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Some Thoughts on Chinese Languages


     'Sapir (Sapir-Whorf) said something else about language and reality. It is the part that often gets left behind in the dot-dot-dots of quotations: "No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached."    -    Amy Tan. The Opposite of Fate, p 284-5'
     Chinese languages are tonal, with Mandarin having five tones, and Cantonese eight, whereas English essentially has only one. In English a change in tone rarely alters the basic meaning of a word (although, in the case of a statement, a rising tone on the last syllable turns the statement into a question ...This is a bank. vs This is a bank?      In Chinese the tonality of a word might loosely be thought of as an aspect of the spelling, in that a change in tone radically changes the meaning, sort of like...here vs hear.

     Complicating this problem is the fact that there is a limited set of available syllables for spoken Chinese to draw upon, leaving the listener needing to know a given statement's context in order to understand what is actually being said. An idea of the magnitude of this ambiguity problem can be seen by looking at this table of meanings for the group of Mandarin words that we would pronounce as Tian...Please bear in mind that tian was chosen at random, and the same set of issues will arise with almost any Chinese word you might choose.
--- Tian --- (high level tone, 1st tone) sky, heaven;   god, celestial
--- Tian ---       append, add to;   increase
--- Tian ---       moisten, wet, soak;   touch
--- Tian --- (rising tone, 2nd tone) field, arable land, cultivated
--- Tian ---       fill in, fill up;   make good
--- Tian ---       town, market place;   suppress
--- Tian ---       sweet, sweetness
--- Tian ---       颠  or  顛    top, peak, summit;   upset
--- Tian ---       quiet, calm, tranquil, peaceful
--- Tian ---       be angry at, scold, rebuke      
--- Tian ---       鈿  or   钿    hairpin;   gold inlaid work, filigree
--- Tian ---       to beat;   to winnow
--- Tian --- (falling, then rising tone, 3rd tone)    lick with tongue;   taste
--- Tian ---       raised path between fields
--- Tian ---       timid, shy, bashful
--- Tian ---       prosperous;   good;   protruding
--- Tian ---       disgrace;   ashamed;   self-deprecate
--- Tian ---       to end;   to exterminate
--- Tian --- (falling tone, 4th tone)      append, add to;   increase
--- Tian ---       gem used as ear plug;   jade earring
    In english, this ambiguity is regarded as a problem, English has acquired an enormous vocabulary so that we can specify a particular meaning to a given statement. In a scientific and engineering language, this specificity is an important virtue. In Chinese, however, the many meanings are an omnipresent factor in speach. The many possible threads available in a statement can run in parallel, contradictory, divergent, convergent, related and disparate directions. This allows, for example, agreement while strongly discouraging a course of action; plausible denial.

     Major changes to the written form of Chinese are actually surprisingly recent, and attributable to a small group of individuals.
     “The most famous was Hu Shih, who attended Cornell and Columbia from 1910 to 1917 and came back to Peita with a conviction that written Chinese must change to a vernacular style, using the vocabulary of everyday speech...       ...Why was this necessary? Classical Chinese used single characters to convey ideas to the eye, but so many characters sounded the same that a classical statement often remained ambiguous or unintelligible to the ear. To get around this problem, Chinese speech generally uses two-character phrases to express an idea. Accordingly the vernacular written style used the two-character phrases of everyday speech. Because polysyllabic English is not plagued like monosyllabic Chinese by a multitude of homophones all sounding the same but with different meanings, analogues of the Chinese problem in English seem far-fetched, but let us try: an ambiguous classical statement about a "sole (soul?)" would now read "fish-sole" or "shoe-sole" or "spirit-soul" or even "alone-sole." Similarly, "Have you my all? (awl?)" could be specified as "Have you my all-everything?" or "Have you my awl-tool?" The ambiguity of "Where is the sun (son?)" could be met by using "solar-sun" or "Mother's-son."... ...once Hu Shih and Ch'en Tu-hsiu joined forces to promote the new style, it caught on quickly. By 1920 the Ministry of Education decreed its use in textbooks.”     -    John King Fairbank, "The Great Chinese Revolution: 1800-1985, ch.11"

    "Chinese characters are composed of any number of brush strokes, from one, as in 一, meaning "one, unity, all, uniform" to more than 20, as in 灣(22 strokes), meaning "bay, bend of a stream." Although they seem to the Western eye a mysterious forest with no clue to the maze, they contain a definite principle of order. They are classified in dictionaries under 214 radicals, such as 男, "man"; 女, "woman"; 口, "mouth"; 山, "mountain"; 工, "work" or "workman" (originally a carpenter's square); 宀, "roof"; 車, "cart" (a two wheeled vehicle viewed from above). The radicals were originally pictographs which gradually became stylized. The rest of the language is represented by the addition of what are called "phonetics" to the radicals; for example, the character 論 (lun), meaning "to discuss, discourse" is made up of the radical 言, meaning "words," plus the phonetic 侖 pronounced lun and meaning "to arrange, set in order," which indicates both sound and meaning "to set words in order," i.e. "to discuss." Not all phonetics, are so helpful or logical. Some indicate neither sound nor meaning".
    "There are approximately 880 phonetics which together with the radicals (some of which double as phonetics) make up the 1,000 basic forms a student must know to be able to read and write all Chinese characters. The task requires persistence, hours of practice and constant review, which obviously limits the number of foreigners willing and able to accomplish it but the number of Chinese who could achieve literacy before pai-hua, a written form of the vernacular, was introduced."
   -   Barbara Tuchman, "Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45, ch.4"


    Perhaps the most difficult aspect in moving from one language to another is the difference in conceptualization. An English speaker might rent a taxi, but a Chinese would 出 租 車 chu1 zu1 che1 (rent a go, carried in a cart). In the English conceptualization, one rents the noun (object), but, in at least this case, the Chinese would rent a verb, ie: the going.

    Another aspect of Chinese that is guaranteed to cause difficulties for an outsider to the culture is the constant use of cheng-yu's. These are typically based on Chinese folk stories, and are widely understood within the society and hardly known by outsiders. For native, American English speakers, the story of Tom Sawyer selling opportunities to whitewash the fence, so he won't have to do the work himself, is so widely known, that if I say "...Like Tom Sawyer and the fence", most native-born Americans will understand the reference. In Chinese there are literally thousands of these "Four-Word Stories" or cheng-yu. To compliment a husband on his good wife, one might say (in translation) "holds tray above eyebrows," referring to the story of the good wife who honors her husband so highly, that she prostrates herself, holding the tray above her head, when serving his food.

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