Chinese Language (5)

Print PDF

9. Vocabulary
The entire Chinese character corpus since antiquity comprises well over 20,000 characters, of which only roughly 10,000 are now commonly in use. However Chinese characters should not be confused with Chinese words, there are many times more Chinese words than there are characters as most Chinese words are made up of two or more different characters.

Estimates of the total number of Chinese words and phrases vary greatly. The Hanyu Da Zidian, an all-inclusive compendium of Chinese characters, includes 54,678 head entries for characters, including bone oracle versions. The Zhonghua Zihai 中华字海 (1994) contains 85,568 head entries for character definitions, and is the largest reference work based purely on character and its literary variants.

The most comprehensive pure linguistic Chinese-language dictionary, the 12-volumed Hanyu Da Cidian 汉语大词典, records more than 23,000 head Chinese characters, and gives over 370,000 definitions. The 1999 revised Cihai, a multi-volume encyclopedic dictionary reference work, gives 122,836 vocabulary entry definitions under 19,485 Chinese characters, including proper names, phrases and common zoological, geographical, sociological, scientific and technical terms.

The latest 2007 5th edition of Xiandai Haiyu Cidian 现代汉语词典, an authoritative one-volume dictionary on modern standard Chinese language as used in Mainland China, has 65, 000 entries and defines 11, 000 head characters.

10. New words
Like any other language, Chinese has absorbed a sizeable amount of loanwords from other cultures. Most Chinese words are formed out of native Chinese morphemes, including words describing imported objects and ideas. However, direct phonetic borrowing of foreign words has gone on since ancient times. Words borrowed from along the Silk Road since Old Chinese include 葡萄 "grape," 石榴 "pomegranate" and 狮子/獅子 "lion." Some words were borrowed from Buddhist scriptures, including 佛 "Buddha" and 菩萨/菩薩 "bodhisattva." Other words came from nomadic peoples to the north, such as 胡同 "hutong." Words borrowed from the peoples along the Silk Road, such as 葡萄 "grape" (pútáo in Mandarin) generally have Persian etymologies. Buddhist terminology is generally derived from Sanskrit or Pāli, the liturgical languages of North India. Words borrowed from the nomadic tribes of the Gobi, Mongolian or northeast regions generally have Altaic etymologies, such as 琵笆 or 酪 "cheese" or "yoghurt", but from exactly which Altaic source is not always entirely clear.

1)Modern borrowings and loanwords Foreign words continue to enter the Chinese language by transcription according to their pronunciations. This is done by employing Chinese characters with similar pronunciations. For example, "Israel" becomes 以色列 (pinyin: yǐsèliè), Paris 巴黎. A rather small number of direct transliterations have survived as common words, including 沙發 shāfā "sofa," 马达/馬達 mǎdá "motor," 幽默 yōumò "humour," 逻辑/邏輯 luójí "logic," 时髦/時髦 shímáo "smart, fashionable" and 歇斯底里 xiēsīdǐlǐ "hysterics." The bulk of these words were originally coined in the Shanghainese dialect during the early 20th century and were later loaned into Mandarin, hence their pronunciations in Mandarin may be quite off from the English. For example, 沙发/沙發 and 马达/馬達 in Shanghainese actually sound more like the English "sofa" and "motor."

Today, it is much more common to use existing Chinese morphemes to coin new words in order to represent imported concepts, such as technical expressions. Any Latin or Greek etymologies are dropped, making them more comprehensible for Chinese but introducing more difficulties in understanding foreign texts. For example, the word telephone was loaned phonetically as 德律风/德律風 ( Shanghainese: télífon [t?l?fo?], Standard Mandarin: délǜfēng) during the 1920s and widely used in Shanghai, but later the Japanese 电话/電話 (diànhuà "electric speech"), built out of native Chinese morphemes, became prevalent. Other examples include 电视/電視 (diànshì "electric vision") for television, 电脑/電腦 (diànnǎo "electric brain") for computer; 手机/手機 (shǒujī "hand machine") for cellphone, and 蓝牙/藍牙 (lányá "blue tooth") for Bluetooth. Occasionally half-transliteration, half-translation compromises are accepted, such as 汉堡包/漢堡包 (hànbǎo bāo, "Hamburg bun") for hamburger. Sometimes translations are designed so that they sound like the original while incorporating Chinese morphemes, such as 拖拉机/拖拉機 (tuōlājī, "tractor," literally "dragging-pulling machine"), or 马力/馬力 (mǎlìōu, "horse strength") for the video game character Mario. This is often done for commercial purposes, for example 奔腾/奔騰 (bēnténg "running leaping") for Pentium and 赛百味/賽百味 (Sàibǎiwèi "better-than hundred tastes") for Subway restaurants.

Since the 20th century, another source was from Japan. Using existing kanji, which are Chinese characters used in the Japanese language, the Japanese re-moulded European concepts and inventions into wasei-kango (和製漢語, literally Japanese-made Chinese), and re-loaned many of these into modern Chinese. Examples include diànhuà (電話, denwa, "telephone"), shèhuì (社会, shakai, "society"), kēxué (科學, kagaku, "science") and chōuxiàng (抽象, chūshō, "abstract"). Other terms were coined by the Japanese by giving new senses to existing Chinese terms or by referring to expressions used in classical Chinese literature. For example, jīngjì (經濟, keizai), which in the original Chinese meant "the workings of the state", was narrowed to "economy" in Japanese; this narrowed definition was then reimported into Chinese. As a result, these terms are virtually indistinguishable from native Chinese words: indeed, there is some dispute over some of these terms as to whether the Japanese or Chinese coined them first. As a result of this toing-and-froing process, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese share a corpus linguistics of terms describing modern terminology, in parallel to a similar corpus of terms built from Greco-Latin terms shared among European languages. Taiwanese Chinese continues to be influenced by Japanese eg. 便当 “lunchbox or boxed lunch” and 料理 “prepared cuisine”, have passed into common currency.

Western foreign words have great influence on Chinese language since the 20th century, through transliterations. From French came 芭蕾 (bāléi, "ballet"), 香槟 (xiāngbīn, "champagne"), via Italian 咖啡 (kāfēi, "caffè"). The English influence is particularly pronounced. From early 20th century Shanghainese, many English words are borrowed .eg. the above-mentioned 沙發 (shāfā "sofa"), 幽默 (yōumò "humour"), and 高尔夫 (gāoěrfū, "golf"). Later US soft influences gave rise to 迪斯科 (dísīkè, "disco"), 可乐 (kělè, "cola") and 迷你 (mínǐ, "mini(skirt)"). Contemporary colloquial Cantonese has distinct loanwords from English like cartoon 卡通 (cartoon), 基佬 (gay people), 的士 (taxi), 巴士 (bus). With upsurge in the Internet’s popularity, there is a current vogue in China to coining English transliterations, eg. 粉丝 (fěnsī, "fans"), 黑客 (hēikè, "hacker"), 博客 (bókè, "blog").

11. Learning Chinese
Since China’s economic and political rise in recent years, standard Chinese has become an increasingly popular subject of study amongst the young in the Western world, as in the UK.

In 1991 there were 2,000 foreign learners taking China's official Chinese Proficiency Test (comparable to English's Cambridge Certificate), while in 2005, the number of candidates has risen sharply to 117,660. China's Ministry of Education estimates the worldwide learners presently to be 30 million people, counting those undertaking studies in universities, community colleges, training courses and private tuitions

Despite Chinese’s reputation as a difficult non-native language, the development of Hanyu Pinyin and simplified Chinese characters has made it vastly easier for non-Chinese to begin to learn the language.

The first step in many Chinese classes is to teach students how to use pinyin (how to read and pronounce it).
Listening to a native speaker pronouncing Chinese will help. It will not take too much effort, since pronunciation is always regular.
Characters are generally the most difficult aspect facing new learners, taking most of their time
In compensation, Chinese grammar is considerably easier than that of many other languages.

Article from internet.  editor: