Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The strange and wonderful Chinese language

The Most Interesting Language

Chinese is by far the most interesting language I've ever studied. I learned a bit of biblical Hebrew as a kid; got pretty good at Spanish in middle and high school; studied Ancient Greek and French in college; and picked up a bit of Arabic and Latin along the way. But nothing has captivated my attention to nearly the same degree as Chinese has.

Indeed, picking up the language is a large part of my reason for coming to China in the first place.1 I speak and study Chinese every day, and I continue to find it fascinating. Here are a few examples of why.

"Do You Like It?"

The idea that language and culture are intertwined is one that I've always been skeptical of. I mean, do you really need to read up on French history or cuisine to get fluent in French? However, today I was surprised to find myself agreeing with the sentiment of that expression, after my mom asked me at lunch how to translate the expression "好吃吗?" into English. Literally, this is a simple statement: "[Is it] good to eat?"

Today's dinner: 好吃吗?非常好吃!(Hell yeah!) I ate three of those plates by myself.
But I realized that "is it good to eat?", or "is the food good?", or any such variation, aren't something we say very often in English – particularly when we're eating at home. The reason, it seems to me, is one of politeness. If you don't like something that your mom (or better yet, your friend's mom) made, it's much less awkward to say that "I don't like it", than it is to say that the food itself is bad, and perhaps, by extension, that your host is a bad cook.

So as I told my host mom, I think the best way to translate "好吃吗?" is, "do you like it?" The choice of translation is informed by knowledge of the culture. Maybe there's something to that saying after all.2

Stating the Obvious

Another cultural-linguistic difference between English and Chinese is that Chinese people seem to really like stating the obvious.3 For example, when I come home, the housekeeper, 小王 (Xiao Wang4 ), is usually the one to let me in. Every time she lets me in the door, she says to me, "You're back" (回来了). Now, from the fact that I just walked in the door, it's quite obvious that yes, I'm back. So why does she say it?

Sure, we sometimes say "you're back“ in English. But it's always with some further meaning in mind, which is conveyed through tone of voice. For example:

  • "You're back!" [happily] = "I'm glad to see you"
  • "You're back?" [question mark] = "How come you're back so early?"
  • "You're back." [flatly] = "what took you so long?".

When 小王 says it, it's just a simple statement of fact. I'd venture to say that the idea of "why say it" is something that doesn't occur to Chinese people nearly as much as it does to Americans. I find Chinese people to be much less cynical than we are. Everything we Americans say has to have some necessity behind it, as if we've exhausted everything there is to say and need a reason to talk. The Chinese seem to often just say what they're thinking, or ask questions about whatever is on their mind. To me, it's quite refreshing. As Wallace Stevens said, "Disillusion is the last illusion", and I'm disillusioned with disillusionment.

I'm Not a Blonde!

A cool minor thing about Chinese is that there are two different words for "blonde hair". One is 金头发, "gold hair"; the other is 黄头发, "yellow hair". I've always thought my own hair was brown, but some people keep insisting that it's blonde (especially in the summer time). I think "yellow" is a nice compromise.

Another really cool color-related word is “”, which I think is best translated as "nature's color". It can mean green, if used to describe a plant or a mountain; blue, if the object is a sky or a stone; or even black, when referring to hair or cloth! Here's a song by an artist I like, Grace Chang/葛蘭 (she has better songs, but this one is apropos), called 我要飞上天, "I want to fly through blue skies." (The transliteration, which you should be able to hear her say even if you don't speak Chinese, is "Wo yao fei shang qing tian.")

Linguistic Elitism

The Chinese language's written and spoken forms are probably more different than any other language's. One thought I had that illustrates the difference: As a written language, I'd say Chinese is very elitist5 . I heard someone say yesterday that Chinese is the only living language without a written alphabet, and I couldn't think of any counterexamples. Chinese characters, 汉字, are the reason that it takes twice as long to learn Chinese as is does to learn Spanish or French. And they're the reason that so many Chinese people, even those who have been through the school system, are semi-illiterate.
The Chinese equivalent of "antidisestablishmentarianism"

For example: 小王, the housekeeper, is at about the same level of reading ability as myself and as my 8-year-old host brother: able to read about 1000-2000 characters. Those thousand characters are enough to read something like a text message, where the context is known and the vocabulary familiar, but reading a newspaper or a novel would be quite impossible for any of us.

I haven't asked, but I assume 小王 learned significantly more characters in school, but forgot most of them in the meanwhile. Can you imagine someone forgetting how to read English? The possibility of forgetting in Chinese testifies to the tenuousness of the link between the written and spoken languages. English is not great at representing speech, but Chinese is way worse. Show an English reader a new word (say a proper noun he's never seen before), and he can make a decent guess at the pronunciation. Show a Chinese reader a new character, and he'll be able to get maybe the right vowel sound, if he's lucky. Chinese is just plain hard to read, which makes the gap between literacy and illiteracy in Chinese a large one.

Yet, Chinese is very anti-elitist as a spoken language! For example I haven't heard my host mother once correct my 8-year-old host brother on his Chinese grammar. Most English-speaking 8-year-olds still have problems with their subject/object usage, not to mention their irregular verbs.6 Whereas English is characterized by a Germanic/Latinate-root divide between simple everyday words and complex scientific ones, Chinese words are almost universally constructed with perfect logicality. For example, if you want to say "halitosis", you just say 口臭, "mouth-stink". Imagine how less imposing medicine would be if your doctor could just tell you you have "mouth-stink". Similarly, a portait is a "head-likeness" (头像), planes are "flying machines" (飞机), and a clause is a "short-language" (短语). What brilliant simplicity!

Learn Chinese

For me, Chinese is definitely going to be a lifelong language, one that I keep working at to fluency and maybe beyond. For anyone who's never studied an Eastern language, I seriously encourage you to give it a try. You might find yourself getting addicted. Hell, you might even end up in China yourself.

1. If this sounds like it has a chicken/egg issue, the explanation is that I had already taken 1 year of Chinese in high school – enough to remember the basics and to know that I wanted to learn more.)

2. A question for my Chinese-speaking friends: when you say “不好吃”, are you saying "the food is bad", or "I don't like it"? Also, am I right that the direct translation of "do you like it?", “你喜欢吗?", would sound asked about the food that you're already eating?

3. This observation isn't original to me; Albert Wolfe talks about it in Chinese 24/7. He relates one incident where he passed two strangers while running, one of whom said to him, "You're jogging." (跑步啊), and the other of whom just said, "Foreigner." (老外)

4. Literally "Little [Ms.] Wang", but that would sounds terribly patronizing in America, whereas I think "小" is a pretty common form of address in China. Another example of how culture shapes language.

5. This should not be taken as necessarily derogatory, despite John Defrancis's arguments that characters should be done away with. For me, if Chinese wasn't the way it is, it wouldn't be nearly as much fun to learn – or to talk about.

6. And so do most adults. Did he "lie down" or "lay down"? I, at least, learned a lot from reading an English grammar.


  1. Interesting read. Wonder if there are formal papers published on this subject matter.

  2. Dan these are truly interesting found. Keep looking for them and I promise you will become more familiar with this culture. FYI, I think the Chinese they speak in the video is actually Cantonese. lol


  3. @Da: Yeah, a lot of what he was saying definitely isn't Mandarin, though Cantonese is still Chinese, 是不是? But at around 2:57 I think I hear him say "在哪儿?", and a little earlier, something that sounds like "会打我电话没有了?" Not sure quite what that last one would mean - "give me a call"?

  4. I am learning a lot from your perceptive, humorous and well written observations. From my experience, I believe that language reflects the experiences and priorities of culture. But I'm not sure that your example of "stating the obvious" is a true distinction. We English speakers do have rote things we say in our daily transactions, just different things. For instance, when someone walks in the door, others say, "hi, how are you?" without necessarily expecting a reply, just acknowledging the entrance. One might do the same passing a jogger in the park. Daniel, it interests me that you like this aspect of Chinese conversation because you don't like or engage in small talk or "how are you" type ways of making connection in English.

    Interesting that Chinese would have a distinction for different shades of blond, when we don't, given that it's a rare phenomenon for them and a common one for us. You would expect the opposite.

    Is there an "old Chinese" verbal language, like Old English, that is now archaic, or has it remained the same over time?

  5. @Mom: I don't know much about it, but the pronunciation of Chinese has definitely changed. I know that ancient written Chinese is much more terse than modern Chinese but I don't know whether the spoken language had the same character.

  6. Haha, except for the elitism of written Chinese characters, Vietnamese has all of the aspects you list above, adding the extra simplicity of having Latin alphabets. I agree that the characters are so cool though (like old Vietnamese characters). And I don't know if you've noticed before, but I also stated lots of facts when we lived in suite 2 years ago.

  7. To find a few wonderful Chinese cuisine, go to Chinatown in San Francisco where you can find some of the best you have ever tasted in addition to shopping in fun boutiques and shop with fun things to buy such as Chinese fans or Chinese kites. Phoenix Chinese Restaurant