developed by women in Hunan. The main character's aunt teaches her how to write, explaining that the characters are based on the traditional "men's" characters, but phonetic instead of logographic. (Not that she put it in those terms.) The main character also makes a big deal about how the reader had to be very sure to read carefully, with all the context of the whole message in mind, lest she mistake the meaning of homophonic words, presumably since nu shu did not distinguish between tones, as spoken Chinese does.

Aside from the fact that nu shu was supposed to be a secret writing system that men knew nothing about, the whole thing struck me as remarkably similar to the split between the hiragana and kanji writing systems in Japan. When Chinese writing began to take hold in upper class Japanese society, it was of course only men who learned to write that way. Women were restricted to the use of the hiragana syllabary. (In fact, if you visit the "World of Nu Shu" link above, you'll notice that the researcher is actually Japanese, and makes many comparisons of hiragana and nu shu.) The Wikipedia article notes in the History section that an alternative name for hiragana was onnade, or "women's writing."

The restriction of women to hiragana was always kind of funny to me, since in reality, it is much better suited to representing Japanese than Chinese writing is. When Chinese writing was first introduced to Japan, it wasn't yet kanji; it was still full out Chinese, so Japanese men were essentially having to learn to express their Japanese thoughts in an entirely different grammatical pattern when writing. Eventually, Chinese symbols were adopted as main vocabulary words, or kanji, and hiragana verb endings, particles, and other grammatical fillers were added in, allowing for a more Japanese writing system that retained the upper class Chinese cachet.

If only the women had been able to gain the upper hand and force the whole society to adopt a more logical writing system! It would certainly have made my life, and the lives of everyone who has ever tried to learn to read Japanese, much easier.

It occurred to me while writing this that there are other languages that have divorced speaking and writing methods besides the old Japanese/Chinese pair. Speakers of American Sign Language have to learn to read and write standard English, even though it uses a different grammar, too. I remember my mom telling me that a lot of ASL speakers have a hard time learning to read because of that. I feel their pain. (Update: I found an article on the linguistics of ASL that's pretty interesting, for people who were wondering why ASL and English are so different as to cause confusion.)

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