Fifty Shades of Wèi (喂): Grammar
"It was my understanding that there would be no Mandarin."
If you find yourself thinking this, gentle Popehat reader, well… 不对! For I am a language nerd, and recently I've been nerding out on Modern Standard Chinese (as the PC crowd call it) because I wanted to climb the mysterious, misty peaks of the Northern Song, and do that non-suicidal magical fog dive thing from the end of Crouching Tiger, and lose myself for a time in the coursing waters of the Yangtze River. I wanted difficulty. I wanted to say 'friend' and still not enter.
Well, if you've heard that Mandarin is nearly impossibly difficult for the Unitedstatesian mouth and ear and eye, then I'm here to tell you that everything you've heard is a lie. That's right– a lie. It's lies all the way down. An infinite regress of anti-truth. Mandarin, it turns out, is easy!
To be a bit more accurate: the grammar is astonishingly simple (all things considered), and the pronunciation patterns are a middling challenge, but the writing system is stultifyingly hard. Nate Silver tells me that when you average these, you get "easy".
I'm operating on the theory that some of you also may be ponderin' the Pǔtōnghuà, or that some of you may have kids in Mandarin immersion and may want to keep up with them, or that some of you, way beyond a rank beginner such as I, may be willing to share your more advanced tips and insights. On that theory, I want to let you know some of what I've learned so far.
In particular, I want to give (0) this introduction emphasizing that the grammar is well within reach, (1) a newbie's guide to the pronunciation of Mandarin, (2) a quick and dirty intro to how the characters work and how to learn them, and (3) an overview of some of the better online resources at Youtube and elsewhere. My goal is not to gather and dump as much info as possible, but rather to summarize only the essential facts and opinions that make the way easier for a beginner. From there, of course, the road goes ever on and on, and I'm not qualified to navigate that path.
So…. Hankerin' for some hàn zì? Ready to get Zhōngwénny wid it?
The Good News: Grammar
First, let's talk about grammar. If you have dabbled in a romance language, then you know about the conjugation of verbs across persons and numbers, about gendered nouns, and about the agreement of adjectives in gender and number with whatever they describe. If you've indulged in Greek or Latin or German or Russian or any other heavily inflected language, then you also know about the wonders of noun declension across cases. And let's not even get into the nuances of time, aspect, tense progression, and counterfactuality.
There comes a point in the study of these language when the lightbulb goes on and the learner realizes in practice what the trivia books had maintained all along: these are all the same language, and so they all work the same way. Well, more or less. Yes, each has its vocabulary and its idioms and its subset of linguistic functionality, but at heart, they're all descendents of the same ancestor of Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit.
In the wake of this enlightenment, one feels the call of the wild. The allure of linguistic isolates, such as Basque and Korean, and the siren song of untraceable languages, such as Hungarian or Japanese or Finnish, become irresistible.
Then there's Mandarin Chinese: simple, logical, beautiful in grammar; maddeningly complex and subtle in expressive capability. And spoken all over the 'verse!
Mandarin has no articles (a, an, the). It has no gender for nouns. It is almost entirely uninflected: each verb has exactly one form that never changes, and each noun has exactly one form, no matter what role it plays in a sentence. For the most part, the difference between singular and plural is not marked. The basic syntax of a simple sentence, as in English, is subject-verb-object, and qualifying phrases packed before the verb or the object follow a logical sequence. Mandarin has no tenses construed as time (past, present, future, past perfect, present perfect, future perfect, etc.); instead it emphasizes aspect (anticipated, continuous, habitual, progressive, completed, etc.) and marks this with a particle. In short, it's simple.
By way of comparison, think about what you have to learn for each verb in French. Consider aimer (to love):
Past, simple aspect: j'aimai, tu aimas, il/elle/on aima, nous aimâmes, vous aimâtes, ils/elles aimèrent
Past, incomplete aspect: j'aimais, tu aimais, il/elle/on aimait, nous aimions, vous aimiez, ils/elles aimaient
Present: j'aime, tu aimes, il/elle/on aime, nous aimons, vous aimez, ils/elles aiment
Future: j'aimerai, tu aimeras, il/elle/on aimera, nous aimerons, vous aimerez, ils/elles aimeront
Past perfect: j'avais aimé, tu avais aimé, il/elle/on avait aimé, nous avions aimé, vous aviez aimé, ils/elles avaient aimé
Present perfect: j'ai aimé, tu as aimé, il/elle/on a aimé, nous avons aimé, vous avez aimé, ils/elles ont aimé
Future perfect: j'aurai aimé, tu auras aimé, il/elle/on aura aimé, nous aurons aimé, vous aurez aimé, ils/elles auront aimé
A different form of aimer is needed for each person and each number within each time and (for the past) in each aspect. That's the Indo-European way! Now let's consider the Mandarin way:
He, she, or it: tā
To eat food: chī fàn (吃飯)
Here's the verbal system:
Completed: tā chī fàn le (他 吃飯 了)
Ongoing: tā chī fàn (他 吃飯)
Possible: tā huì chī fàn (他 会 吃飯) [Edited for syntax per comment below. -dcb]
Simple. A modal (huì, sometimes roughly equal to "will") to indicate future possibility and a particle (le) to indicate completed aspect. All else depends on context, not form. See how "tā" (he/she/it) doesn't change? And see how "chī fàn" doesn't change? Of course, there are micro-rules about whether to put the particle right after the verb, or after a clause, or at the end of a complex sentence, or in two places. Most of the time, it's easier simply to say when ("tomorrow", "yesterday", "someday") than to bother with aspect particles. But still, how much simpler it is to learn that than to learn the literary tenses of French!
By the way, there's an expression, "chī bǎo le ma" (吃饱了吗), that literally means "Have you eaten your fill?" But it's used as a routine greeting in rural China in much the same way that "Grüß Gott" ("Say 'hi' to God!") is used in the boonies of Bavaria. It has approximately the same flavor as "How's it goin'?"
Anyhow, behold the lack of mutability:
I see you done. You see I done.
I see you. You see I.
I will see you. You will see I.
I see it. It see I. You see it. It see you.
And let's talk about "to be":
English: am, are, is, was, were, shall be, will be, have been, had been, will have been, to be
Mandarin: shì (是)
In any event, Mandarin uses "to be" much less frequently than English does. It depends instead on juxtaposition and intelligence.
So if Chinese grammar does not require bulk memorization (or deduction) of nouns and verbs in their various forms, then what is there to learn besides vocabulary? Well, there are some syntax rules about when to mention the time, place, and method of an action. So, for example, there's a subject-when-where-how-verb pattern: I around five pm at the restaurant with my wife dine. (Not too far from German or Latin, really.) And there are various ways to express durations. And there are many formulaic ways to express the speaker's attitude toward the topic at hand. And there are particles to indicate causal relationships.
There are charmingly logical idiomatic patterns. For example, Mandarin famously has no direct equivalent of "yes" and "no", but instead relies on repeating or negating the verb in question (or providing multiple-choice options!):
Q: "Is that the new model?"
Q: "You have|not-have an iPad Mini?"
Perhaps the most important grammatical feature that distinguishes beginners like me from folks who know what they're doing is Mandarin's abundant use of "classifier" or "measure" words. We have these in English, but they're uncommon. They're words like "blade" in the expression "a blade of grass" or like "pair" in "a pair of pants". No idiomatic speaker of English would ever refer to "a grass" or "a pants". (Note: this is different from collective nouns such as an "exaltation of larks" or a "pride of lions", since larks and lions can be referenced properly on their own.)
Well, Mandarin has a bucketload of these, some referring to things bound like scrolls/books, some referring to anything rectangular and medium-sized, and so forth. A pack, a cup, a box, a piece, a crowd, a pair, a set, a kind — similar to English, these– but also a word for things with handles, for things bound by string, for items of correspondence, for rooms, for articles of clothing, for wheeled things, for stick-like things, and even for large, permanent things! The correct use of them is a big deal.
There are some other grammatical formulations that are easy to learn but different from English. For example, some verbs come automatically with a meaningless default direct object, even if it's not the object you mean. "To eat", for example, is "eat rice" even if you're not eating rice. (See chī fàn above!) "To read" is "read book" unless you specify some other object, and "to sing" is "sing song", and "to run" is "run step". There's also a strong tendency to order things from large to small, from earlier to later, from logically prior to consequent, and so forth. And, most cool, Mandarin includes many four-character sayings that are part of the common culture; the more of these one understands, the better. But more on those in another post.
Despite many small rules, Mandarin is left within reach of us langnerds by its startling lack of many of the big rules that we have come to expect if we've spent time mainly with languages that have them. Throwing them out at no cost is indeed refreshing.