Mandarin Chinese is usually considered difficult and exotic, and non-chinese people who speak it are still quite few. Despite being limiting in some cases, this strange language has lots of interesting features I wish Italian (my mothertongue) had, too.
The first thing that comes to mind when someone says “Chinese language” is probably characters – that’s the correct way to name chinese writing unities. Since it would take forever I won’t explain their origin, usage and pronunciation. I’ll just try to show why and how they are so interesting.
东 dōng “East” + 西 xī “West” = 东西 dōngxi “thing”
吃 chī “to eat” + 醋 cù “vinegar” = 吃醋 chīcù “to feel jealous”
空 kōng “empty” + 想 xiăng “to think” = 空想 kōngxiăng “daydream”
Wise, aren’t they?
While western proper names are set, Chinese names are much more “open” to one’s imagination. Parents usually choose their sons and daughters names among the 56.000 chinese characters depending on meaning and/or assonance.
For example, my chinese name is 李文 Lĭ Wén and that’s how I chose it:
- 李 Lĭ is one of the most common chinese last names. Its pronunciation is similar to the first syllable of my real surname;
- 文 Wén is the name. I chose it for its meaning, “culture”.
In China, unlike in the West, last names are quite few and names awfully numerous: that’s why meeting someone with the same name is nearly impossible for chinese people (two Italian language students at my university in China almost had a fight because they were given the same italian name).
Chéngyŭ 成语 are my favourite Mandarin feature. Since it’s typical chinese, translating this word is not possible (as you can’t translate calle, the alleys of Venice). Chengyu are four-characters set expressions frequently used as common sayings and their origin is often related to traditional stories. There are plenty of them and only few are immediately comprehensible by westerns, while lots of them don’t have an equivalent western saying.
争先恐后 zhēng xiān kǒng hòu “striving to be first and fearing to be last”:
争 zhēng “to strive for”
先 xiān “first”
恐 kǒng “fear”
后 hòu “back”
一举两得 yī jǔ liǎng dé “two birds with one stone”:
一 yī “one”
举 jǔ “lift”
两 liăng “two”
得 dé “to obtain”
塞翁失马 Sàiwēng shī mă “every cloud has a silver lining”:
塞翁 Sàiwēng (proper noun)
失 shī “to lose”
马 mă “horse”
(This one is based on a chinese traditional story).
Yes/no and pause
Chinese words for “yes” and “no” don’t exist. Obviously there are some ways to reply: if answer is yes, the most common one is to repeat the verb (for example, “Did you eat?” “I ate”), or to say 是 shì “to be” or 对 duì “that’s right”; if answer is no, you just need to add 不 bù “not” to the verb (“Did you eat?” ”I didn’t eat”). But there aren’t chinese words that only mean yes or no.
Lastly, a big part of mandarin grammar concerns particles: by using a particle instead of another one, the meaning of the sentence varies a lot. One of these particles is 呢 ne: explaining its usage is pretty hard, but the reason I like 呢 this much is because it has a pause hint and by using it you can refer to something you said before without mentioning it. Unfortunately it’s very hard to explain this to people who don’t speak Chinese, and to provide examples is useless as well. Just trust me when I say that in this case Mandarin Chinese is a very allusive and emotional language.
Feature image: Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.