Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Reduplication in Chinese

Hi everyone, welcome to Office Hours with the Brofessor: the show where I say things. Today I'd like to discuss something cool that I've been noticing in the Chinese language: reduplication.

Before we get started, I'd like to send a big shout out to my friend and coworker Manny Gomez, who's heading back to the States today after a whopping seven years in China! That's a long time to be here. Pretty incredible. Awesome working with you dude, and I'll do my best to get out and see you in Virginia when I'm in the States later this year. Thank you also for a year's worth of listening and advice! It's really meant a lot to me how you were always willing to listen and offer advice when I had something to gripe about.

So to start today's discussion, what is reduplication? Reduplication is a linguistic process whereby a word, or part of a word, is repeated. This could be for a variety of reasons, for example adding emphasis. In English, for instance, we can say "this coffee is really, really good," to indicate that this coffee has surpassed mere really-goodness and achieved something even greater!

Chinese likes reduplication. You hear it all the time. To continue the coffee example, for "really, really good" we could say in Chinese 好好喝 hao3hao3he1—literally "good good drink". It's also used to make nouns diminutive, and as such is used in Chinese nicknames. Take for example a close Chinese friend of mine, whose name is Jing4 but is called Jingjing ("quietquiet") by friends. My name in Chinese is 白西 Bai2Xi1 "White West". The nice old lunch lady at the school where I work calls me Xixi as a cute nickname.

We can also reduplicate verbs in Chinese for roughly the same effect as English "take a (action). For example if I want to say "let me take a look" I could say 给我看看 gei2 wo3 kan4kan4, literally "give me looklook".

There's also a lot of what I like to call "semantic reduplication". That is, even if a word itself is not reduplicated, its meaning is. Let's look at a few cases:

  • 朋友peng2you3. Peng2 and you3 both mean "friend". A fair translation of this compund word could be something like "friendpal".
  • 睡覺shui4jiao4 could be translated along the same lines as "slumbersleep". It should be noted that the second part of this word, jiao4 has several meanings, only one of them being sleep.
  • 思想si4xiang3—both parts individually meaning to think about something. I like to translate the compound as "ponderthink".

Cool stuff. Now, why in the world does Chinese do this?

My personal hypothesis is that English would too, if it had the same number of homophones as Chinese.

Take, for example, names. When we introduce ourselves in Chinese, we say not only our names, but also how to write them. Mine is not a particularly orthodox Chinese name, but it does sound like my name in English and describes me pretty well. So when I introduce myself, I do it like this: "My name is Bai2 Xi1. That's Bai2, as in the color white, and Xi1 as in east-to-west." The reason I have to explain is because in Chinese, the same sound could be a lot of different words, even down to the tone. That is, Bai2Xi1, even as opposed to, say, Bai1Xi4, has a lot of meanings, and "White West" isn't necessarily the first combination one would think of. My given name ("first name") in Chinese is 西 Xi1 "west"...but the same Xi1 sound could mean, variously:

  • Xi1 "pretend"
  • Xi1 "servant"
  • Xi1 "joy"

...along with 156 other things(1).

So, when I say my given name is Xi1, it's anyone's guess as to which of the 159 different Xi1's it could be.

The same principle is true in conversation. Of course, context can help us. If I'm at Starbucks, and I say cha2 it's more likely that I'm referring to cha2 "tea" rather than cha2 "small mound or hillock" (2). This is why lots of language learners, not just of Chinese, find it difficult to use a foreign language on the phone—there's no visual context, and visual/situational context is important!

Even in a face-to-face conversation, sometimes context and meaning are difficult to work out. That's where semantic reduplication comes in! Let's look back at the above example 睡覺 shui4jiao4 "slumbersleep". By itself and without looking at the written symbol, shui4 could mean up to seventeen different things(3), one of which is shui4 "sleep". Similarly, jiao4 could mean forty-eight things(4), one of which is jiao4 "to sense, perceive, wake up, or go to sleep". Therefore, by saying "shui4jiao4" it becomes clear which of the many variants I mean to use. Shui4 and jiao4 both mean a lot of different things by themselves, but if we put them together we can logically jump to the meaning held in common by both.

So that's why, I think, this cool phenomenon of reduplication is such a big deal in Chinese, and why, even if we don't reduplicate a word itself, we very often reduplicate the meaning. We beat homophones with synonyms.

This richness of reduplication is one of the coolest, most beautiful treasures of the Chinese language that I've found so far. The more I learn, the deeper my appreciation of this richness becomes. Cool stuff. So anyway, that's all for today, see you next time!


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