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.