Category Archives: Chinese language

Simplification of Language with Increasing Civilization: A Result of Contact or Civilization Itself

Nice little comment here on an old post, Primitive People Have Primitive Languages and Other Nonsense? 

I would like to dedicate this post to my moronic field of study itself, Linguistics, which believes in many a silly thing as consensus that have never been proved and are either untrue or probably untrue.

One of the idiocies of my field is this belief that in some way or another, most human languages are pretty much the same. They believe that no language is inherently better or worse than any other language, which itself is quite a dubious proposition right there.

They also believe, incredibly, that no language is more complex or simple than any other language. Idiocy!

Another core belief is that each language is perfectly adapted for its speakers. This leads to their rejecting claims that some languages are unsuitable for the modern world due to lack of modern vocabulary. This common belief of many minority languages is obviously true. Drop a Papuan in Manhattan, and see what good his Torricelli tongue does him. He won’t have words for most of the things around him. He won’t even have verbs for most of the actions he sees around him. His language is nearly useless in this environment.

My field also despises notions that some languages are better suited to poetry, literature or say philosophy than others or that some languages are more or less concise or exact than others or that certain concepts or ways of thinking are better expressed in one language as opposed to another. However, this is a common belief among polyglots, and I would not be surprised if it was true.

The question we are dealing with below is based on the notion that many primitive languages are exceeding complex and the common sense observation that as languages acquire more speakers and civilization increases, one tends to see a simplification of language.

My field out and out rejects both statements.

They will tell you that primitive languages are no more complex than more civilized tongues and that there is no truth to the statement that languages simplify with greater numbers of speakers and increased civilization. However, I have shot these two rejected notions to many non-linguists, and they all felt that these statements had truth to them. Once again, my field violates common sense in the name of the abstract and abstruse “we can’t prove anything about anything” scientific nihilism so common in the intellectually degraded social sciences.

Indeed, some of the most wildly complex languages of all can be found among rather primitive peoples such as Aborigines, Papuans, Amerindians and even Africans. Most language isolates like Ket, Burashaski and Basque are pretty wild. The languages of the Caucasus are insanely complex, and that region doesn’t exactly look like Manhattan. Siberian languages are often maddeningly complex.

Even in China, in the remoter parts of China, language becomes highly differentiated and probably more complex. I know an American who was able to learn Cantonese and Mandarin who told me that at age 35, for an American to learn Hokkien was virtually impossible. He tried various schemes, but they all failed. He finally started to get a hold of the language with a strict eight hour a day study schedule. Anything less resulted in failure. Hokkien speakers that he spoke too said you needed to grow up speaking Hokkien to be able to speak the language well at all. By the way, this is another common sense notion that linguists reject. They say there are no languages so difficult that it is very hard to pick them up unless you grew up with them.

The implication here is that Min Nan is even more complex than the difficult Mandarin or even the forbidding Cantonese, which even many Mandarin speakers give up trying to learn because it is too hard.

Min Nan comes out Fujian Province, a land of forbiddingly high mountains where language differentiation is very high, and there is often difficult intelligibility even from village to village. In one area, fifteen years ago an American researcher decided to walk to a nearby village. It took him six very difficult hours over steep mountains. He could have taken the bus, but that was a four-day trip! A number of these areas had no vehicle roads until recently and others were crossed by vast rivers that had no bridges across them. Transportation was via foot. Obviously civilization in these parts of China is at a more primitive level, and it’s hard to develop Hong Kong-style cities in places with such isolating and rugged terrain.

It’s more like, “Oh, those people on the other side of the ridge? We never go there, but we heard that their language is a lot different from ours. It’s too hard to go over that range so we never go to that area.”

In the post, I theorized that as civilization increased, time becomes money, and there is a need to get one’s point across quickly, whereas more primitive peoples often spend no more than 3-4 hours a day working and the rest sitting around, playing  and relaxing. A former Linguistics professor told me that one theory is that primitive people, being highly intelligent humans (all humans are highly intelligent by default), are bored by their primitive lives, so they enjoy their wildly complex languages and like to relax, hang out and play language games with them to test each other on how well they know the structures. They also like to play tricky and maybe humorous language games with their complicated languages. In other words, these languages are a source of intellectual stimulation and entertainment in an intellectually impoverished area.

Of course, my field rejects this theory as laughably ridiculous, but no one has disproven it yet, and I doubt if the hypothesis has even been tested, hence it is an open question. My field even tends to reject the notion of open questions, preferring instead to say that anything not proven (or even tested for that matter) is demonstrably false. That’s completely anti-scientific, but that’s the trend nowadays across the board as scientistic thinking replaces scientific thinking.

Of course this is in line with the terrible conservative or reactionary trend in science where Science is promoted to a fundamentalist religion and scientists decide that various things are simply proven true or proven not true and attempts to change the consensus paradigm are regarded derisively or with out and out fury and rage and such attempts are rejected via endless moving of goalposts with the goal of making it never possible to prove the hypothesis. If you want to see an example of this in Linguistics, look at the debate around  Altaic. They have set it up so that no matter how much existing evidence we are able to gather for the theory, we will probably never be able to prove it as barriers to proof have been set up to make the question nearly unprovable.

It’s rather senseless to set up Great Wall of China-like barriers to proof in science because at some point,  you are hardly proving anything new, apparently because you don’t want to.

Fringe science is one of the most hated branches of science and many scientists refer to it as pseudoscience. Practitioners of fringe science have a very difficult time as the Scientific Establishment often persecutes them, for instance trying to get them fired from professorships. Yet this Establishment is historically illiterate because many of the most stunning findings in history were made by widely ridiculed fringe scientists.

The commenter below rejects my theory that increased civilization itself results in language simplification, as it gets more important to get your point across as quickly  as possible with increasing complexity and development of society. Instead he says civilization leads to increased contact between speakers of different dialects or language, and in such cases,  language must be simplified, often dramatically, in order for any decent communication to occur. Hence increased contact, not civilization in and of itself, is the driver of simplification.

I like this theory, and I think he may be onto something.

To me the simplification of languages of more ‘civilized’ people is mostly a product of language contact rather than of civilization itself. If the need arises to communicate with foreign people all of the time, for example in trade, then the language must become more simple in order to be able to be understood by more people.

Also population size matters a lot. It has been found that the greater the number of speakers, the greater the rate of language change. For example Polynesian languages, although having been isolated centuries or even millennia ago, still have only minor differences from one another.

In the case of many speakers, not all will be able to learn all the rules of a language, so they will tend to use the most common ones. And if the language is split in many dialects, then speakers of each dialect must find a compromise in order to communicate, which might come out as simple. If we add sociolects, specific registers for some occasions, sacred registers, slang etc, something that will arise in a big and stratified civilization, then the linguistic barriers people will need to overcome become greater. So it is just normal that after some centuries, this system to simplify.

We don’t need to look farther than Europe. Most languages of the western half being spoken in countries with strong trade links to one another and with much of the world later in history are quite analytic, but the languages of the more isolated eastern part are still like the older Indo-European languages. Basques, living in a small isolated pocket in the Iberian Peninsula, have kept a very complex language. Icelanders, also due to isolation, have kept a quite conservative Germanic language, whereas most modern Germanic languages are ridiculously simplified. No one can argue in his sane mind that Icelanders are primitives.

On the other hand, Romanian, being spoken in the more isolated Balkans, has retained more of the complex morphology of Latin compared to West Romance languages. And of course advance of civilization won’t automatically simplify the language, as Turkish and Russian, both quite complicated languages compared to the average European tongue, don’t seem to give up their complexity nowadays.

On the other hand, indigenous people were living in a much more isolated setting compared to the modern world, the number of speakers was comparatively low, and there was no need to change. Also, neighboring tribes were often hostile to one another, so each tribal group sought to make itself look special. That is the reason why places with much inter-tribal warfare like New Guinea have so many languages which are so different from one another. When these languages need to communicate, we get ridiculously simple contact languages like Hiri Motu.
So language simplification is more a result of language contact rather than civilization itself.

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Filed under Aborigines, Altaic, Amerindians, Anthropology, Applied, Asia, Basque, Cantonese, Caucasus, China, Chinese language, Cultural, Dialectology, Europe, Germanic, Indo-European, Isolates, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Mandarin, Min Nan, Near East, Papuans, Race/Ethnicity, Regional, Russian, Science, Siberian, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan, Sociolinguistics, Turkic, Turkish

The Chinese Language: The Wily Tiger That Cannot Be Tamed

Putonghua is the official version of Mandarin which the Communist government determined was to be the official language of the nation. It was created in 1949 and modeled mostly but not entirely on the variety spoken in Beijing.

Although Putonghua seems to be killing off a lot of dialects or even microlanguages, I have a feeling that this is mandatory. Nevertheless the process of accelerated language change in China (Why?) seems to be even catching up with Putonghua. For instance, Putonghua of course was modeled on the Beijing language. However, this was Beijing Mandarin of 1949, and it was also the language of the suburbs, not to the city.

Since then, Putonghua has taken off on its own and so has Beijing Mandarin with the strange result that the hard Beijing Mandarin of hutongs in the center of the city is now often unintelligible to Putonghua speakers! So this is a case of a standard language and the lect it was modeled off taking off via independent evolution such that 70 years later, the original lect is no longer intelligible with the Standard that was modeled on that very lect!

Chinese lects are wildly different, and tones adds another mess into the matter. This has shown up even in Putonghua, where some Putonghua varieties are now unintelligible with the rest of Putonghua due to severe influence of the local lects on the standard and possibly regional evolution of the standard! Hence even Putonghua seems to have split off into several languages itself! Thus Guangdong Putonghua, Anhui Putonghua, Shanghai Putonghua, Jianghuai Putonghua and Zhengcao Putonghua are no longer fully intelligible to Putonghua speakers outside the region!

In addition, Taiwan Mandarin, Tibetan Mandarin and Malay Mandarin have all taken off on their own independent evolutionary tracks such that these are no longer fully intelligible to Standard speakers either! So since 1949, Putonghua has split into at least 8 different languages that lack full intelligibility with each other!

It seems the Chinese tried to lasso that wily creature called the Chinese language to rein it in and domesticate it somehow, but the wily creature keeps slipping away due to its endlessly morphing patter.

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Filed under Asia, China, Chinese language, Dialectology, Government, Language Families, Left, Linguistics, Maoism, Marxism, Politics, Regional, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan, Sociolinguistics

Linguistic “Science”: Let’s Get the Scientists out of Science and Let the Politicians Do Science Instead

As you saw in a previous article, the Chinese government, against all reason and for purely dishonest political motives, lies and says there is only one Chinese language, when in fact linguistic science (SIL) says there are 14 Chinese languages, and Sinologists argue that there are 2,000 Chinese languages!

Linguists let this slide because we have decided to cop out on one of the more important questions of our field, the divide between a language and a dialect. We are copping out because the scientific question itself is politicized as many scientific questions are. But linguists are cowards who are afraid of big, bad politics, so we have decided to just let politicians and other professional liars decide some of the more important questions of our field.

Dig this.

If you ask a linguist what the difference between a dialect and a language is, he will either quote some flippant classroom quote from Paul Weyrich 70 years ago, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” or he will avoid the question altogether. The standard linguistic cop-out answer is,

Linguistic science has no way to determine what is a language what is a dialect because the question is political and not scientific.

Brilliant! Any time there’s any questions in your scientific field that you don’t want to answer because you’re cowards/sophists, you simply decide that it wasn’t a scientific question at all, instead it was a political question. Wa-la! Problem solved! Now we can get back to the really important stuff, like figuring how many Proto-Indo-European laryngeals there. You know, stuff that everybody needs to know.

But hey, what the Chinese government lies, I mean says, goes, and all of us linguistic “scientists” (snicker) go along with this anti-scientific BS because we have decided that this particular branch of so-called science is so stupid that we can’t even figure out if a given lect is a language or a dialect because we idiotically state that there are no criteria for making such a discernment.

So of course, we throw the scientific question over to the most honest people in the whole world, the politicians! Yeah! That’ll solve the problem. How bout all of us social “scientists” get together and decide to let the world’s politicians (venerable empiricists of course) decide the most important questions of our field because we are too stupid to figure them out on our own. Let’s get the scientists out of science and let the politicians do it instead. That’s what the official determination of linguistic “science” (snicker) is.

Pitiful. Just pitiful.

You wonder why people chuckle when you say the phrase “social science.”

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Filed under Chinese language, Dialectology, Government, Language Families, Linguistics, Politics, Science, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan, Sociolinguistics

Massive Update of A Reworking of Chinese Language Classification

My Internet enemies (you know who you are) love to rip me to pieces over this stuff, but I suspect that is because they operate under the cover of anonymity plus the general loud-mouthed jerk “troll culture” of the Internet combines to provides a Linguisticus Sociopathicus that is seldom found in the hallowed halls of reserved academe.

The funny this is, if this Chinese work is so horrible, why has it earned praise from some of the world’s top Sinologists, who in fact actually assisted me with the project? Perhaps they should answer that. If I “know less about Linguistics than a Linguistics 10 student” then why do I sit on the review board of a peer-reviewed linguistics academic journal? Why did an 80 page paper of mine that will soon be published in a book make through two peer reviews and a dozen editors, including some of the world’s top Turkologists?

The funny thing is that I get along pretty well with other linguists outside of the Internet. We work together calmly, chat about this, that and the other, share papers and gather information from each other, all the things that academics do. I even get addressed as Dear Colleague. And then on the Internet, suddenly I’m so stupid I don’t know what a verb is. Whatever.

Anyway, a huge project of mine, A Reworking of Chinese Language Classification, has received a massive update. It underwent a ton of fixes, a lot of dead links were removed, and many matters were cleared up or explained better. Also the language count jumped by 200 from ~360 to 573. Now some of these may not be full languages and I may be exaggerating but I believe that using the 90% intelligibility criterion, there are a good 2,000 separate languages within Sinitic alone.

We simply cannot carve them out because the Chinese government will go crazy, and no Sinologist wants to make the Chinese government mad. The Chinese government lies and says there is one Chinese language with 3,000+ dialects in it, including such massive lects as Cantonese, Hakka, Min, Hui, Wu, Peng, Gan and Ji? Not to mention that Mandarin itself is of course not a single language but is actually a collection of scores or more languages inside of itself.

The project involves a brief description in English of the Chinese lects, stating such things as names, where they are spoken, the number of speakers, classification, degree of endangerment, linguistic history and development, classification issues, mutual intelligibility issues, dialects within, membership in language groups, the language/dialect question, anthropological history, sociolinguistic issues historical and modern, future trends, controversies, and sometimes more arcane linguistic data.

I am not trying to brag here and I am not real familiar with the literature, but my account of Chinese dialects is the most thorough such account I have ever run across so far in English. Now there may be better publications out there, but I am not aware of them. Further, most do not seem to have tackled the dialect vs. language problem.

Almost all of the good material on this stuff is in Chinese, and I do not read Chinese, so this caused massive problems, but I seem to be able to deal with them ok, as a lot of the research that I referenced was in Chinese and I am able to sort of make my way through it to get the gist of it despite the language barrier. I have also come up with a few native speaker informants who have given me excellent information on their particular lects. For instance, I recently ran into a speaker of something called Cambodian Teochew (I had no idea such a thing existed) who told me that the four SE Asian Teochew lects, Malay Teochew, Thai Teochew, Cambodian Teochew and Vietnamese Teochew, were not mutually intelligible. That is, there are four separate languages within Overseas Teochew alone! Unbelievable.

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Filed under Asia, Cantonese, China, Chinese language, Comparitive, Dialectology, Government, Language Classification, Language Families, Linguistics, Mandarin, Regional, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan, Sociolinguistics

What Race Is This Person (Singapore)?

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An interesting phenotype from Singapore.

This is the aunt of a friend of mine. The family is from Singapore. They are part of an ethnic group called the Pernakans, a Southern Chinese group that moved to Malaysia ~600 years ago for some reason, possibly due to overcrowding in Fujian or worse, the terrible wars that periodically raged through the region.

Chinese groups have been leaving from this part of Southern China for a very long time now, especially in the last 200 years. In the past couple of centuries, this part of China has become very crowded. Possibly as a result, wild and vicious wars periodically raged through the area, sometimes killing 100,000’s of people. If you study Chinese history, you will hear about these wars a lot. It is not uncommon to read that invaders conquered several large cities and exterminated the whole populations of perhaps 300,000 people, men, women and children. This is how the Chinese have often fought wars. Chinese wars are unbelievably vicious and savage.

The Pernakans moved to Malaysia, and over time, bred in with Dutch and Portuguese and to a lesser extent British Europeans. All three were colonists in the region. I believe that they were Min speakers, but their Hokkien has gotten so changed, in particular from massive borrowings from Malay, that these languages in general are no longer intelligible with Amoy or Taiwanese Hokkien Proper.

Most Pernakans now are somewhat Eurasian, Chinese crossed with Dutch, Portuguese and sometimes British. The Pernakans had their own patriarchal culture and were known as very hard workers, often at manual labor type jobs like farming, timber harvest are working on rubber plantations. They committed little crime and had very orderly societies. The European colonists marveled at their high level of civilization. They did keep slaves, but they probably treated their slaves better than any slaves have ever been treated, and in many cases, slaves were freed.

Over time, most Pernakans also bred in with Malays. Pernakans are now a Chinese/Malay/European race, but the Asiatic tends to be prominent over the European in the stock. The mixing of cultures over 600 years in Malaysia resulted in some very interesting fine cuisine.

Many of these Chinese migrated to Singapore, where they, along with Teochew speakers (another Min group) and a large group of Cantonese Chinese, form what is known as the Singaporean Chinese, one of the wealthiest and most economically advanced ethnic groups on Earth. There is still a division of labor in Singapore, with Chinese on top, Malays on the bottom, and Southern Indian Dravidian speakers in between. Nevertheless all three groups are substantially mixed by this point. Most Chinese have Malay blood, and a lot of Malays have some Chinese in them. Malays and Indians are now intermarrying quite a bit. There is some ethnic conflict but not a lot possibly due to the wealth and everyone being so mixed.

Although this woman has a somewhat archaic phenotype (note prognathism), these archaic types are fairly common in Southern China. Many can be seen in the mountains of Yunnan Province. The archaism may be due to incomplete transition from Australoid -> Mongoloid, as the transition happened much later in Southern China than in Northern China, and prominent Australoid types were common in the far south of China only 3-4,000 YBP.

I also believe that this woman may be admixed with Caucasian. And I think the Malay admixture is quite clear. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I think I see some Vedda influence here. That would not be unusual, as Malays were Veddoids only until quite recently, and the Senoi are Veddoids to this day. The Mani Negritos are also still extant.

The transition in Malaysia went from Australoid Negritos (Mani) and Orang Asli -> Australoid Veddas (Senoi) -> Paleomongoloid Southeast Asians (modern Malays). The Malays appear to be aware of this transition, as they state that the Mani and Orang Asli are their ancestors. The bloodline of the Orang Asli goes back 72,000 YBP, so this group has been present in Malaysia since the very first Out of Africa groups, and their archaism is about on a par with the Andaman Islanders, another Australoid group which is also the remains of some of the earliest OOA groups.

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A Look at the Classical Chinese Language

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Classical Chinese language in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.

Sino-Tibetan
Sinitic
Chinese
Classical Chinese

Classical Chinese is still read by many Chinese people and Chinese language learners. Unless you have a very good grasp on modern Chinese, classical Chinese will be completely wasted on you. Classical Chinese is much harder to read than reading modern Chinese.

Classical Chinese covers an era extending over 3,000 years, and to attain a reading fluency in this language, you need to be familiar with all of the characters used during this period along with all of the literature of the period so you can understand all the allusions. Even with a knowledge of Classical Chinese, you need to read it in context. If you are good at Classical Chinese and someone throws you a random section of it, it will take you a good amount of time to figure it out unless you know the context.

The language is much more to the point than Modern Chinese, but this is not as good as it sounds. This simplicity leaves a lot of room for ambiguity, and as noted above, context plays an important role. A joke about some obscure historical or literary anecdote will be lost you unless you know what it refers to. For reading modern Chinese, you will need at least 5,000 characters, but even then, you will still need a dictionary. With Classical Chinese, there are no lower limits on the number of characters you need to know. The sky is the limit.

Classical Chinese gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

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Filed under Applied, Chinese language, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan

A Look at the Dônđän Wu Language

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Dônđän Wu language in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.

Sino-Tibetan
Sinitic
Chinese
Wu
Taihu
Hujia
Suzhou-Shanghai-Jiaxing
Shanghainese
Dônđän Wu

A recent 15 year survey out of Fudan University utilizing both the departments of Linguistics and Anthropology looked at 579 different languages in 91 linguistic families in order to try to find the most complicated language in the world. The result was that a Wu language dialect (or perhaps a separate language) in the Fengxian district of southern Shanghai (Dônđän Wu) was the most phonologically complex language of all, with 20 separate vowels (Wang 2012). The nearest competitor was Norwegian with 16 vowels.

Dônđän Wu gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.

References

Wang, Chuan-Chao et al. 2012. Comment on ”Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa.” Science 335:657.

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Filed under Applied, Chinese language, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan

A Look at the Min Nan Language

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Min Nan language in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.

Sino-Tibetan
Sinitic
Chinese
Min Nan

Min Nan is also said to be harder to learn than Mandarin, as it has a more complex tone system, with five tones on three different levels. A Westerner, a native English speaker, who tried to learn it recently said he tried different methods of learning in terms of hours per day, but the only method that allowed him to get anywhere with Min Nan was by studying it eight hours per day. Fewer hours per day of study yielded little progress. He said that Min Nan speakers say that Min Nan 2nd language learners never get anywhere close to native fluency in the language, especially with the tones.Even many Taiwanese natives don’t seem to get it right these days, as it is falling out of favor, and many fewer children are being raised speaking it than before.

Min Nan gets a 5.5 rating, nearly hardest of all.

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Filed under Applied, Chinese language, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Min Nan, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan

A Look at the Mandarin Language

This piece ran earlier, but it underwent a huge revision to improve it and this is the new, improved version in case you missed it the first time.

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Mandarin language in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.

Sino-Tibetan
Sinitic
Chinese
Mandarin

It’s fairly easy to learn to speak Mandarin at a basic level, though the tones can be tough. This is because the grammar is very simple – short words, no case, gender, verb inflections or tense. But with Japanese, you can keep learning, and with Chinese, you often tend to hit a wall, often because the syntactic structure is so strangely different from English (isolating).

Actually, the grammar is harder than it seems. At first it seems simple, like a simplified English. No word is capable of declension, and there is no tense, case, and number, nor are there articles. But the simplicity makes it difficult. No tense means there is no easy way to mark time in a sentence. Furthermore, tense is not as easy as it seems. Sure, there are no verb conjugations, but instead you must learn some particles and special word orders that are used to mark tense. Mandarin has 12 different adverbs for which there is no good English translation.

Once you start digging into Chinese, there is a complex layer under all the surface simplicity. There is such things as aspect, serial verbs, a complex classifier system, syntax marked by something called topic-prominence, a strange form called the detrimental passive, preposed relative clauses, use of verbs rather than adverbs to mark direction, and all sorts of strange things. Verb complements can be baffling, especially potential and directional complements. The 把, 是 and 的 constructions can be very hard to understand.

The topic-prominence is interesting in that only a few major languages have topic-comment syntax, and most of those are Oriental languages with a lot of Chinese borrowing. Topicalization is not marked morphologically.

There are sentences where the entire meaning changes with the addition of a single character. Chinese sentences are SVO (Subject -Verb – Object) at their base, but that is a bit of an illusion. A sentence that causes you to discuss time duration makes you repeat the verb after the direct object – SVOVT (T= time phrase). In the case of topicalization, sentences can have the structure of OSV (Object – Subject – Verb). Relative clauses and all subordinate clauses come before the noun they modify. In other words:

English: The man who always wore red walked into the room.
Chinese: Who always wore red the man walked into the room.

The relative clause in the sentences above is marked in bold.

In Chinese, the prepositional phrase comes between the subject and the verb:

English: The man hit the ball into the yard.
Chinese: The man into the yard hit the ball.

The prepositional phrase is bolded in the sentences above.

In Chinese, adjectives are actually stative verbs as in Nahuatl and Lakota.

那个热菜很好吃。
Nàgè rède cài hěnhǎochī.
The it is hot food is good to eat.
The hot food is delicious.

The symbol turns food hot into food it is hot, an attributive verb. means something like to be.

There are dozens of words called particles which shade the meaning of a sentence ever so slightly.

Chinese phonology is not as easy as some say. There are way too many instances of the zh, ch, sh, j, q, and x sounds in the language such that many of the words seem to sound the same to an. There is a distinction between aspirated and nonaspirated consonants. There is also the presence of odd retroflex consonants. All of these will present problems to an English speaker.

Chinese orthography is probably the most hardest orthography of any language. The alphabet uses symbols, so it’s not even a real alphabet. There are at least 85,000 symbols and actually many more, but you only need to know about 3-5,000 of them, and many Chinese don’t even know 1,000. To be highly proficient in Chinese, you need to know 10,000 characters, and probably less than 5% of Chinese know that many.

In addition, the characters have not been changed in 3,000 years, and the alphabet is at least somewhat phonetic, so we run into a serious problem of lack of a spelling reform.

The Communists tried to simplify the system (Simplified Mandarin) but instead of making the connections between the phonetic aspects of character more sensible by decreasing their number and increasing their regularity (they did do this somewhat but not enough), they simply decreased the number of strokes needed for each symbol typically without dealing with the phonetic aspect of all. The simplification did not work well, so now you have a mixture of two different types of written Chinese – Simplified and Traditional.

In addition to all of this, Chinese borrowed a lot from the Japanese symbolic alphabet a full 1,000 years after it had already been developed and had not undergone a spelling reform, adding insult to injury.

Even leaving the characters aside, the stylistic and literary constraints required to write Chinese in an eloquent or formal (literary) manner would make your head swim. And just because you can read Chinese does not mean that you can read Classical Chinese prose. It’s as if it’s written in a different language – actually, it is technically a different language similar to Middle English or Old English. However, few Middle English or Old English texts are read anymore, and Classical Chinese is still widely read.

However, the orthography is at least consistent. 90% of characters have only one reading. Once you learn the character, you generally know the meaning in any context.

Writing the characters is even harder than reading them. One wrong dot or wrong line either completely changes the meaning or turns the symbol into nonsense.

It’s a real problem when you encounter a symbol you don’t know because there is no often way to sound out the word. You are really and truly lost and screwed. There is a clue at the right side of the symbol, but it is not always accurate.You need to learn quite a bit of vocabulary just to speak simple sentences.

Similarly, a dictionary is not necessarily helpful when trying to read Chinese. You can have a Chinese sentence in front of you along with a dictionary, and the sentence still might not make sense even after looking it up in the dictionary.

Some Chinese Muslims write Chinese using an Arabic script. This is often considered to be one of the worst orthographies of all.

The tones are often quite difficult for a Westerner to pick up. If you mess up the tones, you have said a completely different word. Often foreigners who know their tones well nevertheless do not say them correctly, and hence, they say one word when they mean another. However, compared to other tone systems around the world, the tonal system in Chinese is comparatively easy.

A major problem with Chinese is homonyms. To some extent, this is true in many tonal languages. Since Chinese uses short words and is disyllabic, there is a limited repertoire of sounds that can be used. At a certain point, all of the sounds are used up, and you are into the realm of homophones.

Tonal distinctions are one way that monosyllabic and disyllabic languages attempt to deal with the homophone problem, but it’s not good enough, since Chinese still has many homophones even with the four tones, and meaning is often discerned by context, stress, rhythm and intonation. Chinese, like French and English, is heavily idiomatic.

It’s little known, but Chinese also uses different forms (classifiers) to count different things, like Japanese.

There is zero common vocabulary between English and Chinese, so you need to learn a whole new set of lexical forms.

In addition, nouns often show relatedness or hierarchy. For instance, in English, you can simply say my brother or my sister, but in Chinese, you cannot do this. You have to indicate whether you are speaking of an older or younger sibling.

mei meiyounger sister
jie jie
older sister
ge ge
older brother
di di
younger brother

Mandarin scored very high on a weirdest languages study.

On the positive side, Chinese grammar is fairly regular, and word derivation, compound words are sensible and the meaning can be determined by looking at the word. In other languages, compound words are not necessarily so obvious.

Many agree that Chinese is the hardest to learn of all of the major languages. A recent survey of language professors rated Chinese as the hardest language on Earth to learn.

Mandarin gets a 5.5 rating for nearly hardest of all.

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A Look at the Cantonese Language

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Cantonese language in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.

Sino-Tibetan
Sinitic
Chinese
Cantonese

Cantonese is even harder to learn than Mandarin. Cantonese has eight tones to Mandarin’s four, and in addition, it continues to use a lot of the older traditional Chinese characters that were superseded when China moved to a simplified script in 1949. Furthermore, since non-Mandarin characters are not standardized, Cantonese cannot be written down as it is spoken.

In addition, Cantonese has verbal aspect, possibly up to 20 different varieties. Modal particles are difficult in Cantonese. Clusters of up to 3 sentence final particles are very common. 我食咗飯 and 我食咗飯架啦喎 are both grammatical for I have had a meal, but the particles add the meaning of I have already had a meal, answering a question or even to imply I have had a meal, so I don’t need to eat anymore.

Cantonese gets a 5.5 rating, nearly hardest of all.

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Filed under Applied, Cantonese, Chinese language, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan