Mandarin Lessons

I am studying Mandarin. This is an interesting language to learn because it has a long history which is all new to me. My native French and English languages I take for granted, but learning a completely foreign language, from a place like China, makes for a lot of new facts.

For example, I learned that Cantonese is older than Mandarin. This is shown by comparing classical Chinese literature to modern Cantonese and Mandarin. Poetry, for example, probably won't rhyme if read in the wrong dialect, and classical poetry usually sounds best in Cantonese because it rhymes and flows better.

What makes learning Chinese even trickier is that the written words are completely disconnected from the spoken words. In English, if you know how to pronounce "turn" and "key" you can probably figure out "turkey". In Chinese, however, the written words are just symbols, and knowing the shape of a symbol tells you little or nothing about the pronunciation.

There is one class of exceptions: Chinese characters made up of a meaning part and a sound part. A good example is the word for Mom1:

The left half of that symbol is the radical for "Woman" while the right half is the radical for "Horse". The reason for the Horse is because both mom and horse are pronounced 'ma'2. Personally I find it funny that 'Horse' gets its own symbol but 'Mom' does not.

Next time: how using the wrong tone can lead to embarrassment.

1. The word for "Mom" is actually 媽媽, as in 'mama'.
2. The words for horse and mother have different tones, which is how Chinese speakers distinguish them.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Now that is interesting...did *not* know that Cantonese is older than Mandarin. How did that come to be? The other thing is that Cantonese (particularly in Hong Kong) seems to evolve very quickly -- many slang terms have developed over the decades with no real written equivalent. Native Mandarin speakers... pile in!