can anyone help me understand my fascination with zhong hua [china]? [part IIIb]

mastering mandarin, otherwise known as “enjoying the state of confusion on people’s faces as you stutter about meeting someone’s grasshopper. . .” [part B]

ni hao!

the above is a typical chinese way of saying ‘hi’.  its literal meaning is “you good?”

in contrast to the complexity of its tones, chinese grammar is fairly simple. in fact, when you translate chinese phrases literally, you can be left with a somewhat crude impression of the language. unlike english, chinese lacks forms of inflection such as conjugation or declension. this can make chinese phrases sound a little strange to an english-speaker if they are rendered literally. the following are some examples of chinese with the idiomatic form of the english alongside each phrase:

i house inside = i am inside the house
by me driven car = the car that i drove

this makes the meaning of words in oral chinese even more context-sensitive than in english. remember our pinyin word ‘ma’? even with the different tones to distinguish what version of ‘ma’ you intend, there are still a number of possible meanings. let’s pick one tone and see what our options are. . . say the third tone.

ma’ with the third tone can mean:

  • the name of a river
  • a mammoth
  • agate [a type of stone]
  • a weight
  • a number
  • a yard
  • a pile
  • a stack
  • an ant
  • a horse


so as you can see, context plays a greater role in chinese than in english. did he feed his horse or his ant in the field? despite what seems like a great potential for confusion, chinese speakers manage just fine with their fascinating language. that is, if they are from a similar part of china. funny enough, even within mandarin, there can be so many sub-dialects, that speakers may have trouble understanding each other.  my friend joyce lives in beijing, and says that if she drives 30 minutes out of beijing she can barely understand a word people are saying. beijing is a particularly interesting example, because it has its own dialect that can make its speakers sound like asian pirates. the “rrr” sound is often added to words. it is called the ‘beijing-accent’, and is mocked by people outside beijing.

imagine driving to ajax and not being able to understand english-speakers there due to their accent. i mean, i don’t understand anyone that lives in ajax, but it isn’t because of their regional dialect. . .


~ by jcim on August 16, 2010.

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