Thursday, November 10, 2011

Culture Corner: China - The Language

From the lowest of lows I fathomed in Chinese infomercials, I will now attempt to redeem myself by giving you a taste of real culture: the Chinese language.  Although it won't be as funny as shoes that make short men feel tall, mini-trampoline exercise equipment, or libido enhancing underwear - “Can you feel the tingle, Hu Jin?" – I hope it will nonetheless be enlightening to some degree.

The Chinese language, where to start... Yes, it's VERY different than English.  Not opposing, but definitely different, especially verbal aspects.  Most of the sounds in Chinese are sounds we use, too.  But, it's in the specifics of these sounds Westerners find big problems.  Most English speakers can spit out a 'Bonjour' that is close enough for a French person to warrant a sniff.  But in Chinese, spitting something out is not good enough. You must also coordinate head movement – at least this is how I started using tones. Otherwise, "May I look at the menu?" becomes "Your goat has wings." all too easily. The reason for this is that verbal Chinese consists of individual syllables spoken in one of four specific tones: flat, rising, rising-falling, or falling.  For example, the Chinese word 'ma': when we say 'ma', no matter how we say it - shouting, whispering, exasperated, or happy - everyone knows we are attempting to 'mother'.  But in Chinese, depending on which tone you use, flat, rising, etc., 'ma' takes on a different meaning each time.  'Ma' with a falling-rising tone might mean ‘horse,’ whereas 'ma' with only a rising tone means ‘hemp.’  Coincidentally, 'ma' spoken with a flat tone means 'mother' in Chinese.

Speaking Chinese using correct tones is difficult, but trying to discern them is even more difficult.  For me this is because all Chinese words are one syllable.  In other words, when spoken in English, 'responsibility' is one word with one basic meaning: a smaller part of a larger context.  But in Chinese, 'responsibility' (looking at syllable count only) would actually be six words, creating the possibility that someone has just asked you a full question regarding your marital status or pointed out your fly is unzipped.  Combining this idea with the speed with which a native speaker uses their language, meaning must be extracted quickly from this compact nature of the Chinese language.  Deciphering the syllables, let alone the tones used, is not easy.  I often get lost after the first syllable, asking myself: "Was that a rising ‘hong’ or a falling ‘hong’?”, and by the time I decide to give up and move on to the next word, the person has told me the details of how to set up my own internet trading company, of which I’m only half-certain about the first word – which may not even have been a word, perhaps something like ‘umm’ or ‘huh.’ Not good.

The Chinese written language?  Well, as crazy as it seems, this may actually be easier to learn despite how completely alien it looks. If you memorize a pictograph's appearance, it's in essence the same as memorizing the way a word is spelled in English. Both are composed of individual pieces which must be put in the correct order to represent an idea.  The ease with which ‘lice’ becomes ‘like’ is very important.  And as for writing those characters, while at first awkward, I have found it to be not so strange and can scratch out a few of them as comparatively speaking, a Chinese character requires the same number of pen strokes as does a word in English.  Each character (or pictograph, or sinograph, or sonogram, or blah-blah….)  has a reason for looking the way it does.  And usually there is some hint as to its real meaning located in the pieces which comprise the overall character.  More often than not, this meaning is something based in reality.  For example, the pictograph for tree, lo and behold, looks like a tree. And pictographs for things that are wooden, likewise will contain the root character for tree.  And so on...  (Their word for love is not a heart.)

Structure wise, the Chinese language is extremely efficient.  There is a paucity of vocabulary and grammar, so a person usually expresses themselves in a few short syllables rather than lengthy dialogues.  For example, a Chinese translation of a Western book is significantly thinner, something in the area 75% thinner. 

However, there are some similarities between English and Chinese that other Western languages cannot state with the same finality, one of which is that both languages exist in two forms: the verbal and written.  In other words, the connection between what we write and what we say is based on the memorization of the appearance of symbols.  This is in direct contrast to languages such as Polish or German wherein have phonetic logic: you can correctly pronounce a word without knowing its meaning.  And so what most native English speakers are unaware of is that they are somewhat pre-programmed to divide usage when learning Chinese.  (For those who still don’t understand, ask yourselves why we write ‘bear’ and ‘bare’ if they sound exactly the same.  You simply must memorize which is which and is an aspect that most other European languages don’t have.) 

There, how's that for real culture? Next time, it's on to the horrendous: human-being-torture-noises the fighting tomcats near my apartment make in the middle of the night.

No comments:

Post a Comment