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68                 The Loom of Language
or syllable signs exclusively, and still do so, for telegrams or in school-
books for the young Otherwise (p. 438) they have gone back to the old
school tradition In books printed to-day they generally use Chinese
characters for root words., with Kana signs foi the affixes
We do not certainly know whether the people who first made up
Japanese syllable writing were scholars Like the Oriental traders who
revolutionized our number system by using a dot for the modern zero
sign to signify the empty column of the counting-frame, they may well
have been practical men who earned a livelihood in the cpunting-
house, or as pilots on ships Scholars naturally favour the view that
they were men of learning directly skilled in the use of Chinese Un-
doubtedly such men existed m Japan, when it adapted Chinese symbols
to its own use somewhere about A D 750, but if it was a scholar who first
hit on the trick, it is quite possible that he learned it from the mistakes
of his pupils From what we do know we may be certain of this Those
who introduced Japanese kana were men who had no sacrosanct
national tradition of writing m this way, and therefore brought to their
task the unsophisticated attitude of the Island Greeks who absorbed
the practical advantages of Egyptian or Semitic learning without
assimilating all the superstitions of their teachers, In the ancient world
and in medieval times, mankind had not got used to rapid change
Great innovations were possible only when circumstances Conspired to
,force people to face new problems without the handicap of old habits.
The Japanese had to take this step because their language* was poly-
syllabic and comparatively rich in derivative words. They were able to
take it because the affixes of their derivative words were few, and
because the sound values of individual syllables correspond to those of
Chinese words.
When the Chinese is up against a situation comparable to that of
the Japanese at the time when they first got their syllabic scripts, he
treats his own characters m the same way. For foreign names the
Chinese use their characters purely as sound syllables, as we might
write 3 40 to suggest the sound three for tea. This emphasizes how
favourable combinations of unusual circumstances influence the possi-
bility of rapid advance or retardation in the cultural evolution of
different communities. It is one of the many reasons why we should
be suspicious when people attribute one or the other to national and
racial genius or defect. The simplicity of the Chinese language made
it easy for the Chinese to develop a more consistent and workable
system of picture-writing than any other nation at an early stage