Maria Holland

I Can’t Tell – Are You Buying or Selling?

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2009 at 9:45 pm

I spent the morning in class, the afternoon napping, and most of the evening doing stuff in my room. In my defense, I did have plans to go check out a Chinese corner in Xiamen, but ended up eating dinner with Lenira and her wonderful friends too late. I am going dancing with them later tonight, so hopefully that will make this day seem like less of a waste. Other than nothing, the big news here is everyone getting ready for the water supply disruption, which is scheduled to start in 2 hours and 10 minutes. I found a bunch of articles about it: one from the Xiamen Water Corp., one about the availability of emergency water, two about precautions taken by the government (and this one), one about what people are doing to prepare, and local suppliers’ pledge to keep the price of drinking water the same.

In an attempt to cover up how little I did today, I’m going to share with you some more about the Chinese language. (In my defense, that’s what I spent all morning and evening on, so it’s legit.)

Today I’m going to talk about tones. There are only 413 possible syllables in Chinese, but this number is increased over four times by the addition of tones. Basically, any given syllable can be pronounced five ways – high and level (1st tone), rising (2nd), falling and then rising (3rd), falling sharply (4th), and unstressed (neutral). These don’t really exist in English (obviously we have inflection, but it is used to convey subtle connotations more than meaning) and are thus really really hard for most English speakers to hear and use correctly. This is somewhat unfortunate, as using the wrong tone on the correct syllable can change the meaning of a word – drastically.

The classic example is the syllable “ma”, but that’s too cliche so I picked some new ones. The syllable “tang” said four different ways can mean:

  • tāng – “soup”
  • táng – “sugar”
  • tǎng – “lie down”
  • tàng – “hot” (as in, this food is too hot to eat)

Another example is the syllable “ji”:

  • jī – “chicken”
  • jí – “anxious”
  • jǐ – “how many?”
  • jì – “send” (as in, to send a letter in the mail)

However, it is certainly not as simple as just using the right syllable and tone and always getting your point across without fail. Of course not; that wouldn’t be the Chinese way. Each syllable/tone combination can actually have many meanings (for instance, in addition to meaning “sugar”, a táng is also a hall or gathering place). The classic example here is the syllable “shi”. The fourth tone alone has these myriad meanings:

  • 是 – to be (as in, I am an American)
  • 事 – business (like, I have some stuff to do)
  • 市 – city
  • 试 – try
  • 室 – room
  • 视 – vision

“Shi” in the second tone can be:

  • 石 – rock
  • 十 – ten
  • 食 – food

Those are only the syllables that I know, and that are used by themselves. I have another 7 “shi”s listed that are always used in phrases, which are easier to distinguish.

I try to work on my tones, but they’re completely arbitrary and actually significantly more difficult to memorize than characters. All I can say is, “thank goodness for context!” because I’m sure I frequently put my foot in my mouth but people seem to give me the benefit of the doubt.

The last list for the day is a few pairs of words or phrases that are only distinguishable by tones.

  • Pear (lí) and plum (lǐ) – this is unfortunate, as I like pears and don’t like plums.
  • Chinese (hànyǔ) and Korean (hányǔ) – source of eternal frustration. Typical conversation: “Do you speak hanyu?” “Of course . . . I’m Chinese.” “Oh, sorry, I meant, do you speak hanyu?” “Oh. No.”
  • Too late (tàiwǎn) and Taiwan (táiwān) – I get confused on a regular basis when my teacher talks about something being late and I wonder why we’re talking about Taiwan. But we’re actually not . . .
  • Buy (mǎi) and sell (mài) – Whose idea was this?? This is a rather important distinction, I feel.
  • Where (nǎr) and there (nàr) – see above. I can’t list how many times I’ve tried to ask a question only to have some nod their head in agreement at what they thought I just told them.
  • Tenderloin (lǐji) and diarrhea (lìji) – this could turn out really badly. Again, thank goodness for context . . .

I think I’m going to talk about all the stuff that’s really hard in Chinese and then I’ll let you in on the secret parts of Chinese that are actually really easy. (Unless you hate the language lessons, that is.)

  1. Ahh, you’re so right. I still get mai3 and mai4 wrong in class.

    I just started using a new tool to help me remember all these crazy things…

    Anki is a (FREE!) flashcard tool that works to help you study based on the human memory time-span, and the fact that each time you review something you can wait longer before you review it again.

    Wish I had this 4 years ago.

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