This article was originally published online at JustOneOpinion.com on February 23, 2009 under the title “Mysteries of the Chinese Language.” I hope you will enjoy this brief overview of the beauty and simplicity of the Chinese language. Please feel free to comment and let me know if you would like more articles like this one. – Chi Newman
Unlike words in the English language, Chinese words are not spelled with letters representing spoken sounds. Instead each word is written as a character that represents an idea.
By combining various characters, the writer can express different ideas. For example: the character “shuo” (to speak) and the character “ming” (bright) used together means “explanation”.
Chinese has at least 50,000 ideograms and no one knows them all. About 6000 characters are used in daily speaking and 3000 words have been simplified for written Chinese.
Literacy is very important in China because the pronunciation of the Chinese language varies widely from region to region, while the written language is universal. All schools in China now teach Mandarin, which has been called “the people’s language,” so as to try and standardize pronunciation and to unify the country.
Speaking the Language
Since Chinese is a tonal language, no system can exactly duplicate the actual spoken sounds of Chinese words, but they have devised a system called “pinyin” which works quite well.
Here are some examples:
- one = “yi”
- two = “er”
- three = “san”
- four = “si”
- five = “wu”
- six = “liu”
- seven = “qi”
- eight = “ba”
- nine = ” jiu”
- ten =”shi”
Here are some additional examples:
- day= “ri”
- moon = “yue”
- mountain = “shan”
- wood = “mu”
- person = “ren”
- son = “nan”
- middle = “zhong”
- country = “guo”
Spoken Chinese has a limited range of sounds. There are about 400 sounds for 40 – 50,000 words. These sounds are made up by variations in tones. There are four tones in Mandarin.
- High and level (as in High Noon)
- Rising (as in asking “Here?)
- Falling and rising (as in “please”)
- Low and falling (as in “No”) in an argument
Here are some examples:
- Ni you bing ma? (Do you have ice?)
- Ni you bing ma? (Do you have a cookie?)
- Ni you bing ma ? (Are you sick?)
Bing also means “soldier”.
Mandarin has four tones, but Cantonese has nine. Many of the earlier immigrants to the United States came from the south of China where Cantonese was spoken, giving Americans the impression that the Chinese language had a “sing-song” sound to it. After Mao’s revolution everyone had to learn Mandarin, changing this perception. Mandarin has a very flat and smooth sound that is soft and pleasant to the ear.
Writing in Chinese
Chinese script is beautiful to look at. Essentially a picture language, Chinese uses calligraphy as an art, painting each character by hand with brush and ink. There are many famous wall hangings and other art pieces that use only Chinese calligraphy.
Chinese characters are made up of graphic combinations. For example:
- The character meaning good, “hao,” uses the combined symbols of a mother and child.
- The character for peace, “an,” uses the symbol of a woman under a roof.
- The character for enlightenment, “ming,” is a combination of symbols for the sun and the moon.
The brush that moves along the paper is guided by the heart, “Shin” and by the spirit, “Chi.”
Although Chinese is a very different language from English, it can be learned if you put your mind to it. You should find the spoken language to be quite easy, but writing can be far more difficult.
I have already mentioned in my previous article [“Memories of China”] that Chinese is easy to learn because there is no grammar, genders, tenses, participles, cases, or numbers that make up most European languages. Instead, the language uses modified versions of words within context to be more specific.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article. Soon, I will be sharing with you other experiences, recipes and memories. – Chi Newman