The case of Chinese characters
Choosing to study Chinese, more specifically Mandarin, as a part of my degree here at Warwick, turned out to be one of the best decisions I have made. Don’t get me wrong studying one of the world’s hardest languages has its downsides, but so far, I have found it extremely rewarding. Because of its complexity, many people fear studying it. Still, the exact fact of its complicatedness of characters, practically no grammar (as we know and understand it in the west) and hard pronunciation is what brought me closer to wanting to learn it. In this article, I want to bring you closer to the mysticism of Chinese and why its characters are crucial and cannot be replaced by a phonetic system.
Chinese or 普通话 (pǔtōnghuà) as we know it today is learned with Hanyu Pinyin (拼音, spell sound) – its transcriptional, romanised version. It was founded in the 1950s and became the standardised way of learning Chinese for people who know the Latin alphabet. It uses diacritics to signalise the four tones of Chinese; with its help, students can identify how to pronounce each Chinese word.
Even though Pinyin is extremely useful not only for people who want to learn Chinese but also for Chinese people, as Pinyin is used when writing in Mandarin on a computer or phone. It corresponds to a syllable which makes up a word, for example, the word 普通话 consists of three syllables: pǔ . tōng . huà. Therefore, to write 普通话 on the computer, the writer needs to write all the syllables that make up this word and then choose the correct set of characters. However, the beauty of Pinyin makes it impossible for it to be the only way of communication in Chinese. It is all connected to the fact that characters can sometimes sound the same (they can have the same tones, too), but their meaning is entirely different.
- The word for middle 中, the word for bell 钟 and the second syllable of 送终, meaning to pay one’s last respects, all sound the same; their Pinyin is zhōng.
- The same is true for 雨, rain, and the second syllable for 汉语, Mandarin, where the highlighted characters are pronounced as yǔ.
As you can see, dissecting between the many possible characters is challenging, as, without the proper knowledge, one might hear a completely different character uttered.
How do Chinese people differentiate between those characters in spoken language?
Despite the obvious answer – context – there are many other ways the characters can be distinguished when speaking.
1) Frist one is Set Phrases. Generally, it is understood that the meaning of zhōng is 中, but if zhōng were to appear at the end of the word and be preceded by 送, it would be 终.
2) The Second is differentiation by Noun Suffixes. For example, the word 画家 huàjiā means a painter. The suffix –家 jiā, when placed after a syllable, will signify that the word as a whole tells a person who is engaged in some field of activity it is mainly used to talk about specific professions. Therefore, the huà will never be mistaken with 化 huà, which implies change as the word “化家” does not exist.
As you can see, dissecting all possible Chinese meanings is pretty easy once you have a deeper understanding of the rules. Additionally to it becoming fairly easy with time, it is super interesting, well at least to me. 🙂
I hope I have explained it fairly clearly; please let me know if you have any other questions regarding Chinese!