Thursday, August 18, 2016

Numbers and Letters: Different Histories - A Note to Andrew Sheng

Latin Alphabet: Modern and Ancient

In an interesting and informed article for The Straits Times, "Why do Chinese think differently from the West?" (August 5, 2016), Andrew Sheng explains the difficulty of being precise in Chinese, and I think he means written Chinese because he compares the use of ideogrammatic writing systems to alphabetic writing systems. Readers will want to click on over and at least peruse the article. On one point, however, Sheng errs:
Science developed in the West partly because of the alphabetic language, derived from the Arabs, which means that you can define words and meaning much more precisely, since the English language comprises today over a million words. As the philosopher Wittgenstein argued, all concepts are defined by language.
The Western alphabet was not "derived from the Arabs." The best theory is that the Phoenicians developed an alphabet around 1000 BC (or even 500 years earlier) and had by 800 BC passed the alphabet on to the Greeks, who in turn passed it on to the Latin peoples around 700 BC.

Sheng is probably confusing the history of the alphabet with the history of the decimal place-value numeral system (with zero), the latter of which did come to the West via the Arabs, but Arabs borrowed this numeral system (along with a symbol for zero) from the Hindus.

Perhaps someone who knows Sheng could direct him to this blogpost?



At 10:14 AM, Blogger TheBigHenry said...

Perhaps Sheng's confusion between the histories of the alphabet and the concept of zero is just an illustration of "the difficulty of being precise in Chinese"?

At 10:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ha! Ha! Good one, TBH!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Missionary Ernest loong,a Chinese missionary to the people of China came to our church in Colorado. He said other languages printed their Bibles horizontally. When they read their Bible, they are shaking their heads "no." When Chinese read their bible vertically they are nodding their heads "yes."


At 4:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, that must be why Christianity is booming in China!

Jeffery Hodges

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