In the event of cultural contact between Chinese Explorers and Aztec/other Mesoamerican peoples, would these Mexican societies find the Chinese writing system to be useful for their record keeping? There are three options I am considering:

  • the adoption of the symbolic script and meaning
  • using the characters for syllabic writing
  • a mix of the two much like Japanese.

Or would the writing systems just be incompatible?

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    $\begingroup$ I’m not enough of a linguist/symbologist to answer this, but I wish I were. You might want to rephrase the end though, the question is a little broad at the moment but could be tightened up to ‘are these systems incompatible’ $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jul 12 '18 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe you would find better luck at the Conlangs SE. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Jul 12 '18 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Garret! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Here is a meta post on the culture and style of Worldbuilding.SE, just to help you understand our scope and methods. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – FoxElemental Jul 12 '18 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ You do know that the Aztecs actually had their own writing system? Why would they replace it with a foreign (and just as primitive) writing system? And the Aztec empire lasted for about a century (actually less, but let's count from the humble beginnings); that's hardly enough time for Sinitic acculturation. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 12 '18 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I know they had a writing system, but not necessarily more advanced or less advanced. Chinese writing is a more efficient writing system, Aztec writing required far more complex pictograms seen here, there are many societies with their own writing systems that eventually were replaced due to external forces by foreign scripts that eventually became dominate. Cuniform replace by Aramaic, Latin and Greek replaced Heiroglyphs, Arabic replaced Persian cuniform Never mind, I am an idiot $\endgroup$ – user52393 Jul 12 '18 at 18:16

the adoption of the symbolic script and meaning

No. This would not work, for essentially the same reason that Japanese does not use kanji (borrowed hanzi) exclusively, augmenting it with a syllabary. Chinese is very heavily isolating, so for the most part you can get by with one character = one word (sometimes two characters = one word). Grammatical marking is all done with separate words, and thus separate characters. Japanese does not work like this, and neither does Aztec.

Actual historical Aztec writing actually works rather a lot like Japanese--there are native logograms, similar in function to hanzi, augmented by syllabic components. Much like early hieroglyphs, the phonetic component of Aztec writing was still based on the rebus principle, and had not developed into a full-fledged, independent syllabary like hiragana and katakana.

using the characters for syllabic writing

This is possible, but not particularly likely. The Aztec already used their own logograms for syllabic writing (see above). Adopting the more abstract and simpler Chinese hanzi might seem like a good idea to reduce the effort of writing relatively complex native Aztec symbols, but the phonologies of Aztec and Chinese are sufficiently different that the set of syllables available to write with Chinese characters that Aztecs would actually find useful is not particularly large.

a mix of the two much like Japanese

That would be the most likely outcome. If the Chinese explorers had sufficient cultural power, such that it is seen as prestigious to copy Chinese things, then hanzi could come to be used for root words, with native symbols being developed into an augmenting syllabary for fully dual semantic-phonetic writing, like heiroglyphics, or for indicating grammatical morphemes and native words for which no Chinese equivalent is available. The greater utility of Chinese hanzi over the complex native glyphs would not, however, be a sufficient force to get the Aztecs to replace their native writing system on their own. The Chinese explorers, however, might very well come up with a mixed logographic / syllabic transcription system for Aztec for their own use based entirely on Chinese characters, regardless of their standing in Aztec society.

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There is no compatibility issue .. they are inherently incompatible.

Japanese katakana is an alphabetic script used to write words from foreign languages phonetically. The Japanese do not use it to write about Japanese concepts .. for that they use Kanji .. their adaptation of Chinese characters where each concept has its own symbol. The Japanese have been very clever about firewalling their own culture while still being able to adopt/adapt what they wish to from other cultures.

The Phoenicians had their own language that the other Mediterranean cultures had a hard time learning .. so they created a lingua franca to be able to do business, and used a lot of handwaving. There was little if any linguistic transfer .. as we know from the paucity of writings/ inscriptions in the native Phoenician language.

The Aztecs were conquerors who beat their enemies into submission and then enslaved the survivors, so there is no linguistic capability for adoption in their culture .. and their language will reflect that.

So if the Chinese showed up and if they could find an Aztec willing to spend years memorizing symbols and concepts until he could write in Chinese, he would still not be able to use that language to express Aztec concepts as they would be fundamentally foreign.

Note also that the Chinese consider themselves to be the only civilized society so they would consider the Aztec writing system to be so inferior as to not be worth learning .. except perhaps there might be scholars what would study it as an academically interesting part of a primitive culture.

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    $\begingroup$ Re "for that they use Kanji", that's not exactly true. Written Japanese is a mixture of Kanji, which are derived from Chinese characters and carry the main meaning of the word, and syllabic hiragana, which are used for verb tenses, particles, &c. There's a pretty much 1:1 relationship between hiragana & katakana, only their forms (curved vs edged) differ: kanjipower.com/jws/hiragana.php $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jul 12 '18 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with you in some regards, for instance kanji have both On-yomi(chinese reading) and Kun-yomi(Japanese reading), ie 水 is みず(mizu) when used alone(kun-yomi) but in compound it could be pronounced すい(sui)(on-yomi). So there is both a retention of native language with use of a foreign script. Would Aztecs not be able to see that perhaps for doing trade and interstate communication, that perhaps their own writing script is not efficient, aztecs would understand be able to understand with instruction that water=水、sun=日、fire=火, etc. I should have specified, how well could they merge. $\endgroup$ – user52393 Jul 12 '18 at 17:44

A writing system can be adopted by a foreign culture if it is used to express concept too advanced for the receiving one.

Look at the Japanese culture when it met Chinese influence, or Mediterranean cultures when met Phoenicians.

So, my answer to your question is: it depends on the relative levels when the encounter happens, and also on the kind on interactions.

Would they just trade goods, or also teach religion, philosophy and other sciences? If the latter happens, it is more likely that there would be influences and therefore the chances that ideogram writing can be adopted.

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  • $\begingroup$ For the situation in mind, there would be a sizable population of 15th century Chinese refugee/colonists that form a small state in the Southern California/ Baja California. Eventually trade of goods and ideas would occur. I was thinking that the Aztecs would notice the benefits that having a more efficient writing system would have to managing a large state. $\endgroup$ – user52393 Jul 12 '18 at 17:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Garrett: The Chinese writing system is just about the most inefficient and the most limited writing system in serious use today, and it already had this distinction in the 15th century during the days of the Aztec empire. The Japanese adopted part of it (with home-grown additions) because they didn't know any better; but the Aztecs already had a perfectly serviceable script of their own. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 12 '18 at 18:14

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