John DeFrancis, 1911-2009

Sad news from the world of writing systems research. John DeFrancis, whose books on Chinese writing have done more than any other scholarship to demolish the myth that the script is ‘ideographic’ or ‘pictographic’, died on January 2 at the age of 98. To be honest I had no idea he was so elderly, because his research productivity over the past 25 years has been so tremendous. While his Sinological expertise ranged from language to literature to foreign policy, I know him through his books, Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (1984) and Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems (1989), which demonstrated masterfully that the morphemic and phonemic elements in Chinese writing far outweigh the non-linguistic ones. As someone who works on a subject that also straddles this boundary between linguistic and non-linguistic representations, my work has been profoundly influenced by DeFrancis’ thinking about the nature of written communication.

Works cited
DeFrancis, J. 1984. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. University of Hawaii Press.
DeFrancis, J. 1989. Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems. University of Hawaii Press.

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