The Chinese language: a topic that is unfamiliar in Western culture and is yet undoubtedly present within it. Though my research into the topic has been minimal, I think my position as part of a bilingual family grants me the right to shed some light on a few of its quirks – starting, of course, with the very basics. The intention of this rather lengthy journal is not to teach you Chinese, but to give you an idea of what you'd face if you decided to learn it; note that a more apt but less elegant title for this blog entry would probably be 'Why Chinese is far too complicated for its own good (and a few reasons why it's not)'.
This first point is more of a clarification for the rest of the journal than anything else: Dialects
. Admittedly there is some disagreement as to whether this is the correct terminology to use, since the individual 'dialects' could be considered languages in their own right. Whatever the case, Mandarin is the official one and is found generally in mainland China; meanwhile, my family originates from Hong Kong, where a dialect called Cantonese is spoken. As a result I am far more familiar with the latter, though I wouldn't say I'm fluent. (My Chinglish, on the other hand, is flawless.) Anyway, the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is predominantly verbal, since the written language is largely identical throughout China; Mandarin and Cantonese sound like two totally different languages in speech, so it's a much greater difference than, say, British English versus American English. I like Wikipedia's description of these varieties of Chinese as 'non-mutually-intelligible'. Happily, someone fluent in Mandarin would probably be able to survive in most parts of China, partly because Mandarin has become a compulsory subject in many (if not all) schools throughout the country.
Anyone who has seen written Chinese will know that it looks like several evenly-spaced symbols or characters
. This is because, like a handful of other Asian languages, Chinese is one composed of words as opposed to letters (or, in the case of Japanese, syllables).
I shall carry on with the hopeful assumption that both this font and your browser support Chinese. A lot of Chinese characters had their origins in pictures: examples include mountain
山(a hillside), sheep
羊 (a goat's horns) and moon
月 (a crescent); additionally, the numbers one
二 and three
三 should be self-explanatory. (Unfortunately, four
四 does not follow this pattern.) One difficulty to overcome in Chinese writing is that each character must be written in a particular order; this becomes a natural thing once you grasp guidelines like 'top-left to bottom-right' and 'fill the box before you close it', though unsurprisingly there are some that don't follow these trends. You know, I've found that whenever I need to draw a box, I always do it as I would write the word mouth
口. If you were to label the corners A to D starting clockwise from the top left, it is always AD, then ABC in one fluid motion, then finally DC. Drawing lines that go vertically upwards feels very unnatural to me.
Perhaps my British upbringing is to blame, but I personally think that the character system is incredibly flawed. First of all, every character is of the same size and must fit within a defined square if it is to be used in writing, even if the character is not naturally square-shaped. The first that comes to mind is the first half of the verb like
喜欢, which consists of four smaller sections piled on top of one another. This inevitably leads to cramming several lines into a small space, which, when combined with rushed penmanship, often makes characters very difficult to read. You could also argue that this process makes the characters less visually appealing, particularly on a computer; in the above example, both rectangles should be square. Chinese doesn't have the luxury of being able to split words down the middle when we don't quite have enough space.
A second impracticality is that a lot of characters are (in my opinion) unnecessarily complicated. For example, the Chinese for I
- that is, the first person singular - is 我; this alone takes me about 3 seconds to write legibly. It is for reasons like this that Mandarin speakers opt for Simplified writing instead of the Cantonese Traditional, whereby certain characters are reduced in form to make them easier to write. (Why 我 has not been subjected to this simplification, I do not know.) I have mixed feelings about the Simplified system: while it does make things easier for learners like me to pick up, I agree with my mother in that the simplified characters aren't as beautiful to look at. Chinese writing really is like an art form. Romanisation
! Again this is more like preparation for the next section. (I have so much to say, it's difficult to arrange it all in a coherent order.) There exists a system called Pinyin which allows any Mandarin word to be written phonetically using the Roman alphabet; examples include 'zhàn' and 'xīng'. While romanisation systems for Cantonese exist, none are widely in use as far as I'm aware, making it virtually impossible for learners (or people like me, for that matter) to visualise how a word might be pronounced. It doesn't help that Cantonese is by far the more complicated of the two.
Pinyin is used abundantly in modern Chinese-English dictionaries, notably because the alphabet as we know it has an order
. Whenever homonyms crop up (and believe me, this happens all too often), the system reverts back to the old way of ordering characters by how many brush strokes it takes to write them – that is, the equivalent of ordering words by their length - which still doesn't sort things out definitively.
I used Pinyin to type the characters in the earlier section, and then chose the word I wanted from the short list that popped up. Thankfully I didn't need to type out that many, as it's hardly an efficient system. I still wonder how Cantonese people texted quickly before the introduction of touchscreen technology, as they didn't have access to Pinyin. Chinese keyboards
are peppered with countless simple characters, but a smaller device does not have that freedom. True, there are only six official types of line that one needs to use, but how does the computer know how long the line is? Which other lines does it intersect or touch? Where is the line relative to what you've already drawn? Apparently words can be identified by typing the four strokes that are fundamental to their character, but this sounds even more complicated considering that complex characters can take 20 or more strokes to write (see Traditional restaurant
餐廳). I won't even go there.
If you have ever unsuccessfully tried to say Hello
in Chinese, I can assure you that the hurdle which tripped you was the tones
. Your Chinese-speaking friend probably repeated it a couple of times, doing weird pitch changes with their voice, and no matter what you said, it was just wrong. Recognisable, certainly, but wrong nevertheless. It's a difficult concept to convey to a non-Chinese speaker (I myself get tones mixed up in my Cantonese), so first let's go back a step.
One thing I didn't explicitly state in the above sections was that every Chinese character is only one syllable long. Imagine if English were like that; there would be so many homophones flying around that you'd need
to find another way of differentiating them. And so, the Chinese introduced an almost musical aspect to the language, whereby each word has a particular tone assigned to it: for example it could have a long, high, sustained pitch, or maybe it starts off low and then rises, or perhaps it is a staccato so short that the tone has no time to go anywhere. One of my friends speculated that this may be why Asian kids are often musically gifted (though I suspect that this is more a matter of upbringing). He also asked how it was possible to sing in Chinese with both the tones and the melody coming across; we generally have to choose lyrics such that the tones fit the tune and phrasing of the song.
The fact that I can only communicate here through text isn't exactly an advantage, but I shall carry on regardless. Mandarin, the simpler dialect, has five tones: one high, one rising, one falling then rising, one falling, and one unaccented. (Disclaimer: the unaccented tone is often ignored by textbooks.) Cantonese, meanwhile, has about seven; my uncertainty is due to the lack of romanisation. The thing about the tonal system is that it's very easy to get mixed up between words of similar pronunciations, making the context of that particular conversation vital to its meaning. One example I like to use is the Cantonese variations on the word 'cheung'. Depending on the tone used, it could mean any of the following: window
, and exchange
. Even with all the possible options, three pairs of that list share tones, making them sound indistinguishable. The sounds of buy
differ only in pitch (as this is due to their origins, the similarity is not a coincidence), and the three words he
sound identical. Coupled with the fact that the majority of Chinese names are unisex, this can get very confusing indeed. There are some phrases, of course, that require neither tones nor context to be understood: anyone hearing 'ni hao' will know it means Hello in Mandarin, but if you want to do it properly then you'll say the first word rising and the second falling then rising. But don't get too caught up about it, otherwise you'll just make yourself sound like an idiot.
Another impracticality about phonetics: the Cantonese words five
are pronounced 'mm'. As in, literally a humming sound, which can only be so loud - 55 is colloquially pronounced 'mm-a mm'. Additionally, the common way to say please
or thank you
is 'mm goi'. Whenever I have brief Chinese conversations across a distance or through doors, corrections often have to be made, since mishearing the word not
changes the meaning of the sentence entirely. In fact, they probably couldn't have chosen a more inconvenient word to mute. How could anyone think that this would be a good idea for a language? Allow me to invent a restaurant conversation, substituting the above words for their Cantonese pronunciation.
Customer: "I'll have the number mm-a mm, mm goi."
Waiter: "One number mm coming right up, Miss Ng…"
Customer: "Mm, mm the mm! The mm-a mm
This is the peak of the complaining part of this journal, but I realise now that I have no good name for it. Inequivalence
The main three components of a word are, in my opinion, the speech, the written appearance, and the meaning. The trouble with Chinese is that there is very little connection between these three, making it incredibly difficult to cross from one point of the triangle to another. Allow me to explain:
Chinese characters are generally composed using radicals, which are like mini-characters that may or may not exist as a character on their own. Each radical is usually simple to write, can be easily tacked onto the side of another word, and has its own implied meaning, making them rather similar to prefixes or suffixes in English. For example, the flower radical can be found written at the top of grass
草 while the man radical forms the left side of you
你. The rest of the character is dedicated to the pronunciation of the word. Well, it gives you a vague ball park to aim for, at least: the aforementioned grass is pronounced 'cǎo' in Mandarin while the bottom section early
早 is pronounced 'zǎo', so you can see the resemblance. Makes sense, right? The only trouble is that working things out from first principles is a little harder.
Let's try a real-life scenario. I was on a bus in Hong Kong, and I saw an unfamiliar word 扣 written on a sign. My detective skills told me that the left-hand side was the hand radical, implying an action; the right was the aforementioned mouth
, pronounced 'hau'. Okay, so it's a verb, and sounds a bit like 'hau'. 'Lau'? 'Ngau'? 'Ho'? 'Hei'? What about the multiple other tones that could be used? Doesn't really narrow it down at all. Thankfully the surrounding words 'Please ___ your safety belt' told me that the word was fasten
, which I happened to know was pronounced 'kau'.
Yes, this is a pretty simple example, but my point is that the transition from character to meaning to speech involves too much guesswork and prior knowledge for my liking. You can't work things out easily; you just have to know
, and there's no way around it. Arguably English is just as bad, but at least we could pronounce an unfamiliar word with some confidence. Hang on, the t in fasten
is silent, so… maybe not. Does the first syllable rhyme with last
, or does the e make it waste
? And we'd probably interpret the meaning to have something to do with speed, like quicken
. I could probably rant about the English language for an entire journal (my favourite example: borough, cough, dough, ought, plough, rough, through), but I shall save it for another time.
You may have found it surprising that I knew how to say and use the Chinese word for fasten
without having any idea of how it was written, but this isn't an uncommon occurrence. Admittedly my parents (having emigrated in their teens) aren't the best examples of Chinese speakers, but I often hear them asking each other how to write particular words despite their fluency. This undoubtedly comes with a verbal description of a character accompanied with flourishing hand gestures: if I were to describe the second part of my name 'Lin' 霖, for example, I'd say something like "It's a bit like the usual 'Lin' – you know, the one with the two woods – but it's got rain on the top." Compare this to the boring but efficient English equivalent: "My name's Aiden, spelt with an e." I guess the Chinese one is more colourful. Simplification
! Something a little lighter. I get the impression that the ancient writers of the Chinese language (because they obviously sat around a table and invented it all in one go) realised that it was a fiendishly difficult method of communication, and so they took steps to make it a little easier. Some aspects of grammar that are commonplace in European languages are entirely absent in Chinese, the most notable being the lack of conjugated verbs and word modifications in general. In English, it is quite easy to change the ending of a word to shape its meaning: play, plays, played, playing, player, playful, playfully. This requires knowledge of the many grammatical potholes that must be avoided, such as how child
goes to children
and not childs
, or how show
goes to showed
goes to grew
. (This second one was unintentionally pointed out to me by an old Greek friend of mine, who once shew
me a game he was playing.) Chinese, however, cannot adapt its characters so freely; instead it does away with these complications entirely by employing wonderfully simple add-on words to signify plurality, past tense or possession. You could literally translate 'We ate my cake' as 'I [plural] eat [past] I [possession] cake'.
The Chinese have found other ways of cutting corners too. Why give separate names to all twelve months and all seven days? Far too complicated. Instead they're called Month 1 through to Month 12 and Day 1 through to Day 6, with Day Sun thrown in there to mix things up. (As an added bonus, one
are only a tone apart.) In fact, the word used for day
in this context is also used as the word week
, but it's not as confusing as you might think. Since making new words is avoided whenever possible, old ones are recycled (and literally translated) as follows:
Owl: Cat head bird
Jeans: Cow boy trousers
Computer: Electricity brain
Traffic light: Red green light (okay, the word for traffic
exists, but I hear red green light
far more often)
Aeroplane: Fly machine
Spain: West class tooth (pronounced 'xībānyá', which sounds close enough considering that we're using Chinese syllables)
The Chinese also lack direct translations of a
. The first two are substituted with one
(though there is often no article used at all); additional complications to these are coming up in the next section. The word is
could be translated as yes
, I suppose ('duì', meaning correct
, is in the same boat), but instead Chinese yes-no questions are usually answered by repeating the main verb of the question itself. That is, the answers to "Have you read this book?" and "Are you coming?" would be "Read!" and "Coming!" respectively. How nice.
Here are two concepts that I'd like to talk about, the first being measure words
. It's quite natural to want to quantify things that you're referring to – say, a bowl of rice, a length of rope, a flock of birds. However, Chinese has a system whereby every noun must be quantified, even if it's on its own, and that the accompanying word used depends on what kind of thing the noun is. One such word, 'zhǐ', is used for small animals like cats and dogs as well as generic small things; instead of simply saying 'a dog', which is incorrect, you would have to say 'a zhǐ dog' every time. It's as if you're saying how many units of dog you have; in this case, you have one small animal's worth of dog. Another example is 'tiáo', which applies to long, thin, wavy things like string, roads, hair or fish. (I wonder if Dachshunds could be added to this list.) There are countless measure words like these, ranging from easily translated ones like pairs or boxes of things to more abstract words describing plants, monitors, clothes, vehicles or cutlery. Thankfully there is a generic one, 'ge', which can be applied to practically anything, but using it unnecessarily is frowned upon.
The second quirk is yet another concept that is largely absent from English, making it consequently difficult to describe. The Chinese, being very emotional people, have a series of nuance words that can be latched onto the ends of sentences to make them convey a particular feeling without having to change the words themselves (when accompanied with suitable movements with your voice, of course). Bear in mind that none of these words have a clear definition, and that experience is virtually the only way to learn their use. I shall exploit a simple example sentence, with each line varying only the ending word:
We are going to the zoo. [just a statement with no extra ending word]
We're going to the zoo! [like an excitable child]
Duh, we're going to the zoo, of course! [reminding someone who has forgotten]
We're going to the zoo, aren't we? [unsure, as if seeking confirmation]
But we're going to the zoo! [in answer to someone who has offered to go elsewhere]
So we'll go to the zoo, then! [as if offering a compromise]
Fine, we'll go to the zoo. [in defeat]
We're going to the zoo now! [as you are leaving]
The next item is the conflict between written Cantonese and spoken Cantonese
. As far as I am aware, much of Cantonese was developed when the speakers illiterate, meaning that the connection between speech and text wasn't particularly strong. This asymmetry is still prevalent today, in that much of what is spoken literally cannot be written down
; I have reservations about describing it as slang or colloquialism, as it is more like two dialects sharing only half of their characteristics. The example I like to use is the Cantonese for fruit
; on paper it would be pronounced 'sui go', but everybody says 'sang go' instead. 'Sang go' is a phrase that people say on a day-to-day basis, but it has no written character assigned to it.
A repercussion of this is that you pretty much have to learn to speak Cantonese twice: once to pronounce the words you read and again to be able to converse with locals. It doesn't help that many of the words that can't be transcribed are incredibly common ones. The aforementioned word for not
, commonly pronounced 'mm', is sensibly (and coincidentally) pronounced 'but' when read out; similarly, is
goes from 'hai' to 'si', and the word to indicate possession becomes 'dik' from its previous 'go'. The most evident demonstration of this dual pronunciation is the news, where footage cuts between newsreaders reading from a script and reporters interviewing people on the streets. Chinese consists of several different dialects, but even within those dialects there are even more dialects. Thankfully Mandarin does not have this fluctuation, making it far easier to pick up!
For some reason this inconsistency doesn't seem to bother people. Perhaps it is because there is no obvious solution: we cannot simply invent a character that means fruit
and is pronounced 'sang go' (as the process would be in English), nor can we change the pronunciation of the word 'sui', nor can we convince everybody to say 'sui go' since the other pronunciation is already too ingrained into people's speech. See, the process of inventing words in Chinese isn't an easy one. If current words cannot be grouped to form a new phrase, we often resort to piecing together syllables (like the aforementioned Spain example), which is a haphazard solution if you ask me. Meanwhile, if we in the West come across new or alternative words, turning it from a sound, concept or name into a dictionary entry is a reasonably easy process (some examples include tofu
). In the meantime, though, Cantonese people continue to use a second set of words that exist only in speech, which is a concept entirely alien to English speakers.
And so, after that mass of text, what have we actually learned? The Chinese language makes very little sense to someone brought up in a Western household, what with its character system of writing, tonal means of speech, and the several concepts that are so unfamiliar that I can barely describe them. If you ever decide to take up Chinese, I commend your bravery. (You'll just be preparing yourself for when China inevitably takes over the world.) But, before you are tempted to write it off as an insane language that is far too difficult to learn, I invite you to become more aware of the countless oddities of our own method of communication. Perhaps there is a blog somewhere about the difficulties of learning English from the perspective of someone living in Asia, complaining about how wise guy
and wise man
are opposites while a fat chance
and a slim chance
are synonymous; I would not be surprised in the slightest. Whatever the case may be, I thank you for making it through the marathon that was this journal. 再见!