Mystery of the Chinese Alphabet

(Also called: The Case of the Missing Chinese Alphabet)

Does the Chinese language have an alphabet? If so, where is it? Why don’t I see it? (Each month thousands of people search for the "Chinese alphabet" on the internet.)

To answer the above questions, let’s look at how the Chinese writing system evolved…

Societies create their own symbols. As societies change so do the meaning of their symbols.

In most societies, as a culture took shape and a written language of letters was developed, symbols – which were once the primary means of communication, were replaced by words or phrases.

The evolution of the Chinese language took a rather unique turn. Instead of visual symbols being replaced by a written language of letters, the symbols themselves became the written language.

One of the reasons for this is that the Chinese language is tonal – the tone of voice used to speak a syllable alters its meaning.

In Mandarin for instance, there are four tones. The same utterance in each tone gives four different meanings. In addition, words in the same tones often have different meanings and their meanings can only be made clear by the context of the sentence.

This unique feature of the Chinese language gives rise to rebuses or “visual puns”.

(The interplay of phonetics and puns often reveal the hidden meanings of Chinese symbols.Phonetics and puns often give clues to the hidden meaning of images. Hence a picture of a fish is an expression of abundance because the Chinese word for fish yu2 means abundance. This is a “visual pun” or what’s known as a rebus.)

Now it’s easy to see why there is no such thing as a “full Chinese alphabet” or “Chinese alphabet letters”. (Or why the Chinese alphabet is “missing”.)

An alphabet consists of a small number of letters (e.g. 26 in English) which make up all the words in the spoken language. There aren't any letters in Chinese writing -- only thousands of individual symbols or ideograms each with their specific sound/s and meanings. The Chinese language is an “ideographic writing system”. Since there are no letters in Chinese it naturally follows there is no Chinese alphabet. There, mystery solved!