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The Story of the Alphabet               65
One member of the pair suggests the meaning of the character in a
general way. The other stands for a homophone, that is to say a word
which has (or originally had) the same sound as the word represented
by the pair taken together A fictitious example, based on two English
words which have familiar homophones, illustrates this trick. Suppose
we represent the words sun and buoy respectively by the picture
symbols O and , as biologists use the character 3 for male
What the Chinese do by this method would then be equivalent to
using the combination <J O for our word son (which has the same
sound as sun) or cJJ^ for boy. It is not certain how this practice
arose. One possibility is that it developed in response to the way in
which a word widens its meaning by the process called metaphorical
extension. What this means is illustrated by our word boy> which
originally meant-a sexually immature male of the human species, and
may also mean a son or a juvenile employee
All this has led to the accumulation of an immense number of
complex signs There are between four and seven thousand relatively
common ones Anyone who wants to be an accomplished scholar of
Chinese must learn them Among the four thousand used most com-
monly, about three-quarters consist of a homophone 'element and a
classifier analogous to the symbol for male in the hypothetical model
cited above. Owing to changes of pronunciation in the course of cen-
turies, the homophone part,which was once a sort of phonogram^ sound
symbol, may have lost its significance as such It no longer then gives
a clue to the spoken word To-day Chinese script is almost purely logo-
graphic. People who have the time to master it associate the characters
with the vocables they themselves utter These vocables are now very
different in different parts of China, and have changed beyond recog-
nition since the script came into use many centuries back. So educated
Chinese who cannot converse in the same tongue can read the same
notices in shops* or the same writings of moralists and poets who lived
jnore than a thousand yeais ago
The remarkable thing about Chinese script is not so much that it
is cumbersome according to our standards, as that it is possible to
reproduce the content of the living language in this way This is so
because the living language is not like that of any European people,
except the British (p 122). The Chinese word is invariable, like our
"verb" must It does not form a cluster of derivatives like lusts, lusted,
lusting* lusty. What we call the grammar of an Indo-European language
is largely about the form and choice of such derivatives, and it would