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When first visiting China, one of the major concerns that a westerner has is language. If I go to a European country whose language I do not speak, I can still sound out the signs and realize that a sign in Stockholm that says "Restaurang" is probably someplace that I can get something to eat. Even if I go to a country that uses a different alphabet, a small bit of study will allow me to understand that "Pectopah" starts with a letter that sounds like "R" and so, says the same thing. We can deal with these languages because they are phonetic. If we learn the sounds of the letters, we can know the sounds of the words, and unless we go to someplace like Finland which has a different set of linguistic roots and the sign reads "Ravintolat", we can find some meaning in our surroundings.

But when we set down in China, the sign says and we have no idea how to pronounce it, or even how to look it up if we should happen to have a dictionary. Our initial impression is that we are completely cut off from human communication. We can't read, we can't speak, and we can't understand the spoken word.

That is only partially true. We were surprised to see a lot of English language signs in the big cities. Freeway signs are bilingual, a lot of businesses advertise themselves in English, and a lot of people speak a little bit of English. 

langua1.jpg (117249 bytes)Besides, where there's a will, there's a way. Marie walked into a local fabric store in Suzhou, an establishment where she might have been the first foreigner to enter. She fingered a few bolts of silk. The owner brought over a few others that were similar. When she found one she liked, she pointed to the notepad where communication happened she held her hands about a yard apart and wrote down 3. The owner wrote down the price for the three meters. Marie crossed it out and wrote down a counter offer. The owner split the difference and Marie nodded. The deal was made. She picked a couple of other silks at the same price and everybody went away happy.

The Spoken Word

From the standpoint of the spoken word, there is no Chinese language. The central government teaches Mandarin (renamed to "the common tongue": Putonghua) all over the country so that people can understand one another, but the native dialects are things like Cantonese, Hubeinese, Hakka, Shanghaiese and so forth. The written forms are very similar, but the spoken forms are unintelligible one to another.

OK, that's a quibble. We can learn a few phrases of Mandarin can't we? Of course we can, but it takes practice. You see there is another major difference between Chinese and western languages besides not being phonetic: the spoken language is tonal. This means that the inflection of the word is part of the meaning. We have only minor usage of tones in English. A descending tone means that the word is the last word of a declarative sentence, that a period follows it. A rising tone indicates that it's the last word of a question. Got it? Sometimes a falling and rising tone is used for emphasis. I can't really think of a good example.

In Mandarin, the tone, as I said, is part of the meaning of the word. There are four tones :

  1. A steady, usually high pitched tone.
  2. A rising tone.
  3. A falling then rising tone.
  4. A falling tone.

So if you take the word that we would write as "ma" and say it with the four different tones or uninflected, it means:

  1. mother
  2. measles 
  3. horse
  4. to curse
  5. [question mark] (no tone; low and flat)

So we can listen carefully to a phrase or sentence in Mandarin and, to our ears, echo it back verbatim only to have our tutor rolling on the floor laughing over the garbled meaning: "ma-ma" can mean "curse the horse."

If we know what we are trying to say, and they are sort expecting us to say that, we can still learn the greetings and politeness phrases such as "Xič Xie": thank you. And that gets us to how Chinese gets transliterated to English.

There used to be a system called Wade-Giles (obviously put together by two Englishmen) which gave us such words as Peking and Mao Tse-tung. This was good enough for foreigners, but when the Chinese needed a phonetic alphabet to help teach their children how to speak, they came up with a more accurate system called Pinyin ("spelling") which yields the more modern Beijing and Mao Zedong. It is based upon the latin alphabet with diacritical marks added to indicate the tone. Some of the letters have different sounds than what we use in English. Chief among these are:

Letter English pronunciation Pinyin What it sounds like
Q Ch Qing Ching
X Sh Xič Xie Shay Shay
Z Dz Zhou Enlai Djoe Enlye

For more information on pinyin pronunciation see

I tend to ramble on when I get into a topic that interests me. Suffice it to say I learned to speak a few words of Mandarin well enough to be understood. Here is a sampling:

Xie xie Thank you
Nin hao Hello
Qing Please
Pi jiu Beer
Gan bei Bottoms up!
Wo bu xiangyao I don't want it (when approached by street vendors)
yi, er, san, si, wu, ... one, two, three, four, five, ...

And just in case, I carried a copy of Barron's Chinese at a Glance in my pocket.

The Written Language

 What fascinates me is that you could learn to read, and even write a large number of Chinese characters without having the slightest idea how they are pronounced! It turns out that they have different pronunciations in the different dialects.

I started to recognize the same characters when they showed up over and over. for example:

kou Entrance
chukou Exit
ZhongGuo China
yi one
er two
san three
shi ten

Later I learned what the sounds were that went with these characters. Each Chinese character represents one syllable. Many characters have the same pronunciation, but mean different things. When two characters combine to make up a word, knowing the meaning of the individual characters may help you understand how the word came to be, but probably won't help you with the meaning if you don't know the word. For example, "China", above, is Zhong guo. Zhong means middle or center and Guo means nation or kingdom. This tells us that the ancient Chinese saw China as the center of the known world, but would not help us today if we were trying to decipher the meaning.

One other complication is that punctuation and word spacing are recent additions. Traditional Chinese texts are written simply as a stream of characters to be read from top to bottom, and from right to left.

If you want to know even more about Mandarin, see or


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