Happy year of the Caprinae!

in Chinatown

According to the Chinese zodiac, most of 2015 is the year of the 羊. The word 羊 (‘yáng’) can refer to both sheep and goats, hence the confusion over what to call this zodiac year in English (sheep/goat/ram). Wikipedia kindly informs me that the most accurate translation of ‘yáng’ would be Caprinae, a Latin word corresponding to the biological subfamily that encompasses sheep and goats.

Therefore, I wish you a happy year of the Caprinae.

Signaling tense and aspect

Chinese does not have ‘grammar’ the way European languages do because words are not inflected. There are no plurals, noun cases or past tense. All the memorization of declensions you have to do when you study, say, Germanic, Slavic and Romance languages—that kind of stuff is absent from Chinese entirely (though you would of course be foolish to conclude that Chinese is therefore easy). So how are the relationships between words indicated? Context, adverbs and particles.

Let’s look at verb tense (specifically past tense) and aspect (specifically completed aspect) in Singlish as influenced by Chinese.

Continue reading Signaling tense and aspect

Why Chinese is hard

This is an articulate, entertaining, informative essay about Mandarin Chinese. You should read it if you are a Westerner living in Asia, if you are considering studying Chinese, if you liked the TV show Firefly, or if you have ever had any contact with one or more Chinese people from China. It will give you perspective.

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn’t remember how to write the character , as in da penti 打喷嚔 “to sneeze”. I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment.

In other words, the difficulty of the Chinese writing system makes the language hard for native speakers, too. Remember that next time you’re complaining about how ‘arbitrary’ English spelling is.

Must Chinese be visual?

It is hard to understate the importance of the Chinese characters to the Chinese language.

It is claimed by Chinese speakers that the Pinyin system (the official system for using the Roman alphabet to write the sounds of Mandarin Chinese) is not enough to convey meaning because so many words sounds the same. They need the visual elements in the characters to distinguish words.

This may seem like nonsense. People don’t use characters when they talk on the phone in Chinese. Context is enough to distinguish the meanings of homophones. And yet, Chinese speakers imagine the characters when they’re listening.

Kids who don’t know the characters yet could, theoretically, just learn to read Pinyin and associate the meanings to the sounds and to the Pinyin representations of the sounds, which is similar to what every kid with an alphabetic language does.

Adult Chinese speakers read faster with characters than with Pinyin because they already know the meanings of the characters, whereas if they try to read Pinyin, they have to translate the Pinyin into sounds before they can understand the words. They would need to practice reading Pinyin a lot to be able to read as fast without characters.

Furthermore, the characters provide intelligibility between types of speech that the Chinese tend to call dialects but that are sometimes considered separate languages.

Chinese pride in Chinese characters may seem like sheer masochism. Non-phonetic writing systems are an undeniably heavy cognitive burden. But if China abandons characters, it’s also abandoning centuries of its own history, poetry, and art. How could anyone really be in favor of that?