Fifty Shades of Wèi (喂): Grammar

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David Byron

David Byron is a software developer working for the military-industrial complex. At Popehat, he writes about art, language, theater (mostly magic), technology, lyrics, and aleatory ephemera. Serious or satirical poetry spontaneously overflows from him while he's recollecting in tranquility. @dcbyron

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55 Responses

  1. terryg says:

    dui, dui. I like to use Hamlets 1st soliloquy:
    "To be or not to be – that is the question"
    in Mandarin is:
    "shi bu shi ma"
    literally "is not-is?"

  2. Ken says:

    Can you drive cross-country and help Elaina with her homework?

    Or Skype, I guess.

  3. David says:

    @terryg :lol: Even so.

  4. EarlW says:

    Aren't you leaving out the biggest difference? The tone of the words? We use tone to add emotion. The same word in mandarin can mean different things depending on how it is said. Ex. ma can be mother, horse, numb or scold depending on what tone is used.

  5. Dan S. says:

    Very nice post. I'm in my second year of studying Chinese at university, and it's all more or less in accord with what I've been picking up.

    I would say, though, that I've never seen huì come after a verb. Usually it comes in the adverbial position right before (i.e. wǒ huì kàn shū [I will read the book] not wǒ kàn shū huì). It's possible, of course, that I just have yet to encounter that construction, but I think huì is fundamentally different in function from the particles le or guo.

    Also, not only are Finnish and Hungarian not untraceable (unless I misunderstand your meaning), they are in the same language family, Finno-Ugric (or more broadly Uralic). As it happens, I'm studying Finnish too, hence the impulse to get pedantic on this score.

    In any case the language-nerdery is a wonderful complement to the usual pro-free speech snark. Keep it coming.

  6. DJB says:

    I take issue with Mandarin. If I'm gonna be speaking at all, I like to imply a lot, and the simplest way to do that is by changing tones. It's a tad more difficult to do that when the tone changes the meaning of the whole word.
    That said, at least it's not like Latin where you have to know exactly what you're saying to an annoying degree of specificity. In English a mouse is a mouse. In Latin it's a mouse that is taking an action, or that an action is being taken on, or that is near something, et cetera, ad nauseam.

  7. David says:

    @EarlW No, I'm not leaving out the tones. This is the 0th post of 4, and the 1st post deals with pronunciation.

    See the part where I say

    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.

  8. David says:

    @Dan S. Thanks for bringing your better knowledge to bear. I agree that "huì" is different from a particle; it's actually more like a modal auxiliary to indicate contingency or possibility, which may or may not emphasize the future time.

    From memory, I was unsure whether it belonged before or after, so I stuck it after. But since it belongs before, it's actually that much more like the English "shall|will", at least in syntax!

    My understanding of the Finno-Ugric thing is that it's just a hypothesis, and that it by no means enjoys a consensus among folks who try to trace the extraordinary languages that find no ready home among the better understood families.

  9. Ken says:

    When we went to China, I was informed that my tone in attempting to say "hello" resulted in "bird."

  10. David says:

    鸟! Ha ha hah ha! /nelson

  11. different Jess says:

    I took Chinese for a year at university. Now I can only speak it when I'm drunk (although I'm by no means fluent at those times, actual Mandarin speakers confirm the next day that I was generally intelligible). I keep meaning to come back to it, but the task daunts me.

    I look forward to future installments of this series!

  12. Kelly says:

    You have my attention. I thought Latin was fairly easy and have been curious not only about Mandarin, but Finnish as well. Mandarin because it seemed a challenge and Finnish so I can read the Kalevala in the language Elias Lönnrot intended.

  13. Hughhh says:

    I am blissfully, gleefully, entirely out of my grammatical depth — so much so that I hardly feel qualified even to add this comment. Yet here I am, doing so, smiling all the while.

    Thank you for this post. <3

  14. Nathan says:

    Can't wait for you to discover wen yu, or the literary style, where all these rules you've learned are basically not helpful and you relearn the entire language again.

  15. David says:

    @Nathan I'm nth generation Waley, and my reach goal is to grapple with T'ang poetry, so … yeah.

  16. David says:

    @Kelly The best learner's guide to Finnish that I've seen is the new "Colloquial Finnish" course by Daniel Abondolo. I checked it out of the local library just a couple of days ago, and my superficial looksee has left me with the impression that it's quite good (although track 3 of disk 1 has a problem).

    So many cases, so little time!

  17. Blaze Miskulin says:

    I'm currently living in China and teaching English to workers and businessmen. I haven't had much chance to learn while I'm here because everyone wants to speak English. :-)

    I'm finally at a training center that teaches Lao wai to speak Mandarin, so I'll be reading your posts with interest.

    A couple things to note:

    1) Nobody in China speaks Mandarin :-) They all speak a local dialect (there are 56). Mandarin is their 2nd language. It's really strange for an outsider.

    2) Those dialects also affect the phrases they use. Your example about the greeting. In the east, they say it different: "Ni chi fan le ma?" or "Ni chi guo le ma?" Have you eaten lunch/dinner depending on the time of day.

    3) I'm discovering that Chinese has had an influence on English. "Long time, no see" is, apparently, a Chinese phrase.

    4) I love that they have single words for things like "day after tomorrow"

    If you want some real fun, try to explain the grammar behind "it will have been" to someone who thinks in Chinese. :-)

  18. princessartemis says:

    Language nerdity! Something I have never been able to quite do is learn another language, but my mind is full of attempts at the grammar and alphabets of Koine Greek, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, and handfuls of Romance-it's-all-the-same-ness. More language nerdiness will be gleeful to observe nevertheless.

  19. Geek Chick says:

    Mandarin is one place I haven't gone, but I can navigate my way around in Arabic, Japanese, Korean, French, and Welsh. And all I know of Spanish is cuss words, but I attribute that to growing up in SoCal.

  20. David says:

    Well, ain't this a polyglottal pit stop!

  21. AlphaCentauri says:

    Have you gotten to names of relatives yet? There are different names for a younger female cousin vs. an older female cousin, etc.

  22. Conrad says:

    @AlphaCentauri And there are 5 types of uncles, three for Fraternal, two for Maternal

  23. Alex says:

    @Blaze: I once tried to explain the concept of "turning [age]" to a Japanese exchange student. I was totally stumped. I'm still not sure I got it across to him…

  24. Aufero says:

    I've avoided Mandarin in the past due to its reputation as difficult for English speakers – maybe it's time to fill that gap in my knowledge. Looking forward to the rest of these posts!

  25. Rich Rostrom says:

    Dan S.: … Finnish and Hungarian … are in the same language family, Finno-Ugric …

    David: My understanding of the Finno-Ugric thing is that it's just a hypothesis …

    Between the World Wars, some Magyar nationalist types decided that the supposed linguistic link with Finnish meant that the Finns were their long-lost culture-brothers. There was a sustained effort to promote exchanges and mutual solidarity, which apparently persuaded a fair number of people.

    When the USSR invaded Finland in 1939, some Magyars said that they should go to the aid of their kindred. And in fact a volunteer force of 350 men went to Finland (with their own arms) to fight.

  26. BebeTaian says:

    Actually, I found learning to write to be easiest… x.x Even in English, I've never been quite good at grammar, and everyone sounds like they're talking underwater to me anyways. Writing, or rather, learning written words, is my only fallback in language! Once the particles make sense (ie, character for one tree, three times in a single characters' space is a forest. Logical.), the rest *usually* follows if you know etymology of the word.

  27. Bruce says:

    I'm finding the same as I learn Lao. No tenses to change words, just stick a 'laew' on the end to indicate in the past.

    Baw as negative and question mark.
    Yaak kin baw (want eat question mark) – leads to:
    Yaak kin (want eat) or baw yaak kin (no want eat)

    I think the writing will be easier to pick up.

  28. MathMage says:

    For me, the most frustrating thing about Chinese (apart from the aforementioned issues of vocab, dialect, and literary forms) is that the sounds themselves are too generic to readily trigger distinct vocabulary recognition. I'll listen to a dialogue containing only words I know, and still have trouble because I'm not sure what pattern I'm to listen for until I'm on the verge of forgetting what the first word sounded like to begin with.

    Oh, and just want to add, the first line of Hamlet's soliloquy would actually be along the lines of: 活不活?这是问题。 An actual literary translation would lengthen the first bit, but that's beyond my capabilities.

  29. Some of the reasons you give for Mandarin being easy are the same things I like about ASL. No articles. No irregular verbs ever. Past tense? Just make the sign in a different position.

    @ AlphaCentauri "Have you gotten to names of relatives yet? There are different names for a younger female cousin vs. an older female cousin, etc."
    I mentor some college-age ESL students, Chinese and Vietnamese, and we were working on family trees yesterday. They wanted things like "if your sister gets married, what relation is her husband to YOUR husband?"

  30. AlphaCentauri says:

    The number of sibilants is what gets me. The small differences between them seem less significant than the regional differences in pronunciation. You may think you've got it when you imitate one speaker in the language recording, but then the next speaker sounds completely different.

  31. AlphaCentauri says:

    Oh, and I noticed the parallels with ASL, too. I've wondered whether if deaf students learned Chinese characters they might find them more useful as an orthography for ASL than trying to create non-grammatical strings of English words.

  32. Aron says:

    @David @Rich Rostrom: As a native Hungarian and a former stundent of linguistics (altough it was Polish), I figured I weigh in on the conversation: the Uralic theory was established in the period between the late 18th and mid-19th century, although it was briefly and fiercely disputed in the late 19th century – the counterparts argued for a Hungarian-Turkish (Altaic) connection, based mostly on vocabulary (no surprise here, the words for animal husbandry are mostly of Turkish origin, from the nomadic times, while the vocabulary of agriculture and Christianity are mostly Slavic, reflecting the contemporary surroundings). It gained popularity because the nationalistic elite felt closer to the noble nomadic Turks than the humble Finnish peons :). The Uralic theory is not disputed seriously ever since, and is still being thaught at schools. There even is a feeling of some kinship with the Finns, despite of the two languages not being mutually intelligible, although we have a stronger and longer love affair with the Poles – but that is a story for some other time.

  33. Aron says:

    And, of course, terrific article, looking forward to the next part!

  34. David says:

    @Aron Thanks for that information! And speaking of Daniel Abondolo, here's his compendium of Uralic languages for the dedicated student with $400 to burn.

  35. name unknown says:

    Daniel, how/where/what are you using to learn my dream language?

    Yes, I dream in Mandarin. That explains why I never understand my dreams.

  36. name unknown says:

    I meant David, how/where/what are you using to learn my dream language?. duh!

  37. kmc says:

    I love this! I have recently re-uptaken Mandarin and, since I am a language nerd myself, I tend to fling myself equally into any language I study. However, most of the people in my class are taking it for some kind of need and I get the feeling that they're very intimidated by it, in part because of long-held preconceptions and in part because they haven't gotten to the "it's all the same" realization. I would like them all to read this. Now if I can just convince them!

  38. Jeremy says:

    I was told that Korean holds the prize for the most logical, simple, and elegant spoken and written language that Earth has. But I've never tried to learn Korean nor Mandarin.

  39. David says:

    @Jeremy I want to learn Korean so I can understand my Hyundai.

  40. David says:

    @name I'll describe some resources in the 4th post.

  41. terryg says:

    @MathMage – yeah, you're right – shi bu shi ma isnt really hamlets 1st soliloquy. but it does serve to illustrate the point re. minimalist grammar.

    That makes it very easy to gain a rudimentary working knowledge of Mandarin. one downside is that its tonal – so speaking & listening require a reasonable "ear".

    like all languages its just a collection of silly noises with randomly assigned meanings, but tone (or pitch) changes the word. So if you cant hear the different "tones" (maybe some people genuinely cant; I suspect its just not listening carefully) you're in trouble. And ditto if you cant make the noises come out right.

    another downside is the lack of redundancy. English has loads of redundancy, and a reasonably large Hamming distance* between words (adjacent valid codes). there are lots of ways you can mess with english without obscuring the meaning – text-speak being an example, but there are many (eg leave first & last letters of words alone, scramble inner letters). stripping out all the superfluous words as in Mandarin makes it more sensitive to errors – its really easy to render sentences utterly unintelligible.

    *sorry, engineer with information theory background. credit card numbers are a good example of codes with large Hamming distance – only a small fraction of the available numbers are actual CC numbers, which are widely spaced. a sequential numbering system would have the smallest hamming distance.

    Mandarin has loads and loads of homonyms – eg ta1, ta1, ta1 and ta1 are [he or she], she, it, [collapse/fall down]. 1 = first tone (high and flat). they all sound the same, and have the same Pinyin, but have different characters. Initially I thought I could get away with only knowing pinyin, but for these reasons it just doesnt work that well. to see how this works in Mandarin, try to translate pinyin without tone markers eg zu zhi (which is how my favourite sushi shop sign reads from the back)

    and then there are regional accents. eg "is forty for" = shì sì shí sì . No problem up north. down south though, "sh" is pronounced like "s" – aaargh. still its easier than pronouncing "schiphol"

  42. discretionary docket says:

    An ongoing meal is more aptly expressed as "ta zai (在) chi fan" — zai denoting is/now/currently/presently, as in xian zai (现在) — at this time. If one were prolix, it would be ta xian zai zai chi fan (he currently is eating rice) but the xian zai is usually omitted because the zai (is) already connotes currency. A bit like omitting "currently" from "he is currently eating" because it's superfluous.

    As for the default direct object: I don't think your explanation is quite right. It's not "eat" (chi, 吃) that necessarily defaults to eating rice. You can "eat bitterness" (chi ku, 吃苦) for example — which means to suffer or to bear suffering. Rather, it's fan (rice) that operates as a metonym for food/meal.

    Moreover, chi can also be used as an imperative (as in "chi!", "eat!") so an object is not always required. Same with run(ning) steps (pao bu). If you were to say "I'm going jogging" (wo qu pao bu), sure, attach an object (paces, steps, whatever) to the verb (run) — but the imperative ("pao!", "run!") doesn't necessarily default to anything.

    But, quibbles aside, I enjoyed reading this post!

  43. angstela says:

    Languages are usually thought of as difficult not due to grammar/pronunciation/&c. (though Russian and some other can get a special nod here), but that while minor proficiency can be pretty simple, actual fluency comes with a lot of cultural baggage too and that's the difficult part for NNSs to pick up with any degree of naturalness. Idiom, pop-culture references to shows we all watched as children, the history as we all learned it in school, poems, songs and nursery rhymes we all know, &c. &c. That's where Mandarin (or any language) is going to get pretty hard for someone with few roots, and no in-country immersion. All of course, imo. ;-)

  44. Bill Poser says:

    Your remarks are well taken. I have always thought it strange that spoken Chinese had a reputation as terribly difficult. If you're interested in the other extreme, though, you shouldn't think that languages like Latin and Russian, or even Sanskrit, are especially difficult. There are languages with much more complex morphology. The language I spend much of my time working with, Carrier, inflects verbs for number of subject (singular, dual, and plural), person of subject (1st, 2nd, and 3d), a four way tense/mood/aspect system, negation, person and number of object if the verb is transitive, shape of subject if intransitive, object if transitive (e.g. 'unus'alh = I am eating something round", 'udus'alh = "I am eating something stick-like"), whether the action is a typical instance of a habitual action, and so forth, with the result that a transitive verb has several hundred thousand different forms.

  45. David says:

    @Bill Poser
    Thanks for your remarks. I didn't mean to suggest that Russian and Latin were difficult in any absolute sense; I said only that among Indo-European languages, they stand closer to the difficult end of the spectrum than, say, Spanish.

    Carrier sounds like a tough nut indeed. Happy crackin'!

  46. George says:

    I'm also learning Mandarin, and I would like to point out, that English also has some interesting parallels to the "tonal" language of Chinese. For one, there are a lot of words that change meaning depending on how you emphasize them: "PRO-gress" is a noun, and "pro-GRESS" is a verb. Furthermore, in English an awful lot of the meaning is encoded in the meter of speaking — so that if someone speaks English with proper grammar and phonemes but in a flat tone (or worse yet, a tone that is the opposite of one a normal English speaker would use), it's a lot harder to understand.

  47. David says:

    @George I think the factors you name (tonic stress, meter) have more to do with where the emphasis is placed than in variations of tone while placing it. But you're right about this: native, idiomatic English includes a bevy of shibboleths, some of them related to accentuation.

  48. Cary says:

    I'd just like to chime in to say that a tonal spoken language, like any dialect of Chinese, absolutely does not preclude expressiveness and emotional tone while speaking. There's more passion in Cantonese dinner conversation than a performance of the opera Carmen.

  49. Gina says:

    @David, if you want to "grapple with T'ang poetry" then you really ought to learn classical/literary Chinese. If you want a sino-linguistic challenge, look no further…

    Greetings from a sinologist :)

  50. K. Chang says:

    Well, technically,
    tā chī fàn le (他 吃飯 了)

    can also be rendered as
    tā chī le fàn (他吃了飯 )

    Which is more grammatical.

    Nobody I know will actually say tā chī fàn le (他 吃飯 了). They will actually say tā chī le (他吃了)

  51. Margo says:

    Well explained. Great review.

    One of my favourite expressions is ma ma hu hu – horse, horse, tiger, tiger. (I don't have the characters within my reach).

    Hope you post more.

    xie xie (I realize I'm missing accents on everything)

  52. Daiana says:

    So, number 1 – Lovely article, especially since I have myself considered learning Mandarin, for a while now
    2 – I am impressed by the number of language nerds that respond to your articles. And there was me thinking I was pretty much alone in the universe!
    3 – I am a native Romanian, teaching ESL at the moment to Romanian speaker. It was funny how you described English as being redundant, since not earlier than yesterday, I was telling my students that, unlike Romanian, English is not redundant at all.
    e.g. In English, one says: I saw Jim. In Romanian, we say: L-am vazut pe JIM. (Him I saw Jim.)
    I thought it doesn't get any simpler than that. But I guess, it can always get simpler, as well as more complicated. :)

  53. Daiana says:

    * ON. Let's not forget a billion case-specific prepositions.
    It's actually: Him I saw on Jim.
    With all the innuendo implied… :)