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The different languages of Europe are, by Chinese standards, just successive variants of one language. But the phonetic alphabet is so flexible that the same set of letters can spell almost any pronunciation of any dialect, so they are able to write local variants that would otherwise belong to the same ancestor. But countries that use scripts that lack phonetic functions, such as China, do not need to worry about this problem.

For example, in China, although the spoken languages of the southern Chinese and the northern Han Chinese are so different as to be incomprehensible, written words are almost always a barrier-free communication. Even the Chinese and Japanese can understand each other's general meaning with Hanzi | Kanji alone. Although this comes the disadvantage that the Han Chinese in southern China could not use the characters to express their native language precisely, so their language would always remain oral until its demise. After the Communist Party's Mandarin movement after the 1950s, hundreds of millions of young people in the south abandoned the "barbaric dialects" of their grandparents' generation without hesitation and defected to the standardized Northern Chinese, Mandarin. In Europe, on the other hand, even a region as little different as Catalonia is trying to secede from Spain.

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    This issue is touched on (but I think not exactly answered) in my answer to another question about China's script choices. You might find it interesting reading.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 25, 2023 at 20:02
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    What exactly are your "different languages of Europe" here? I am pretty sure Hungarian, Turkish and Basque would not be a single language even by Chinese standards.
    – Jan
    Jan 25, 2023 at 20:18
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    How to determine the causation implied by the question? To me it seems obvious that political unification led to the standardization of the writing system, as it does everywhere. But what kind of historical evidence would be needed to assert that the type of writing system mattered to the politics? Without clear framing on that, this is a question for philosophers of language.
    – Brian Z
    Jan 26, 2023 at 13:20
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    @Jan - I'm guessing (and I think you are too) that's a reference to Indo-European languages. If so, it would be nice if the OP could tell us so (or better yet, clarify that bit in the question).
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 26, 2023 at 20:10
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    But (at least according to google translator) swedish does not move verbs to the very end of subordinate clauses (I thank that you love me = Ich glaube, dass du mich liebst). Interesting.
    – Jan
    Jan 27, 2023 at 17:33

2 Answers 2

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An observation in favour of the Chinese script contributing to the continued unification of the country is that Korea and Vietnam - regions the Chinese Empire could reasonably have expanded into (and temporarily did/tried) - developed their own script. In the case of Korea, as a conscious effort to have a script available more suitable to their needs than the Chinese one.

However, this may very well be a symptom rather than a cause.

High literacy rates are a very modern development. If we make the comparison to Europe again, we observe that for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the literati kept writing in Latin. For example, the Canterbury Tales, published around 1400, are hailed as a significant milestone towards an English literary culture. By 1400, a reunification of Europe into a single empire to succeed Rome seems to be long off the table anyway.

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    Or, the English language has failed to keep the British Empire together. Rather, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, and some smaller countries still largely speak English but have drifted away from the UK and gained independence from it rather than staying together with it. India and Pakistan have likewise retained the English language as official at some level (though not as a daily community and home language) while gaining independence from and moving away from the UK.
    – Robert Columbia
    Jan 27, 2023 at 0:22
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The very first written sentence most students of Chinese encounter is some variation of 媽媽罵馬嗎. All five characters contain the 馬 (horse) component, but only one of these characters has a meaning related to horses. But all are pronounced the same, though with different tones.

So this part of your premise is somewhat flawed. Chinese is not as logographic as you may think.

For a different illustration, I have marked characters with fairly obvious phonetic components that pop up on my pinyin keyboard when typing "ti": different phonetic components of characters pronounced "ti" marked in different colors (I believe 以 and 一 only pop up to correct for possible mistyping)

Can you write a word when you hear it? No. Can you be sure how to pronounce a word when you see it? No. Do you get quite a lot of hints what the word might sound like? Yes. Is it easier to remember these characters when you know how the respective words and syllabes are pronounced in Chinese? Also yes.


German in fact also has quite a few dialects that are not mutually understandable and still can make do with a single written language. Although I will admit I am not sure how these differences compare to Chinese dialects.

Anyway, even with this common language Germany was divided into a multitude of states for centuries, and even today there are four separate countries where German is the majority language. In a similar way, there are two English-speaking countries in Europe and two in North America, two-and-half countries in Europe where French is the majority language (plus one where everybody is bilingual and one where it is spoken by a very large minority) etc.

So while a common language (and even just a common written language) can definitely help to create a unified state, it is far from the only factor. Cultural differences, local/regional consciousness and of course politics can easily create centrifugal forces. And of course this applies in China as well. What we know as China today often was several different states in the past.

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  • You may be right, but this seems to imply that "logographic" means "the glyphs are literal artistic representations of the words they stand for", which isn't correct.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 25, 2023 at 20:10
  • @T.E.D. My point is that the 馬 component here is phonetic.
    – Jan
    Jan 25, 2023 at 20:14
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    Its not a bad point either. But that doesn't stop someone who doesn't know the phomene from memorizing the word that the glyph represents without comprehending the phonetic underpinning. I don't know that there was really ever a "pure" logographic system (cuniform and heiroglypic weren't either), and one could argue English isn't exactly purely phonetic, as pronunciations for many words have drifted quite a bit from their accepted spellings, so its phonetic "rules" can't really be trusted.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 25, 2023 at 20:21
  • @T.E.D. Disagree. The phonetic underpinnings become obvious relatively quickly.
    – Jan
    Jan 25, 2023 at 20:24
  • "it is far from the only factor" - Yes, I'd say imperialism and war had a lot to do with it.
    – cmw
    Jan 26, 2023 at 0:54

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