English being a dialect of Chinese,
The alphabet was dismissed by a Mandarin:
“Our Celestial Empire has no need of these,
And certainly no need for pandering
To hairy, big-nosed, stinking-of-butter barbarians;
So take your sideways scribblings, if you please”;
And gestured for his servant to peel a mandarin.
Who can blame him for such a principled course?
He’s loyal to calligraphy, so rooted in radicals
That radical change would kindle a fanatical
Belletristic revolt and rouse remorse
In those who prize proportion ineradicable.
So they would subordinate Latin peons
Under homophonous dynasties through eons
To mutant characters — logophagic, patient —
Who, clad in silk, cladistics on display,
Would name each creature radical and ancient…
Had there not been the reign of Von Linné.
Yes, who can doubt that, were it not for Providence,
Genus and species would be Chinese today,
Kingdom and phylum — just so many provinces
Under the Middle Kingdom’s graphic sway.
NOTES For Students of English
The broader meaning suggested by this tongue-in-cheek poem is that the traditional Chinese writing system would have been able to provide a system of scientific nomenclature if the current Latin-based plan had not been adopted.
Matteo Ricci – An Italian Jesuit missionary who traveled to China in the late 16th century and lived there for almost 30 years. He mastered the Chinese language and classical literature, and was instrumental in introducing Western mathematics and science to China.
“Okay is a 6-stroke Character” – The word OK could be written as if it were a Chinese character in the following stroke order:
Our Celestial Empire – A typical formulation, as found, for example, in a famous letter sent by the Chinese emperor Qianlong to King George III in 1793.
“Hairy, big-nosed, stinking-of-butter barbarians” – These epithets were associated more with the Japanese than the Chinese reaction to the first Westerners. For example, the term “stinking-of-butter” refers to the now archaic Japanese word baataa-kusai that meant not just “European” but “alien” or “exotic.”
“Sideways scribblings” – The Chinese traditionally wrote their documents top down from right to left. So did the Japanese, and this remark might be more attributable to the Japanese sense of humor. For example, Japanese artist Utagawa depicted the Western “sideways scribbling” in his 1861 print of two Russians. He included a little joke at their expense by transliterating the word “Russia” with a character meaning “dull-witted.”
“Calligraphy, so rooted in radicals” – Chinese writing is based on 241 traditional stroke patterns called roots or radicals. Each radical is representative of a category or idea, and recurs in related words. For example, the tree radical forms part of the word for elm, and the fish radical forms part of the word for tuna.
Belletristic – From “belles-lettres,” literature of esthetic value such as fiction and poetry.
“Proportion ineradicable” – Chinese calligraphy, just like Western calligraphy, is based on a harmonious balance of the component lines’ height, length, thickness, orientation, curvature, sharpness, saturation, etc.
Homophonous – (Pronounced ho-MA-fo-nus) From Greek homos “the same” and phone “sound.” In English, homophones are words written differently but pronounced the same, such as “sum” and “some.” In Chinese, homophones are different characters that are pronounced similarly. Chinese has a large number of homophones.
Logophagic – (Pronounced log-o-FA-jik) “Word-eating” from Greek logos “word” and phagos “eating.”
Cladistics – From Greek klados “branch,” a system of biological classification that arranges species into hierarchical groups (clades) that show ancestral relations between species and focus on shared derived characteristics.
Von Linné – The name of the eminent Swedish botanist Carl (Carolus) Linnaeus (1707-1778), founder of the modern system of binomial nomenclature. He was knighted by the King of Sweden in 1761 and took the nobleman’s name of Carl von Linné.
The Middle Kingdom – China’s name for itself, Zhōngguó or Chung-kuo or Jhongguo, which means the “middle kingdom” or “central country,” implying the center of civilization.