Tuesday, March 22, 2016

It's all Chinese to Me, Part 2

I think that the biggest reason Chinese is called “the hardest language in the world” is because of the writing system. Something that a lot of people hear is that English has 26 symbols, while Chinese has 5000. Very true. Many of us also know that while English letters represent sounds, Chinese symbols, or hanzi, represent words—or, more accurately, one-syllable morphemes.

When I first started to study Chinese, the idea behind the writing system did not seem very complicated. I figured that, while with an alphabetic system we write out the sounds of a word, in Chinese you basically make a stylized doodle of the thing you’re talking about. For example, the sentence we saw in the last video contained the word mu3 “mother, female”. The hanzi is easy to remember, as it’s basically a crude doodle of breasts. Breasts represent motherhood. Easy enough.

Things become more complex when you have to make a doodle of an abstract concept. For example, how does one make a doodle of “good”? If you have studied basic Chinese, you already know:

hao3 “good”

This is a stick figure of a woman (left) with a baby (right). Because, of course, babies need Mom around, and it’s good when Mom can take care of the baby. Brilliant.

What I didn’t know when I first started learning Chinese is that hanzi can include phonetic elements, too. Take a look at this:


“Wait a minute!” You say. “That’s the stick figure woman from before!” So it is. In this symbol, the woman is next to a doodle of a horse. Therefore, the word must mean, say, female horse, right? Or maybe even “cowgirl”?

Nope. It’s just another word for “mom”.

In this hanzi, the horse represents not the meaning of the word, but the sound! The Standard Chinese word for horse is ma3*. So, while a dictionary may simply give this hanzi as “mom”, the true meaning of this symbol is closer to “the sound ‘ma’ in reference to a woman”, or even “the one associated with womanhood, that sounds like the word for ‘horse’”!*

The problem with this is that the system of “meaning + sound” can become horrendously convoluted. Many of the semantic elements only make sense if you understand the cultural references that would’ve been made by the Chinese literati of the 10th century BC. Take for example huang2 “yellow”. This is a combination of guang1 “sunlight” and tian2 “field”. “Oh, easy,” I thought at first. “It’s a doodle of the sun shining on a field. After all, sunlight is yellow.”


炗 is phonetic, not semantic (guang → huang), which makes  tian2 “field” the semantic element. So why would a doodle of a field infer “yellowness”? Because in ancient China, yellow was seen as the color of the earth. From “earth” it’s a quick jump to “field”, hence the hanzi huang2 “yellow” can more accurately be translated as “the thing that sounds like the word for sunlight but refers to something associated with fields and general earthiness”.

...and it’s not getting any easier. To add another level of insanity, in order to really understand the phonetic elements in Hanzi you can’t always go by how the words sound in modern Standard Chinese—you have to reconstruct what they sounded like in Old Chinese, the language of the Shang- and Zhou-dynasty courts where the writing system was developed. Which even most Chinese speakers don’t learn unless they themselves are historical linguists. 

A quick note: “Old Chinese” is not to be confused with Classical Chinese, which is a written—not spoken—form of late Old Chinese learned by most kids in high school. Classical Chinese as learned by high school kids uses modern pronunciation, and would have sounded completely different at the time it was written. Compare this with Shakespearean English. Most high school kids read Shakespeare, but don’t study the way Early Modern English was actually pronounced:

Another example from my last video is the word ta1, meaning “he/him” and sometimes “his”. The semantic element of the hanzi is ren2 “man, mankind”, and the phonetic element is ye3, which in modern Standard Chinese means “also”, but in Old Chinese was an emphatic particle at the end of a sentence that worked as a kind of spoken exclamation point—in English ,we might say “indeed!”. So, again, the meaning of this hanzi is not so much “he, him, his” as it is “a man who sounds like the word for ‘indeed’”.

他 Ta1 and 也 ye3 sound nothing alike! How can ye3 be the phonetic element? The answer comes from the comparative method! When we reconstruct Old Chinese, it becomes clear that both and were both pronounced as something akin to *laj or *lh’aj! The phonetic element made sense 3,000 years ago, but doesn’t make sense now! Crazy, huh? That’s Chinese!

Holy convoluted, Batman! But at the same time, isn’t it a super creative and interesting system? It’s so fascinating how all of these symbols came together. Over 9000 hours on Wiktionary went into this post. 

This stuff should be in every beginning Chinese textbook, as all of the hanzi discussed are what you would learn in your first semester of a Chinese class.  But it's not!  It's sacrificed on the altar of "relevance" or "practicality".

 If books and teachers told (adult) learners the stories and the cultural context behind words, we would never forget them, and learning a language would be about ten times more fun. But you know what? Screw that, too much work, too much research. Instead, just copy ten times and remember it means “he”. Ok, next lesson: I go to school by bus...

*Proto-Sino-Tibetan *smrangs “horse”Cf. Proto-Indo-European *mark- “horse”, Mongolian mori “horse” or even modern English ‘mare’.