Tag Archives: Chinese language

Hu bai wan?

Wu bai wan.

While I was waiting to cross 解放路 yesterday, I was serenaded by music coming from the branch of 东方电器 on that corner.The shop sells white goods and often plays music, but yesterday, the lyrics caught my ear and unless I was much mistaken, the singer was rendering the English “You buy one” as “Wu bai wan”. I’m not sure whether this was being prefaced by some attempt to produce “Why don’t” because I could hear a “wai”, but nothing which sounded like “don’t”.

This afternoon I needed to buy water from the shop at the main gate. The grounds staff have been doing quite a bit of watering and when the hose pipes are at full pressure, I’ll go bouncing over them. As I passed across the lane between the ponds, there was some girl on one of those bikes with really small wheels. She approached the hose pipe which was lying across the path with some caution, hit it, and stopped dead, which sent her off the seat. Even if she had been going a bit faster, I’m not sure she could’ve ridden over the hose pipe. I might’ve tried to do a wheelie, but then again, I wouldn’t be seen dead riding such a ridiculous bike.

Chinese really does have words for everything

But some of them may not get used much.

The boys on Language Log often foam at the mouth (but in a decorous and academic fashion) about claims that language X lacks a word for Y. I always felt slightly irked to be informed that Old English mōd (> MnE mood) or Middle English corage (> MnE courage) had no equivalent in contemporary English. Such words were always a little mysterious and I felt that it was being implied that English was a little wanting. Both words appear to mean something like “animating spirit” among other things, and it’s probably possible to find some phrase which would more or less capture the mysterious meaning in other contexts.

On the other hand, Chinese still appears to have words for everything, even if they don’t get used much. As regular readers will know, Chengdu (in particular) and Wuxi (often) can be foggy, misty, or hazy, and anything after that requires modification in English. I was bodging around my Chinese dictionary this morning and stumbled across the words 霾 mái “thick haze” and 阴霾 yīnmái “thick dark haze”. I’m not sure the word peasouper quite captures the latter (or even the former), but 阴霾 does describe the state of affairs usually just before it starts raining here.

The weather has been more beneficent over the past couple of days. Clear yesterday; very thin layer of cloud (or pollution) today. I expect, though, that I’ll be rolling out 阴霾 sooner or later.

Pronouncing “Chengdu”

More opacity in pinyin.

I note that someone came here looking for how to pronounce Chengdu, but landed on my recent and obliquely related post about pinyin. Wikipedia has a fairly tho­rough guide to pinyin. If you follow that and have the pinyin (including tone marks), then you can work out the pronunciation of words in Chinese. There’s also a site called pinyin.info. 

As for Chengdu, I have, unsurprisingly, heard so many foreigners pronounce the name as


which is obvious, but inaccurate. 

In pinyin, e+nasal here represents a high-mid back unrounded vowel

(Probably s[c]hwa would be sufficient to represent this particular segment.) The nearest equivalent in English is the low-mid back unrounded vowel

Thus, if you want to approximate the Chinese pronunciation in English, rhyme the first syllable with lung.


In pinyin, Chengdu is, with tone marks, Chéngdū and pronounced


Although the d- of the second syllable is a plain, voiceless alveolar stop for which [d] in English is usually a reasonable substitute, I found that it resulted in some confusion possibly because in this environment [d] is fully voiced and may sound affricated to Chinese ears. I found that by replacing it with [ð] (e.g. the -th- in brother), which is phonetically a voiced dental stop in English, any confusion was obviated.

It’s possible that in some parts of China, the alveolar stops are dentals.

Left-headed or right-headed?

And under what circumstances?

I went through the list of words in my grammar of Chinese which marks word stress to see whether it might be possible to identify some sort of pattern. Unfortunately, without being a native speaker of Chinese, there’s almost nothing I can say about this particular set. There are some obvious things such as the unstressability of toneless syllables and the fact that they’re always word-final. I note certain instances of agent noun derivation, although I also note that beside 女人 (‘nǚrén) “woman” and similar, the book has 熟人 (shú’rén) “friend” with final stress. (The apostrophe marks the stressed syllable.) 

I should also note that there are quite a few words which the book doesn’t mark for stress at all, but I’ve never noticed any explanation for this. I should similarly note that certain syllables, which are toneless in the book, are marked in my dictionary (e.g. 爱人 “spouse” [book] àiren, [dictionary] àirén); and vice versa (e.g. 咳嗽 “cough” [book] késòu, [dictionary] késou). [06.10.13. Of course, this could be the con­se­quence of a typographical error.]

So in the end I’m not able to say much about this because it requires a knowledge of Chinese far beyond mine.

Stress-timed or syllable-timed?

What exactly is Chinese?

On the TEFL course in Zhuhai, one of the trainers asked what types of language there were. I guessed after some thinking that she meant stress timing and syllable timing. Apparently, I was the first person to know the answer and quite possibly the last for some time. But the question came up which one Chinese is, which stumped me and raises questions about how these two language types, especially syllable-timed languages, are defined.

I wouldn’t call Chinese stress-timed, but is it really syllable-timed? Are two light syllables (LL) equivalent to a single heavy one (H)? In the first instance, are 爱 (ài) and 安 (ān) equivalent to, say, 茶色 (chásè) “dark brown” (ignoring tones)? Is there anything in Chinese phonology which is based on such patterns?

Verse is the obvious place to look for evidence of quantitative patterns, and I’ve just stumbled across this article (pdf format) by the well-known Chinese linguist, San Duanmu. Unfortunately, the discussion is largely symbolic, with very few examples of actual lines. What little there is suggests that quantity is not a significant element in Chinese verse, although stress may be.

I’m not sure this is a question I can answer. I think that if Chinese is syllable-timed it can only be classified as such because there’s no vowel reduction. It appears that the language lacks the quantitative equivalences which you get in other syllable-timed languages such as Classical Greek where LL = H. The issue is complicated when it seems that Chinese verse may have an inherent trochaic rhythm. If Chinese is syllable-timed, it appears not to have the characteristics of prototypical examples of such languages.

Don’t tell me. You’re, um…

Forgettable character No. 978.

There are some characters which seem instantly forgettable. It doesn’t matter how many times you see it, the only trace of it that remains in your memory is that you’ve seen it before. It might’ve been five minutes ago, but it’s gone.

My current nemesis is 求 (qiú) “ask, beg”, which I keep seeing and keep instantly forgetting. I think the problem is that it’s like 球 (qiú) “ball”, which I do know, although rather fear that I’m about to start doubting that I know it at all because the two are so similar.

On the other hand, I walked into the kitchen yesterday or the day before and realised that I could read the name of the washing-up liquid, which is called 采奇 (cǎiqí). What word that’s meant to be (i.e., it’s a foreign word), I can’t tell. The Chinese is literally “pick strange”. A Google search actually gets 5 million hits for this collocation, although it’ll always be followed by some other word. I noticed quite a number of instances of 采奇石, which seem to take you to sites about odd-shaped rocks.

27.07.07 求 has a friend, 课 (kè) “class, lesson”, who keeps appearing and who I keep forgetting.

07.06.14. Seven years later and I still can’t remember this character. It’s found in quite a wide range of words such as 求爱 [qiú’ài] (vb) “court (a girl)”, 求婚 [qiúhūn] and 求亲 [qiúqīn] (vb) “propose marriage”, and 求救 [qiújiù] and 求人 [qiúrén] (vb) “ask for help”.

The Great Chinese Character Survey

Even I underestimate myself.

For the past couple of years I’ve been telling people that I estimate that I know about 200 characters. I thought I’d do a survey of Patrick Lin’s (1999) 500 Basic Chinese Characters. A speedy elementary course published by Sinolingua to see how many I knew; how many I didn’t know at all; how many I half-remembered; and how many I knew I’d forgotten. The results are

Characters I know for certain: 222
Characters I don’t know at all: 164
Characters I’ve seen before and may have some idea of their meaning: 69
Characters I’ve learnt, but have forgotten: 45

I certainly know more than the 222 in Lin’s book, so anything up to 240+ would be more accurate. The characters in the third and fourth groups are a little fuzzy. Some in the fourth group might just scrape into the first, but it’s easy to learn a character and then forget it; and some of the characters in the fourth group are ones that I get confused such as 真 (zhēn) “true; real” and 直 (zhí) “straight” which, because I remembered these off the top of my head this time, ought to be added to the first group. But ten minutes from now, I will’ve forgotten them, although I use the latter quite a bit with taxi drivers.

However, even with around 240+ I’m still unable to read the bulk of written Chinese. I can pick out individual characters, but if these are merely parts of words, then I have little chance of understanding what I’m reading. At best, I might be able to understand the gist. Occasionally, I can read some or most of a phrase such as the one which went up recently on a wall near the school gate. It says “Build a green Fugao; make (?) a beautiful community”, although I’m not sure about the second verb.

[17.10.13. Almost seven years and a lot of indolence later, I doubt whether I’d do any better, and suspect I’ve probably got worse. I’ll try repeating the survey when I go home this evening.

20.10.13. I haven’t completed the survey yet, but find that most of the characters I didn’t know seven years ago are still unfamiliar to me today because they’re mostly characters I just don’t see that often if ever. Most of the Chinese to which I am exposed is on shop signs or notices stuck to the door of the building.]

Love those crazy language skillz

You silly man.

I was over on the forums where someone had posted a thread about a Patriot skin/bot for Q4. In one of the images, you can see a couple of Chinese characters tattooed on his arm. Someone wanted to know what they meant, and someone else supplied a translation, “crazy man”.

The characters are 痴漢 chī hàn, which seems really to mean “silly/idiotic Han Chinese person”. [03.08.14. Youdao translates the phrase as “idiot”.] Although hàn can mean “man”, I suspect that the connotation is still “Chinese person” rather than human beings in general. As for chī, that can also mean “crazy about” (i.e., very interested in something). At best, it means “silly man”.

But that’s not all. As any Chinese person will tell you (provided they know the English words), the first character is simplified and the second traditional. It’s the sort of thing that probably makes the Chinese wince, giggle, or both.

The words which the creator of the skin probably ought to have used are either 狂人 kuángrén or 疯子 fēngzi. I don’t know what the connotations of these words are, but the first is literally “crazy person”.

But to turn back to 痴 chī, I can’t find it in the English half of my dictionary. If I understand the character dictionary in the office correctly, it seems to have something to do with talking gibberish. I’d guess that it’s probably low fequency vocab.

Old linguists never die. They just can’t remember the word for it

Twenty-five Years On

Although the circumstances of my life might change, I still remain interested in languages and linguistics. I have a greater aptitude for languages than most of the foreigners I’ve met here in China. I don’t kid myself that I’ll ever be fluent in Chinese. A lot of people come here thinking they’ll learn the language, but clearly have no idea what it takes to learn one.

I tend to learn bits of Chinese when I need to be able to communicate some specific piece of information. Of course, I promptly forget the word the moment I no longer have any use for it. I like to know what the characters say because so much written information goes begging in this country because the writing system is unfamiliar.

I didn’t turn up in China completely ignorant of Chinese. I knew the facts that everyone knows about Mandarin Chinese – it’s a Sino-Tibetan language; it has the largest number of speakers in the world; it’s a tone language; it’s allegedly monosyllabic; it’s written with characters; characters have radicals and stroke counts. And that was it.

What have I learnt about it since then? Well, it’s not really monosyllabic. Most words are disyllabic because the language has a very limited syllable structure  –  (C)V(N) – which means lots of potential ambiguity. The meanings of these disyllabic words can either be transparent, partly transparent, or utterly opaque. In the last instance, this means that Chinese words have spelling. weiji (危机) means “crisis”. The character wei means “danger”, but ji can mean “machine”, “aircraft”, “opportunity” etc. In other words, weiji happens to be spelt with these characters. Dongxi (东西) means “thing”, but is written with the characters for “east” and “west”. Zuoyou (左右) can mean both “vacillate” and ”control, influence”, and is written with the characters meaning “left” (zuo) and “right” (you).

The Chinese consonant system is heavy on affricates. (This is only true of standard Mandarin; most regional varieties have simplified the consonant inventory to such an extent that pinyin is wholly inaccurate.) Curiously enough, the basic set of stop consonants – labial, alveolar, and velar – are phonetically similar to English, although phonemically the languages are different. Mandarin Chinese opts for a contrast between plain and aspirated non-continuant obstruents.

Chinese has [l], but no [r], although it has a consonant that is acoustically similar, and rhotic vowels. (Japanese goes the other way with an r-like consonant, but no [l].)

The vowel system is a bit weird with centralised and back unrounded vowels, and a rhotic vowel. The realisation of the high front vowel is determined by the preceding consonant. It’s centralised after [s]; rhotacised after retroflex consonants; but otherwise [i].

Chinese does have inflectional and derivational morphology. The inflectional system is minimal, but it’s there. Nouns have a possessive form and verbs tend to take temporal and aspectual particles. In fact, it might even be possible that there are a few more nominal inflections, even if they aren’t analysed in that way. Adjectives are actually stative verbs. And prepositions are verbs of a sort as well. Chinese word classes tend to be a little nebulous.

Syntax is SVO with some SOV-like elements. Locative phrases come first in the clause. There is a ba-construction (把) which places the direct object at the start of the sentence. There’s not much co-ordination, or even subordination. The existential verb is you (有) “is/are; have”. Chinese uses measure words (a little like “piece” in “a piece of paper”), although their range of use is often restricted and there’s the all-purpose measure word ge (个). But just to be quirky, the Chinese word for “two” when you count two things is liang (e.g. liang ge piao “two tickets” 两个票), but er (二) “two” when counting.

18.06.13. Edited the HTML, added Chinese characters, and added tags. I also added some extra information and broke up one of the longer paragraphs.