But probably for the wrong reasons.

While we’re talking about linguistics, I’m reminded of a chance discovery just recently. I was talking to Linda about 隶书 (lìshū) style writing. Linda, as I think I observed in an earlier entry, pronounced lì as dì, which I took to be the Sichuan pronunciation. But I was going through the Chinese characters in charmap and found that 隶 is also listed with the set of characters pronounced di. None of my dictionaries mentions dì as an alternative pronunciation for 隶.

I should also mention this post by Matt Schiavenza (care of bezdomny ex patria), a former teacher in our programme who is now studying Chinese. I note in particular the observation that if you know 3,000 characters you can read a newspaper. I know about 300 characters and like Matt I can, on occasion, read all the characters in a sentence yet not make sense of what I’m reading. That may be in part because I only know the prototypical sense of the character, and in part because I know, say, 新, 眼, and 儿, but I don’t know that 新眼儿 (xīnyǎnr) means variously “heart; mind” or “intention” or “intelligence”. I’d be wondering what all this “new eye(s)” business was about because that’s how I’d read these characters.

In other words, you’re better off learning 3,000 words. I have a book called 500 Basic Chinese Characters A Speedy Elementary Course which I bought from the Foreign Languages Bookshop in Beijing a few years ago. Yes, it gives you 500 characters, but it also gives you lists of words in which they’re used. For example

  • 新 (xīn) new; newly (adj./adv.)
  • 新房 (xīnfáng) n. wedding room
  • 新婚 (xīnhūn) n. newly-married (surely an adjective: e.g. 新婚夫妇 “newly-married couple”; the book is riddled with these sorts of errors.)
  • 新居 (xīnjū) n. new residence
  • 新郎 (xīnláng) n. groom
  • 新年 (xīnnián) n. New Year
  • 新娘 (xīnniáng) n. bride
  • 新闻 (xīnwén) n. news
  • 新鲜 (xīnxiān) adj. fresh
  • 重新 (chóngxīn) adv. again; anew
  • 创新 (chuàngxīn) v. create
  • 革新 (géxīn) v. reform
  • 清新 (qīngxīn) adj. fresh; pure and fresh
  • 新加坡 (Xīnjiāpō) n. Singapore

In other words, that’s the sort of list I should be learning rather than just individual characters. On the other hand, it still suffers from de­con­text­ual­isation. 新鲜 and 清新 might both mean “fresh”, but what’s the domain of their usage? Could I say 新鲜的鱼 and 清新的鱼, or would one merely elicit giggles? (I suspect the latter if these words aren’t freely inter­changeable. A fresh fish is one thing, but a fresh face is another. Again, the book raises quite a lot of questions like these.)


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