Tomorrow belongs to China”, and “Chinese is the language of the future.” These are statements we hear from people returning after business visits to China. Be ready for tomorrow; don’t get left behind. Heeding these recommendations, I decided to go in for lessons in Chinese.
My first shock came when I heard that Chinese is a tonal language. The same word spoken in different tones can have different meanings. The classic example is the common word “ma”, which has four meanings when uttered with a high tone, a rising tone, a falling-rising tone and a falling tone. The pitfalls are many. I intend to say, “Your mother is a wonderful lady,” and end up saying “Your horse is a wonderful lady.”
In course of time, however, I found that my fears were misplaced. In continuous speech, the tone variations get merged in the flow of speech. When uttering single words, the tones become prominent.
Also Read V.R. Narayanaswami’s earlier columns
The several names given to the country and to the language were confusing. In English literature, the country was known as Cathay, a name that survives in Cathay-Pacific. The Chinese name for the country is Zhongguo (sounds like Chung Kuo), and means “middle kingdom”. The name of the language then is Zhongwen, which refers to writing in particular. Another widely used name is Hanyu, the language of the Han people of China. In Taiwan it is called Guoyu, national language. In Singapore and South Asian countries it is Huayu, language of the Chinese. In the mainland, Left-leaning intellectuals wanted to put people at the centre, and preferred the name Putonghua, the speech of the common people. In 1956 the government adopted the term to describe standard Mandarin.
When we learn a new language, we start with the alphabet. Chinese is not an alphabet-based language; you cannot ask someone to spell the word pingguo (apple) in Chinese. Learner’s dictionaries for foreign learners transliterate Chinese words in the Romanized script known as “pinyin” and arrange the words alphabetically. After a short struggle with Chinese characters, I decided to stick to pinyin.
A unique feature of Chinese is the use of what is called measure words. They are words placed between numerals and nouns. In English we say “one book”, and in Chinese we place a measure word between numeral and noun. The most common measure word is “ge”: We have “san ge pingguo” (three apples); “yi ge didi” (one younger brother). The measure word is often dependent on the quantity or shape of the referent. For example, we use “zhi” for stick-like things, as in “yi zhi bi”, a pen. For a long narrow shape, we use “tiao”, as in “yi tiao he”, a river. Measure words do not contribute to the meaning of the expression, but learners have to spend some time learning their use.
When we begin learning Chinese, we expect it to have a grammatical structure like that of English, with tense, number, case, gender and other categories. But Chinese grammar is much simpler. The verb has only one form for present, past and future. A single form, for example, “lai” which means “come”, can be used for simple or continuous, past, present or future, and singular or plural. Word order is also different. “I jog every day” becomes “wo meitian dou paobu” (I every day jog). “Youju li zher luan bu luan?” (Post office from here distant not distant): “Is the post office far from here?”
As in other languages, English words are increasingly being used in Chinese speech. “Nan-peng-you” and “nu-peng-you” are now considered old-fashioned and young Chinese prefer to say BF and GF for boyfriend and girlfriend. Coca-Cola is “ke kou ke le”; beer is “pijiu”, “pi” as a semi-transliteration of “beer” and “jiu” for alcoholic drink.
Names of the days of the week and names of the months in European languages are associated with the history and legend of Greece and Rome. In Chinese they are labelled with numerals: Monday to Saturday are weekday-one, weekday-two, weekday-three and so on. Similarly, there are numerals with the common noun for month, “yue”. The names are month-one, month-two up to month-twelve. Note that October means the eighth month by etymology; but in Chinese it is called month-ten, or “shi yue”.
The final stage in learning Chinese is getting to know the cultural nuances of language in context. How do you address a married woman and a single woman? Can a foreigner be addressed as “tongzhi” or comrade? The normal way of opening a telephone conversation is to say “Wei”; but the same expression is considered rude in any other context. Besides learning grammatical structures, we have to learn to use the language in a socially acceptable way.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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