While it is easy to use an online converter to turn simplified characters into traditional ones (and vice versa), such an automated tool could hardly depict the true difference between the two languages that originated from the same culture but have since drastically developed in unique ways. So, how exactly are Simplified Chinese (SC) and Traditional Chinese (TC) different?
A page in the first Simplified Chinese Character Chart. (Source: Wikipedia)
An Overview of Simplified Chinese
The simplification of Chinese characters began as early as 1909, toward the end of the Qing Dynasty. At that point, simplified Chinese was called the vernacular characters, meaning they were simplified to make reading and writing easier for the general public with lower education levels.
Many efforts were made to promote simplified Chinese long before the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established. For example, the first version of “The Simplified Chinese Character Chart” was published in 1937.
However, it wasn’t until 1956 when the PRC State Council approved a full-scale simplification plan for all characters, marking the beginning of Simplified Chinese as China’s official language.
A poem written in traditional Chinese calligraphy (Source: WeChat)
An Overview of Traditional Chinese
Meanwhile, traditional Chinese characters have a profound history of over two thousand years. The traditional characters used today formed during the 1800s (the Han Dynasty) and slowly changed forms based on cultural and political developments.
Nowadays, traditional Chinese is used in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as their official language. It’s also called the “Legitimate Chinese (正体中文)” instead of traditional Chinese in those regions. Meanwhile, many Chinese immigrants in America also use traditional Chinese as their primary written language.
Comparison of written characters in SC (left) & TC (right)
Simplified vs. Traditional: How Are They Different In Writing?
A common understanding is that TC is harder to write than SC. However, this is not all true. Both languages share identical characters, known as “inherited characters” in SC. However, among the remaining characters, TC is indeed harder to write. That’s because TC characters inherited characters used around the 1800s. Meanwhile, SC characters are revamped specifically to make writing easier.
Another difference between SC and TC is the vocabulary. The same item or concept can use different words in SC and TC. Think of “vacation” vs. “holiday” in American and British English. Similarly, SC vocabularies also choose different words for the same thing.
Below are a few examples:
- Yogurt: 酸奶 (SC) vs. 優酪乳 (TC)
- Transfer (bus or train): 换乘 (SC) vs. 轉乘 (TC)
- Driver’s license: 驾照 (SC) vs. 行車執照 (TC)
- Laser: 激光 (SC) vs. 鐳射 (TC)
Challenges for Linguists
The difference in form and vocabulary brings unique challenges to linguists. Especially when many Chinese speakers casually offer to translate both, using AI conversion tools like Google Translate or character converting websites to jump between the two. However, these tools cannot identify the different cultural habits in each language. Nor do they always convert the characters into the correct traditional characters.
Therefore, for linguists speaking one Chinese language but wanting to work with both, research and study are necessary before they can properly carry out any project. Meanwhile, clients may also become more skeptical when working with linguists for Chinese translations.
Which One Is The Authentic Chinese Language?
As someone from China, I’d love to say that both Chinese languages are as authentic for sentimental reasons. However, any linguist would agree that Traditional Chinese is truer than Chinese culture.
Essentially, the Chinese written language is highly representative. The characters either physically resemble their meanings, such as water (水), or combine symbols to represent an abstract concept, such as hometown (嚮), where the parts together mean “the place the adrift young man (郎) is headed to (向).”
Love in TC (left) vs. Love in SC (right)
Indeed, simplification and reinterpretation of the characters have happened throughout history. Otherwise, we’d all still be writing in oracle symbols. However, the concern is some simplification disturbed the character’s cultural meaning. For example, simplified Chinese took “heart” out of the “love” character — what is love without the heart?
Therefore, while both Chinese languages are equally legitimate, it’s hard to disagree that traditional Chinese characters are more loyal to what this beautiful language means.
The bottom line is that simplified and traditional Chinese are both official Chinese languages used by a large population. Therefore, no matter what you consider the official language, and regardless of your political stance, linguists must give both languages the respect they deserve.
Meanwhile, always remember that a language reflects its culture. Therefore, the differences between SC and TC are essentially cultural differences among different Chinese populations based on regionality and cultural heritage.
To provide culturally accurate and native-like localization, linguists must see beyond vocabularies and character formations and understand the true differences between the two Chinese languages.
Xiao Faria daCunha
August 17, 2022