Chinese Language

Chinese Characters/ Chinese Grammar/Pinyin

Despite initial impressions, there is nothing particularly difficult about learning words and expressions with fixed tones, and there is no reason at all why visiting foreign tourists should not make some effort to learn at least the basics. The difference between being able to pronounce correctly a few words of Chinese and being able to speak none at all can mean the difference between a successful trip and a nightmare, given the paucity of English-speakers in China. Anyone considering a visit to the country is highly recommended to study some Chinese before their departure and, above all, it is worth paying attention to pronunciation and the use of the pinyin phonetic system.

What we know as Chinese is, strictly speaking, a series of dialects spoken by the dominant ethnic group within China, the Han. Indeed, the term most commonly used by the Chinese themselves to refer to the language is hanyu meaning “Han-language”, though zhongyu, zhongwen and zhongguohua, all of which literally mean “Chinese”, are frequently used as well. However, not all languages spoken in China are dialects of Chinese. The non-Han peoples such as Uigurs and Tibetans, for example, speak languages which have little or nothing to do with Chinese.

The dialects of hanyu are a complicated story in themselves. Some of them are mutually unintelligible and – where the spoken word is concerned – have about as much in common as, say, German and English. The better-known and most distinct minority dialects include those spoken around China’s coastal fringes, such as Shanghainese (shanghai hua), Fujianese (minnan hua) andCantonese (guangdong hua), though even within the areas covered by these dialects you’ll find huge local divergences. The most important of all the local dialects, Cantonese, is a language of worldwide significance in itself, being the dialect spoken by the people of Hong Kong and generally among the Chinese communities overseas, particularly those in Southeast Asia.

What enables Chinese from different parts of the country to communicate with each other is Mandarin Chinese. Historically based on the language of Han officialdom in the Beijing area, Mandarin has been systematically promoted over the past hundred years to be the official, unifying language of the Chinese people, much as modern French, for example, is based on the original Parisian dialect. It is known in mainland China as putonghua – “common language” – and in Taiwan (where it is also the official language) asguoyu – “national language”. The promotion of Mandarin has led to a situation whereby many Chinese grow up speaking it alongside their local dialect, and can switch freely between the two. As the language of education, government and the media, Mandarin is understood to a greater or lesser extent by the vast majority of Han Chinese, and by many non-Han as well, though there are two caveats to this generalization – first, that knowledge of Mandarin is far more common among the young, the educated and the urban-dwelling, and secondly that many people who understand Mandarin cannot actually speak it. The chances of the average Tibetan peasant being able to speak Mandarin in other words are extremely small. In Hong Kong and Macau, likewise, there has been until recently very little Mandarin spoken though this situation is now changing fast.

Another element tying the various dialects together is the Chinese script. No matter how different two dialects may sound when spoken, once they are written down in the form of Chinese characters they become mutually comprehensible again. Leaving aside the complication of traditional versus simplified characters, the different dialects use roughly similar written characters. A sentence of Cantonese, for example, written down beside a sentence of the same meaning in Mandarin, will look broadly similar except for occasional unusual words or structures. Having said this, it should be added that apart from Cantonese it is unusual to see dialects written down at all. Most Chinese people, in fact, associate the written word inextricably with Mandarin.

Chinese Characters

Chinese characters- pictograms built up of components representing simple concepts such as fire, earth, person, wood- must rank as one of the most extraordinary creations of the Chinese people, and they have had a profound effect on the way the language has developed over the past three thousand years. Every character can be pronounced as a single-syllable sound, but the character itself contains no more than hints as to what its pronunciation should be. Fundamentally, the character stands not for a sound, but for a concept. Because Chinese characters are so immutable and so ancient however, the individual concepts behind many of them, as well as their grammatical function, have become misty and diffuse. To take a random example, a single characterju can be a verb meaning “to lift”, “to start” or “to choose”, an adjective meaning “whole” and a noun meaning “deed”. In a very vague way we might perhaps see the underlying meaning of ju, but because of the need for clarity, many of the everyday concepts and objects of modern life are referred to not by single characters but by set combinations of usually two or three characters which, added together, make words. In the case of ju above, the addition of shi (world) creates a word with the precise meaning “throughout the whole world”; the addition of mu (eye) creates a word meaning “look”.

The average educated Chinese person knows between five and ten thousand characters (as many as fifty thousand altogether have been recorded, though the majority of these are obsolete), but the learning process is extremely long. Given the difficulty of learning characters, and the negative impact this has had on the general level of literacy, the government of the People’s Republic announced, in 1954, that a couple of thousand of the most common characters were to be, quite literally, simplified. This drastic measure was not without controversy. Some argued that by interfering with the precise original structure of the characters, vital clues as to their meaning and pronunciation would be lost, making them harder than ever to learn. In the meantime, the simplified characters were also adopted in Singapore, but Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as the majority of overseas Chinese, continue to use the older, traditional forms. Today, ironically, the traditional forms are also making a comeback on the mainland, where they are now seen as sophisticated and smart.

Chinese Grammar

The average educated Chinese person knows between five and ten thousand characters (as many as fifty thousand altogether have been recorded, though the majority of these are obsolete), but the learning process is extremely long. Given the difficulty of learning characters, and the negative impact this has had on the general level of literacy, the government of the People’s Republic announced, in 1954, that a couple of thousand of the most common characters were to be, quite literally, simplified. This drastic measure was not without controversy. Some argued that by interfering with the precise original structure of the characters, vital clues as to their meaning and pronunciation would be lost, making them harder than ever to learn. In the meantime, the simplified characters were also adopted in Singapore, but Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as the majority of overseas Chinese, continue to use the older, traditional forms. Today, ironically, the traditional forms are also making a comeback on the mainland, where they are now seen as sophisticated and smart.

Pinyin

Back in the 1950s it was hoped eventually to replace Chinese characters altogether with a regular alphabet of Roman letters, and to this end the pinyin system was devised. Basically pinyin is a precise and exact means of representing all the sounds of Mandarin Chinese. It comprises all the Roman letters of the English alphabet (except for the letter “v”), and the four tones are represented by diacritic marks, or accents, which appear above each syllable. However, there is an added complication that in pinyin the letters do not all have the sounds you would expect, and you’ll need to spend an hour or two learning these. You often see pinyin in China, on street signs and shop displays, but only well-educated locals know the system very well. Other dialects of Chinese, such as Cantonese, cannot be written in pinyin.

The old aim of replacing Chinese characters with pinyin was abandoned long ago, but in the meantime pinyin has one very important function, that of helping foreigners to pronounce Chinese words. The Chinese names herein have been given both in characters and in pinyin; our pronunciation guide is your first step to making yourself comprehensible. Don’t get overly paranoid about your tones: with the help of context, intelligent listeners should be able to work out what you are trying to say. If you’re just uttering a single word, however, for example a place name – without a context – you need to hit exactly the right tone, otherwise don’t be surprised if nobody understands you. For more information, see the Rough Guide phrasebook, Mandarin Chinese.

Occasionally, you will come across systems of rendering Mandarin into Roman letters, which pre-date the pinyin system. The best known of these is the Wade-Giles system, which renders Mao Zedong as Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping as Teng Hsaio-p’ing. These forms are no longer used in mainland China but you may see them in publications which originate in Taiwan.

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