Thursday, July 10, 2008

Exactly how does Chinese work?

The Americans I meet ask many questions regarding the Chinese language. For those of you who have an inkling of interest in how the Chinese language system works, I will as succinctly as possible walk you through it. I will try to draw comparisons between English and Chinese throughout the explanation. However, the dissimilarities occasionally make it difficult to draw these parallels. I will put in a disclaimer that there are many exceptions to these rules. So if you are Chinese or you are studying Chinese please understand that this is just for the gist!

First, the Chinese language has “characters.” People often ask me, “Are characters letters, words, or pictures?” The answer is that they are a mixture of all three! But, to think of it like that would be selling short an amazingly intricate 2000 year old language system. Chinese does not have an alphabet in the sense that English has an alphabet. Instead, it has characters which are made up of even smaller pieces called “radicals” which have loose meanings and sometimes phonetic associations. Radicals are similar to our roots, prefixes, and suffixes (e.g. chrono, aqua, or anti). These radicals are made up of “strokes” which are a very specific set of pen (originally brush) strokes that are standardized. Strokes are similar to your understanding of standard English handwriting techniques. For example you know the precisely where to curve the second pen stroke so that everyone comprehends that you meant to write P instead of D. One character itself can be a word alone. Or, it can be combined with another character to make a compound word. Let me summarize. From most simple to most complex it goes stroke – radical – character-compound word. Here is an example with the character for mother.

Basically, think of characters of having some combination of meaning and phonetics. The character for woman is 女, pronounced “nu.” The character for horse is 马,pronounced “ma.” The word for mother is also pronounced “ma.” The character of mother needs to show the meaning of a woman with the phonetics of horse ma. So, the character for mother becomes 妈。Notice the woman part on the left and the horse part on the right.

Let’s try again with the word for fry, like to “stir-fry” as we call it. The character for fire is 火 pronounced “huo (hwo).” The character for a small amount or an amount is 少 pronounced “shao.” The character for stir-fry is 炒 pronounced “chao.” As a beginner in Chinese, I might possibly be able to work this out. I could see that the fire radical meant that there was heat and fire involved, and I might already know the 少“shao” on the right. So, I might be able to guess that the entire character together. Maybe.

Most characters are not this simple. In learning Chinese one rarely has enough time to go through all the radicals in each character and derive a meaning. Because there are 6500 characters, memorization starts early! For instance, the character for electric or elecricity is 电 “dian (deean)” and the character for brain is 脑 “nao (now).” I memorized these cold during separate study sessions. So I was delighted to know that the Chinese language combines the two into a word. That’s right 电脑 “dian nao” means electric brain aka computer!

However, don’t expect to see too many of these simple characters in your local Chinese restaurant, any US China town, or a fortune cookie. “Traditional Characters” are still used in all of these locations, whereas mainland China has since adopted the use of “simplified characters.” While there has always been a history of simplified forms of some characters, the official government driven simplifications occurred in two rounds. The first occurred in the early days of the Communist Revolution (1956 and 1964) to improve literacy. The second further simplification occurred later towards the end of the Cultural Revolution (1977). The final list was adopted as recently as 1986 to be taught in schools. Generally traditional characters have more strokes and are in my opinion extremely difficult to write. Modern Chinese characters are derived from their traditional forbearers but have been stripped down for ease of use.

Now, you may ask, “Ok so if Chinese uses characters, then what are those Roman Alphabet like looking letters in the explanations?” That’s called “Pin Yin.” It is the phonetic representation of each character. That’s right the characters are only loosely phonetic. If you are trying to compare this to English, imagine if you wanted to make a complex code with a forbidden lover. Maybe you two agree that agree that:
˄ = I
˫ = love
* = you

Then you could look at a note from your secret lover that said “˄˫*” and know the meaning without ever having to consider the English phonetics associated with the meaning. In fact if you used it enough, “˄˫*” would become phonetic in your head! Chinese children begin associating the sounds with the characters in the same way. They start early enough that they don’t really need pin yin spelling at all. In fact, I have met some older Chinese people who cannot use pin yin at all because they never learned it in school. They only operate on the sounds for characters based on pure memorization and association. They have no need for a third step of phonetic representation in between.

The problem with thinking and writing only in characters leads me to your next question. “How do they use computers?” I know what you’re thinking. If there are over 6500 characters, how could there possibly be a keyboard that big? Well, the techy geniuses of China have found a more efficient way. They use Pin Yin along side when working with word processing software and even text messages on cell phones. When they are using Microsoft Word for example there is an extra piece of software (made by Google of course) that allows them to type Pin Yin and then change it to a Chinese character.

This leads me to your next question. You are thinking, “Hmm Pin Yin looks a lot like an improvement on those complicated characters. If you have to change to Pin Yin to use the computer, why not change the language for good and forget those confusing characters all together?” Funny, in my moments of illiterate frustration I have wondered the same thing! But, it’s not that simple. Remember 马? If you have already forgotten that’s “ma.” But, it turns out that there are a lot of “ma” sounding words out there. Each has a different meaning and thus a different character. When I type “ma” I a list of choices pops up: 妈 马 吗 嘛 骂 码 麻 玛 么 抹 etc. ALL of these are pronounced “ma” but very have different meanings. One means mother, one means horse, one signifies a question, and one is one half of the word “what” etc. When using the computer each character corresponds to a number that the typist must select thus “typing” the character on the screen. That is, assuming that I, the typist knows which character has my intended meaning. So the only way is to either memorize characters or get comfortable with illiteracy.

Finally in the spoken language (adding one more layer of complexity), Chinese is “tonal.” If you have been reading my updates, you will know that I, the monotone American speaker, am constantly battling this one. Mandarin Chinese has four tones (sometimes five) and the meaning of the word you say changes depending on the tone of your voice. We have this only minimally in English. It is similar to the difference between “a record” and “to record.” That is, the noun “record label” is pronounced differently than the verb “to record.” But, the divergence in meanings due to tones in Chinese is exponentially more dramatic. For instance, consider all of our “ma” words. If you say “ma” with your voice high and steady like you are singing, then you are saying 妈 meaning mother. If you say “ma” and your voice goes down a note or two and then back up (like Tarzan) then you are saying 马 meaning horse! Here’s another one. If you say the word “mai” and your voice does the Tarzan thing then you are saying 买 meaning to buy. But, if you say the word “mai” and your voice goes brusquely down (like you’re scolding your dog), you are saying 卖 meaning to sell. Factoring in the tones in pronunciation gives yet another reason that simply switching to Pin Yin would not be sufficient. Characters wrap up meaning, pronunciation, and tone, all in one package – something that a simple alphabet system cannot handle. Again memorization is the only way out!

If you are overwhelmed don’t let me discourage your dreams of learning Chinese! There is one attractive and endearing feature of this language for the neophyte. The grammar is a piece of cake! There are no plurals, no subject-verb agreements and not really any verb conjugation at all. If you forget your grammar terms in English, that means that you don’t have to worry about when to say “I am,” “you are,” or “she is.” And, you don’t have to worry about when to say “drink,” “drank,” “drunk” or “swim” “swam” “swum.” There is no past or future tense like we know it! In English you have to say, “I had eaten,” “I ate,” “I am eating,” “I will eat,” or “I will have eaten.” But in Chinese you can just say, “I two days ago eat,” “I yesterday eat,” “I now eat,” “I later eat,” “I tomorrow eat.” How’s that for simplicity and efficiency!

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