Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Chinese is Terrific, Part 1

Today I came across an article called “Why Arabic is Terrific”, and it was so informative and fun that I thought I would write a response article, on Mandarin Chinese. In homage to the original article (and judging from the Twitter traffic, lots of other people seem to dig it too) I am going to follow its structure, point by point.
Here are my reasons why Chinese is so terrific.*

1. The Grammar

Just like English and Arabic, Chinese is a SVO language, so “I love you” in Chinese is 爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ).
The Chinese language also “does away with conjugations, declensions, or any other kinds of inflections”. For you and me, that means that once you have learned a Chinese word, be it a verb, a noun, or an adjective, you can then go ahead and form sentences with it, regardless of person, number, gender, tense, or any other grammatical categories there may be, without having to worry how it has to be modified.
So the verb “to go”, (qù) can be used in the following sentences:
我去。(wǒ) = I go. / I went. / I will go.
他去。(tā qù) = He goes. / He went. / He will go.
们去(tāmen qù) = They go. / They went. / They will go.
In case you are wondering how that one sentence 我去。 can have all three tenses: such trivialities are determined by context, for example with words like ‘tomorrow’ or ‘yesterday’ that indicate when the action is taking place.
Sometimes, it seems like just arranging the words in the right order is all you have to do form a sentence in Chinese. Let’s take the sentence “I made a promise with a friend to see a movie.” If we take out all the articles (“a”, “the”, etc), prepositions (“with”, “to”, etc), and other secondary verbs (“make”), we are left with “I promise friend see movie.” And that’s exactly how you would say it in Chinese:
我约朋友看电影。(wǒ yuè péngyou kàn dìanyǐng)
It is no wonder that some people would go as far as to say “The Chinese language has no grammar.”

2. Classifiers

You know how you say “a gaggle of geese”, and “a pride of lions”? Much like how the English language has matching collective nouns for nouns, Chinese has classifiers, or measure words, that are specific to each noun. So “one person” in Chinese is not 一人, but 个人(yí ge rén), with (ge) being the general classifier for persons. This is a common feature in other Asian languages.

3. The Writing System

Every learner of the Chinese language, after munching through a few hundred characters, soon realises that there is a clear and systematic (and fun!) pattern to how the vast majority of these letters are formed.
What I'm referring to is 声(xíng shēng), which means “picto-phonetic”, where one half of the character gives the meaning (the radical) and the other half supplies the sound. (It's actually just one of the six methods () of forming Chinese characters.)
Let’s take an example to see this in action. Take the Chinese word for “he”, (). The left part of that word is the radical form of the word for “person”, (rén). This is the part that supplies the meaning to the overall compound word. The right part of the word supplies the sound “”.
And the Chinese word for “she”? It’s (). The left part of that word () means “woman”, and gives the word its meaning. And look! It is pronounced the same as the Chinese word for “he”; that is because both possess the phonetic part on the right.
Here are a few more examples:
Compound Meaning Sound
cái “material, talent” 木 wood cái
cái “wealth, money” 贝 shellfish cái
cún “village” 木 wood cùn

is why you can guess how to pronounce a Chinese word, as well as have a rough idea of what it means, even though you have never seen it before. It is also precisely because of this clever system that new additions can be made to the ever-growing vocabulary of the Chinese writing system, ensuring its survival through test of time.

4. Dual

The number two has a special place in Chinese too. If I told you that the Chinese word for the number two was (èr), then you would expect the word “two people” would be 个人(èr ge rén), right? But you would be wrong: in fact, it’s 两个人(liǎng ge rén).
When “two” is describing the number of objects in question, and not the order (that is, “second in line”), one must use (liǎng) instead of (èr). So “February the 2nd” is 二月二日(èr yùe èr rì), but “two months and two days” is 两个(liǎng ge yùe liǎng tiān).

5. “We” vs. “We”

Here’s a cool concept that’s not found in the English language. The word “we”, if you think about it, is quite ambiguous. Consider the situation where we have three people in a room. There is the speaker, A, the person being spoken to, B, and also a third person C standing nearby. Now A says to B, “B, are you telling me that we really did that?” Does the “we” in that sentence include the person B (hence it could mean “A, B, and C”), or does it mean “A and C”, excluding the person B? You could argue that “such trivialities are determined by context”..
In Chinese, there are two different kinds of “we”: The first is (zánmen), which refers to a group of people that includes the person being spoken to (roughly translated to “we all”, or the “us” in “let us all go to the beach”); and the other, (wǒmen), may or may not include the person being addressed. Depending on the context, you can think of this as the “we” in “we vs. you”.

To be continued in Part 2..

*I understand that the main point of the original article was that “Arabic is Terrific because it is so different from the English language!”, and that yes, indeed, next to Arabic, Chinese indeed does seem a little “vanilla” in comparison.
Re: similarities between Chinese and English, I would in fact go as far as to say sometimes, their similarity goes so far that it begs the question, "how come?"
Take, for example, the phrase “I'm afraid” in “I'm afraid he won't be making it to the party tonight.” No other Asian languages I know uses the verb “to be afraid” in that context, where fear has nothing to do with it, except the Chinese. (我恐)
Also, “terrific” doesn't rhyme with “Chinese” like it does with “Arabic”. ;-)

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