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The non-phonetic Chinese script: from 1600 BC

China has always had within its borders people speaking many different languages, and a crucial element of Chinese civilization has been that the educated of all groups can write to each other. This is because Chinese characters are non-phonetic. They do not attempt, unlike languages using an alphabet, to set down the sound of a word. Instead they convey the meaning by a symbol. All literate Chinese will understand the meaning of a written character, though it may be incomprehensible when read out as a word.

Westerners share the same advantage at a very limited level. Tourists, shown a familiar symbol, will variously read it as 'défense de fumer', 'se prohibe fumar', 'rauchen verboten' or 'no smoking'.

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