Have you heard the argument that our thoughts are constrained by what we can verbalize? It’s interesting when you think about it, and there are some neat studies to back it up. It also adds a stimulating dimension to etymology, maybe motivating us to investigate what gems of ideas other languages may hold.

A touching example I learned about recently is that the Chinese character for “to listen” is composed of the characters for “ears”, “eyes”, “attention”, and “heart” (and I think, “king”, actually). (This link is worth a glance to see what I mean.) We see baked into the language a static reminder of what real listening involves. How wonderful!

What’s also wonderful is how uniquely a glyph can portray an amalgam of concepts in a way that, say, a German compound word cannot. A glyph composed of many simpler glyphs may result in more strokes, but the spoken word is still one word which usually means one syllable. Also, in the glyph there’s no primary word with determiners, so the connection between the composite and its components is more abstract, more poetic. Perhaps ironically, it’s far more gestalt than the German counterpart.

Someone some time ago had to have decided this character for this word would take this form. It says something about culture of the time, doesn’t it? It’s easy to be seduced by a sense of wisdom contained in this one character. But before we fall prey to simplistic Orientalism let’s consider what little history I can muster.

I said ‘this character’ at the top of the last paragraph because millenia ago, there were certainly several competing glyphs for a given word. Just as one finds within the Roman Empire several languages and dialects, so with China. How interesting that this is the glyph that survived. I would love to know what the others were like and how they came to be. I would love to know the contexts in which this version was first used, evolved, and saved in favor over the others. What were the political, philosophical, and spiritual currents like in those times that gave us such a character?

Moreover, the character under consideration is of the traditional character set. The simplified set endorsed by the government in China replaces the character of 22 strokes (聽) with one of 7 (听). My first instinct is to decry the affront to culture. But, there’s a valid argument that a simpler character set expands literacy to more people. The beauty in this character and others like it may be forgotten, but wouldn’t the beauty in poetry and other writing reach more people? What’s the right tradeoff? (By the way, the debate turns on far more dimensions than these.)

So yes, I love the notion that listening involves the heart as much as the ears, but let’s not read too much into it. China’s history, like every culture’s history, is complicated.