Sunday, December 18, 2005

Chinese Made Simple(r)? - Part 1

[I've been sitting on my hands, and on this series, too long. It's time to post. I'm not satisfided with its rough-draft quality, many of its awkward phrases, its undoubted factual and logical errors, its wobbly paragraph arrangement, etc. But what writer really ever is satisfied with his own work? Sure, I would love to refine this more, but I've had to come to grips with the fact that "THIS IS A BLOG, ELLIOT!", not a refereed journal or some final intellectual tribunal. I've been aggravated and depressed about enough other stuff in my life lately; posting this series, in whatever condition, will be a step towards livening my spirits. Enough -- no, too much -- preface. Away!]

I make no claims to being an expert linguist, an astute observer of life, nor even a very good writer. But, having lived over two years in Taiwan, and having added Mandarin to my meager repertoire of usable language – plus, having a blog – I’ve decided to share some thoughts about this culture, and especially this language, which I have come to love. And while I may have announced this series as an attempt to ‘simplify’ Chinese, that was itself a simplification of my aims. It’s more accurate to say I am 1) addressing how Chinese is not simple and 2) considering how we might improve certain devices for learning and ‘opening’ Chinese. As you’ll see, I actually have great reservations against trying to ‘simplify’ Chinese. But that is yet to come. Despite some technical depths I get into about Chinese, I hope even non-students can appreciate the cultural and commonsensical insights I may bring to bear on a perhaps otherwise numbing topic.

I shall begin this series with an Anselmian prayer, which I hope conveys the spirit of this series, and of all my efforts, followed by a brief introductory linguistic analysis.

O Lord, creator of heaven and earth,
And the Divine Word both behind and above all human words,
Thank You for the gift of light,
That Light which is You,
Given to all men,
And, in time, to me.
I thank You for any and all sparks of wisdom you may stir in my mind.
Keep me ever-open to Your all-pervading wisdom,
As well as ever-humble before Your all-overshadowing glory.
For any wisdom I may pass onto my readers as new insight,
May You receive all the praise and honor.
And where my supposedly new ideas are but the restated, and poorly restated, wisdom of a predecessor,
May You also receive glory and honor for stirring the same embers of wisdom in two mortals.
Ad majorem Dei gloriam, ad majorem Tuum, Domine.

And now, time for some amateur linguistics.

In Mandarin Chinese there are, to put it roughly, three levels or ‘modes’, of meaning, and hence, three corresponding modes of comprehension. Although I’m not a professional linguist, nor even a dedicated amateur, I’m inclined to say this holds true for all languages. First, there is the mode of ‘pronunciated’ meaning, or what I’ll call ‘vocal semantics’. Even without a grammatical or communicative context, we know fā (‘emit’) is a different word than dòng (‘hole’). Likewise, in English, just by hearing the word ‘bat’ we know it means something other than ‘refrigerator’. Of course, vocal semantics is far more complex in Mandarin (and other tonal languages), since it is (and they are) loaded with homophones. Fá, for example, can mean ‘cut down’, ‘penalize’, ‘lack/weary’, powerful person’, ‘valve’, or ‘raft’. Nonetheless, even with all this ambiguity, the mode of vocal semantics at least enables a Mandarin speaker to differentiate one cluster of homophonic words from another.

The second mode of linguistic meaning is what I’ll call ‘orthographical semantics’. This refers, in Chinese, to the (in)famous character ‘radicals’ (bùshǒu), which I will discuss at some length below. Radicals could, very loosely, be likened to word parts in English (i.e., affixes, roots, etc.), an analogy I try, very tentatively, to impress upon my students. Rather than just memorizing word by word by word, effective learners become familiar with recurring word parts and then analyze any new word along those lines. The word ‘evacuation’, for instance, is immediately over my younger students’ heads; but my goal is to equip them to analyze such a word in order to gain at least a little insight into it. They can and may remember that ‘e-’ often means ‘out (of)’ and they should recall that ‘-(a)tion’ signals the word is a noun. Or consider ‘participation’ as a second example. Well over their heads at first glance. But... if they use their English scissors and ‘cut the word, cut the word, cut the word’ (as I always chant!), they can get a leg up on this overbearing word. Plainly enough, ‘part-’ means ‘some of’, or, simply, ‘part of’; ‘-ation’ means it’s a noun; and The Famous Bougis ‘-ation to -ate’ Rule ™ (what, you never knew?) might help them trigger knowledge of ‘participate’ which raises the odds of comprehension simply because knowing one of two closely related words is a quick way into knowing the other one.

So it is for Mandarin students. While no Mandarin student can escape the sheer brute requirement of memorizing character after character (including tone, stroke count-and-order, and meaning), she can nevertheless use radicals as generally reliable wedges into the language. Seeing rò, for example, signals the character has something to do with flesh, animals or meaty foods. Similarly, seeing qīng often allows you to assume the word has a similar pronunciation (e.g., qīng, jīng, qǐng, qíng, jìng, etc.). (Alas, even this phonetic divining-rod-method is only sometimes reliable, since, for example, the qīng radical is also in diàn and tiān!) So, in this second, orthographical mode of semantics, even if a reader has no idea how to say the word or what exactly it means, she could still pry into it a little with radicals (and word parts).

The third mode of meaning is what I’ll call ‘communicative semantics’ (though I realize that is a redundant concept). Communicative semantics is based not only on grammar, but also on situation and inflection. For example, in English, we are all but certain ‘He hit the ball with a bat’ does not mean Johnny B. Atheplate slugged a dance party with a flying nocturnal mammal. By contrast, hearing ‘He hit the ball with a bat!’ signals to us that we should think this bat is more special than a regular wooden beam – and then it dawns on us, ‘He hit a ball with a bat! How cruel!’ Notice that this flash of insight does not rely on grammatical changes, but only on inflectional changes, which is to say on changes in the total communicative semantics.

In Mandarin, this semantic mode is especially important since, as I said, homophones are everywhere. Míng, for example, could mean ‘bright; clear’, ‘name; fame’, ‘cry out’, ‘engrave’ or ‘dark; netherworld’. So hearing ‘Tā hěn yǒu míng’ (‘He is very famous’) is, technically, ambiguous. Technically, in terms of vocal semantics, ‘famous’ and ‘bright’ are the same word. ‘Míng?’ a new Mandarin student might ask himself, ‘Don’t I know that word? ... Yes, but is he dark, bright or famous?!’ Fortunately, the grammar disambiguates such a problem immediately, since, to my knowledge, you cannot say ‘Tā hěn yǒu míng [bright]’. And if you think isolating one word is ‘unfair’ or unrealistic, how about a two-character word? Jīngzhì can mean ‘exquisite’, ‘make with extra care’ or ‘crystalloid’. Jìngzhòng can mean ‘revere’ or ‘net weight’. Jìngzhí can mean ‘net worth’ or ‘directly’. How is a student, tourist or businessman supposed to hang in a conversation when everything else literally sounds like everything else?

Or consider an example I experienced even as I was wrapping up this series. One day I was talking with a Taiwanese friend in Chinese and wanted to use some new vocabulary I had just adapted. (Digression: my method for learning is, apart from classes and standard grammar bookwork, I carry a notepad with me at all times, partially to take memos, but primarily to write down new Chinese. If I hear a new phrase, or if I realize I want to know how to say ‘-----’ in Chinese, I write it down. Then a few days later I’ll look it up in a dictionary and make a note card for that word or phrase. One side shows the characters; the other, flipped lengthwise, has the translation at the top and the pronunciation plus a smaller copy of the characters at the bottom. I carry a bundle of cards with me at all times, and try to study between classes at my desk, over lunch, while waiting in line, in the bathroom, or sometimes even at a long stoplight.) At any rate, that morning I had made a card for shǔ shí (‘true’) and ran it by my friend in passing. As I continued to speak, she started counting, ‘1, 2, 3, 4…’. I glanced at her. What gives? ‘You told me to count to ten,’ she answered in English. ‘No, I said, “true”,’ I answered, irritated. ‘You know, shǔ shí?’ The confusion? The homophonic pair shǔ shí means both ‘true’ and ‘count [to] ten’! And, to make matters worse, when using a third tone, as in shǔ, it is easy to confuse the final rising slope of the tone with a second tone, as in shí. Assuming I did screw that up, and said, shú shí, I’d be saying ‘cooked food’. I’m not griping about this, since all such peccadilloes make learning a new language fun. But I am throwing light on the fact that, for students and non-native learners, relying on Mandarin pronunciation alone is potentially fraught with error.

How about proper names? If I give someone my name – Bó yǎ shān – he is faced with perhaps ten different characters to analyze before visualizing just which bó, yǎ and shān I have. Hence, to make things easier, Chinese people reflexively ‘spell’ their names by referring to other words the characters can be found in. So, when introducing myself, I don’t simply say, ‘My name is Bó yǎ shān.’ Rather, I will say, ‘My name is Bó yǎ shān – bó huà de bó, yǎ zhōu de yǎ, alǐ shān de shān’ – which is to say, ‘Silk painting’s silk, Asia’s Asia, Mt. Ali’s mountain.’ Of course, I admit this humorous ritual is a very good idea for remembering names, since people are forced to make mnemonic connections, a habit we in the West usually only learn for networking and power-mingling. ‘John Smith, nice to meet you. Where do you work, John Smith? Smith – how do you spell that?’ Wouldn’t it be so convenient to *have* to remember black-haired John Smith’s Smith is also blacksmith’s smith? (Maybe I’ve been in Asia too long.)

Of course, things get absolutely nightmarish when it comes to third person singular pronouns – or should I say, the third person singular pronoun: tā. Tā, I kid you not, means ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it [animal]’, ‘it, that [object]’, ‘he/she/it [deity]’ – oh, and don’t forget ‘collapse; droop’! I’ve faced the Tā Problem more than once. ‘The Tā Problem’? What in English is a perfectly straightforward anecdote becomes in Chinese a perfectly inscrutable maze of pronouns. The stilted but still very clear (míng?) English sentence, ‘Even though it [animal] stinks, she likes it, so he likes her’ becomes an Abbott and Costello routine: ‘Suīrán tā chòu chòu de, kě shì tā xǐ huān tā, suǒyǐ tā xǐ huān tā.’ Who’s on first? Tā! Who’s on second? Tā! Well then, who’s on third? Who else – tā!

All humor aside, my point is that Mandarin speakers deal with a *lot* of ambiguity – and many Chinese linguists are themselves the first to admit it. ‘Homophonic redundancy’ is a genuine difficulty in Chinese. Lu Zhuangshang, Lu Xun, Mao Dun, Wang Li, Zhou Youguang – all of these scholars, whose lives span from1854 to the present, worked to simplify and standardize Chinese, not the least because doing so would promote China’s position in an increasingly, and now radically, Western, English-based world. I’ve often quipped that though the Great Wall was breached long ago by warfare (in 1211 AD by Genghis Khan), and, even more decisively, more recently etiolated by tourism, nonetheless the Chinese still have their language, which is but the primal model on which the Great Wall was based. The Chinese language is, unlike, virtually all other languages, utterly inaccessible to the outsider. (Not only that, it was historically also a device used to keep the illiterate peasants ‘in line’. Just what does the new imperial edict say, exactly? Well, who knows, apart from Wú Shì Zhāng’s proclamation of it?) With most (Romanized) alphabetic languages, an outsider, with even rudimentary training, can at least hobble along the letters. But, by contrast, even though I’ve been studying (written) Chinese seriously for nearly a year, and have been living here for over two years, if I encounter a word I don’t recognize, that’s just the end of it: I just don’t know it. Period. No sounding it out. No analyzing consistently reliable semantic or phonetic roots. No dipping into related languages’ cognates. And, unless I know what the product or store is, or know the surrounding characters, there’s also no guessing the character. My only hope is to remember its appearance and/or radical until I get to my reference materials, or maybe scribble it down for future reference. So, as I say, and as others acknowledge, the more-than-typical impenetrability of Chinese is a stumbling block in today’s global village.

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