Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why Chinese is Terrific, Part 2

In the first part, I gave five reasons why I think Chinese is terrific. Here are the next six:

6. Pronouns

In spoken Chinese, “he” and “she” both sound the same (tā). In fact, the gender-neutral pronoun “it” is also pronounced (). However, as you saw before, they all have different written forms (他, 她, and 它 for “he”, “she”, and “it”, respectively.) . So there is this wonderful dichotomy between the spoken and the written Chinese, which I think is terrific.

Actually, the Chinese word for “it” can be further divided as follows: 它 () to mean objects, 牠 () to refer to animals, and 祂 () to denote gods. In the latter two cases, we again see an example of 形声 at work: 牠 is formed from 牛 (niú), meaning cow; and 祂 is formed from 示 (shì), meaning revelation.

7. Tones: Crazy Rules

Ah, the tones. Mandarin has four tones: the high (1), the rising (2), the fall-rising (3), and the falling (4). Using ma as an example, they are denoted as , , , and . But here's where the crazy rules come in. Let's look at one such rule in detail:

When you have two third-tones in a row, the first turns into a second-tone. So the famous greeting 你好 is actually two third-tones, but is pronounced as ní hǎo.

Are you with still me? Because just as if this isn't complicated enough, there's an exception within an exception: that's right, we are going two levels down, baby. This Inception-like exception comes into play when the two third-tones in question are actually just one third-tone letter repeated. In this case, the tones become a third tone followed by a first tone. So 好好 is pronounced hǎo hāo.

To sum up,

3 + 3 = 2 + 3,

unless if the two are just one letter repeating, in which case,

3 + 3 = 3 +1.

And I haven't even touched on the special rules for 不 and 一, which happen to be two of the most common letters in Chinese! You'll have to find those out yourself. ;-)

8. Phonetics

Until now I've been trying to avoid talking about pīnyīn. Pīnyīn is what makes Chinese that much more accessible to foreign learners with English (or any other languages using Roman alphabet) as their mother-tongue. That doesn't mean Chinese doesn't have its fair share of enjoyable consonants and vowels though. Before long, you'll be getting to grips with the differences between /zh/ and /z/, /s/ and /sh/, /shao/ and /xiao/, and /chu/ and /qu/.

9. Funky Numbers

In English, we describe big numbers using words like hundred, thousand, million, billion, and so on. The point is, we go up in steps of a thousand. This is why large numbers have those commas (or dots if you're European) to separate every three digits, a là “123,456,789”.

In Chinese, there is another special unit for “ten thousand”: the 万 wàn. So “one hundred 万” would equal one million. Moreover, much like “one million” is equal to “a thousand times a thousand”, the Chinese have the unit for “ten thousand times a ten thousand”: the 亿 yì. That's right: “one 亿” is equal to one hundred million.

But because the Chinese write numbers in exactly the same way as those in the English-speaking world, complete with the decimal separators, it is quite a mental hurdle at first to learn to read big numbers using 亿 and 万.

10. Hànzì, Hanja, or Kanji

There are so many different versions of the Chinese characters in existence today that it is not even funny. Let me just focus on the big three: the Simplified Chinese used by mainland Mandarin speakers; the Traditional Chinese as used in Korea and Taiwan; and the Kanji system as used by the Japanese. (In this article, I've used the Simplified Chinese throughout.)

To illustrate some of the differences, let's examine a made-up word that means “Study of All things American”, or if you like, “Americanology”:

美国学 (měi guó xué)
美國學 (mi guk hak)
米国學 (bei koku gaku)

Just look at that for a moment, and let its symmetry sink in. It's almost beautiful.

11. Learning Aids

Instead of recommending you books, let me just introduce two cool tools. Pleco for Android and iOS, and Zhongwen for Chrome. You can thank me later. ;-)

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