The Chinese Language - or, ideas to steal

Posted by ranskaldan on 11:08 7/29/02

In reply to: (none)

I'm currently digging my way through a Grammar of Mandarin Chinese. Considering Mark's interest in that (as well as everyone's desires to steal stuff for their own conlangs), i've decided to post some tidbits here.

i'll just do the first chapter for now, "the general characteristics of modern chinese"

let's see...

1) tight syllables, ask an english-speaker what sounds he makes when he says "look out", and he might give you the phonemes: l-u-k-au-t. Note that the phonemes are the building blocks. The /k/ from look easily joins up with the /au/ from out, showing that the word boundaries themselves are inconsequent. ask a chinese-speaker, however, what sounds "beijing" is made up off, and you will very likely get just bei-jing. The syllable is the building block of chinese phonology, and the phonemes are, in the chinese psychology, "subdivisions." this is not just a psychological distinction. it has important consequences throughout the language. In phonology itself, Chinese shows a relative lack of liaisons and elisions. In addition, listen to the English word "sway" and Chinese /swei/ "age". In English, you'll hear that the s comes before the w. In Chinese, the w comes together with the s (which is in effect labialized). This is due to the psychological perception of an entire syllable as just one sound. this also explains the distinctive accent that the Chinese use when speaking English. Faced with a word like "split", for example, a Chinese beginner in English will be overwhelmed. He will attempt to analyze "split" as one integrated unit, one unified Chinese syllable. It obviously isn't: there are several consonants with varying ways of articulation that don't "run together". The resulting attempt, in the end, would be something like "suh-puh-lee-tuh". breaking the thing up into manageable *syllables*.

2) tight rhythms. because syllables play such an important part, compound words emphasize rhythmic unity. For example in English, you can say "house plant", "garden plant", "chemical plant", "incineration plant", and in effect combine two words of any number of syllables together. In Chinese however, compound words are predominantly disyllabic, combined again, they often form rhythmic patterns like 2+1, 2+2, 2+2+1, 2+2+2, etc etc. a trisyllabic word compounded with a monosyllable (3+1) sounds badly unnatural. (Compare English "che-mi-cal plant" which sounds perfectly fine.)

3) lack of inflections and dependence on particles+word order. Self-explanatory.

4) the weakness of the concept of "word" in European languages, the concept of word is so important that letters are spaced according to it. In Chinese, the concept of word is very blurred and loose. It can in fact seem that morphemes combine directly into phrases. Words are better described as "compounded morphemes" than words. For example, the most usual word for sleep is "shui4jiao4". But this is a compound. Shui4 itself also means "sleep", and can be combined into other words easily: "shui4zhao2" (to fall sleep), "shui4xing3" (to wake up), "wu3shui4" (afternoon nap), etc etc. "Jiao4" is an archaic word meaning "to wake, to sense". Its close variant, "jue2", can also be combined: "jue2de" (to sense), "gan3jue2" (sense [n]). Words, in effect, are just combinations, often disyllabic and rarely indivisible.

5)Lack of clearly defined roles for parts of speech. In effect, a "verb" can in fact be used as a subject, object, modifier, complement, or anything that is necessary. Suffixes like "-tion", "-ness" exist but they certainly aren't as necessary.

6)Looser sentence structure. In no way are all sentences S+V+O. You can have a sentence that goes S+V+O+V+O+V+O... etc etc. For example: Ta2 chu1men2 shang2jie1 mai3mian4 chi1. She go-out goonto-street buy-noodles eat. She went out onto the street to buy noodles (to eat). or a topic-comment (in effect, an O+S+V): Nei4-ben3 shu1 ma, wo3 zuo2tian1 jiu4 kan4-guo le. That-meas book conjunc, I yesterday already read-experaspect indicemot. (As for) that book, I read it yesterday.

7)Modifier+Modified. The modifier always comes before. This includes adjectival clauses. For example, to say "the man whom I met while touring the Forbidden Palace yesterday", you have to say, that I-yesterday-tour-ForbiddenPalace-and-meet man. Due to the limitations of human memory, adjectival clauses can't go crazy like they do in English (this is ... which is... which is... which is... etc)

Well there you have it, a language that breaks all sorts of Indo-European norms. I hope all of you have fun creating your own nonIE languages.

Mark responds:

Thanks... I mentioned some of the psychological issues about 'words' on my Yingzi page.

FWIW, there are some cross-syllable phonological effects in Mandarin, the most prevalent being tone sandhi and the -r suffix. Historically, a number of syllables are considered to be formed from two-syllable words... I can't think of examples offhand, but some can be found in Jerry Norman's Chinese.

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