At the moment, I’m studying both Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. I bring this up because until I became immersed in the world of Asian languages, it never occurred to me how little English and other European languages actually connect with the world. The imagery and abstract thinking involved in these languages is astonishing… and in a purely linguistic way, quite beautiful. So, in this post, I’d like to share some examples from the world of the Chinese language that I think are particularly clever.
First, a quick introduction to Chinese. As probably everyone already knows, Chinese is a pictorial language. Words are made up of a combination of symbols that are called ‘characters’, with each character representing a word or idea. Each character is composed of radicals, which are smaller, simpler characters that also represent an idea. Here’s a picture to help explain:
That’s the gist of the structure of words and characters. Now, for the more fun stuff.
Some of the more simple (ie, one or two radical) Chinese characters often (but not always) resemble what they represent. For instance:
Often, the radicals that make up a character can help you determine what that character means if you don’t already know. However, it’s not always obvious. Sometimes the radical combinations relate to the meaning in a completely abstract way, and sometimes background knowledge of Chinese culture and history is required to make sense of characters this way. Sometimes, the radical combinations just don’t seem to make sense at all.
In Example 1, the meaning of the character is very obvious… composed of the radicals for “not yet” and “woman”, it clearly means a young girl. Example 2 is a little less obvious, and could be figured out with some knowledge of Chinese values. The character means “good” and is composed of the radicals for “woman” and “child (specifically ‘son’)”. This is because it is implied that if your life is “good”, you will have a wife and child (more specifically a son). With Example 3, I can’t even begin to wonder how that character was formed.
Likewise, compound Chinese words (two or more characters) can be combined in the same way. Some are very obvious, and most, I think, can be figured out with reason. There are indeed some word combinations that require a knowledge of Chinese culture or some really funky reasoning, or are just plain odd, but most are manageable. In fact, a lot of the combinations are really, really cool! Whereas in English a word can just stand for a thing, compound words in Chinese usually convey a concept, or something more descriptive about the thing or idea itself rather than being a bunch of words thrown together. Here’s an example of a really cool (IMO) compound word:
Since I first learned this word in Chinese, I’ve always loved it. We translate it as “popular”, but it means so much more; I don’t think you can accurately translate something this clever. The word means “popular”, but it captures the concept of “popular” as a flow. Things are “in”, things are “out” – popularity is indeed the flow of trends. Isn’t that such a great way of describing it?
Here’s another one that’s not really a concept, but I have my reasons to like it:
This compound word is actually used by both Chinese and Japanese to mean “Japan”. In Japanese, it’s pronounced “Nihon (nee-hone)” (characters are “ni” and “hon” respectively, and each means the same thing as its Chinese counterpart). Japan is often referred to, both by the Japanese and outsiders, as “the Land of the Rising Sun”. Liberally translated, it could be taken as “the sun’s origin”, or “the place where the sun rises”, or indeed, “Land of the Rising Sun”.
Cities, countries, and continents are some of the most interesting words in Chinese. While some that were discovered, founded, or named later (such as Canada, Singapore, Australia, etc.) are simply made of characters that sound like the word in English, a lot have to do with the place itself. It’s more descriptive about places than English. Some examples:
As you can see, Chinese is a pretty cool language whose words are often more than mere abstracts – and it goes much deeper than everything I’ve shown above! I just thought I’d bring up a small number of the interesting things I’ve come across in the language. Chinese words are so intriguing because descriptive… they’re concepts… and if you’re just learning the language, you have to really think about meanings and connections when you come across a character or combination of characters you don’t know. They’re not just meaningless arrangements of letters, as English can be sometimes. If you’re looking for a cool language to learn, I’d recommend Chinese, or Japanese, or another pictorial Asian language. It takes a good memory (there are thousands of characters to learn, but knowing your radicals can help), but it’s very manageable, and at least in my experience, it teaches you more about the meanings of English words, too.