Zev Handel Presents on Chinese Characters at University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute

Submitted by Geoffrey R. Waring on

In early March, Professor Zev Handel was invited to participate in the Thirteenth Annual Oriental Institute Symposium, titled Seen Not Heard: Composition, Iconicity, and the Classifier Systems of Logosyllabic Scripts. The symposium brought together over a dozen scholars in the fields of Egyptology, Sinology, Hittitology, and Mesoamerican, Cuneiform, and Sign Language studies to explore the communicative and cognitive role of visual aspects of linguistic communication systems. Professor Handel presented on the role of “classifiers” (also called “radicals” or “signifiers”), which are components of Chinese characters that are related to the meaning of the language elements represented by the character. For example, the modern Chinese characters shù 樹 ‘tree’, lín 林 ‘forest’, fēng 楓 ‘maple tree’, 柏 ‘cedar tree’, and bǎn 板 ‘plank, board’ all contain the ‘tree/wood’ component 木. Some Chinese characters that were created over 2,000 years ago contain classifiers that are no longer salient to, or even recognized by, modern script users. By investigating Chinese characters created in the modern era, Professor Handel attempted to determine which classifers are still actively associated with semantic domains by today’s Chinese speakers, and thus available for use as new characters are added to the script. This study helps us to understand the extent to which the internal structure of ancient character forms remains functional, and to what extent it is ossified.

A detailed description of the symposium can be found on page 10 of the Oriental Institute’s newsletter here:  https://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/Publications/nn234.pdf)

Papers from the symposium will be published in 2019 as part of the Oriental Institute Seminar series, and will be freely available on line at https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/oriental-institute-semina… as OIS 14.

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