Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Intro to Chinese

My goodness, Wednesday already?  I feel like I need to keep better track of my schedule so that time doesn't slip by me like this.

But anyways...

Recently I've been watching a lot of Firefly, because I got the complete series on DVD for Christmas.  Among other things, it reminds me of one of my close friends, who I met in Chinese class when the show inspired him to take it.  For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Firefly is a science-fiction show often branded as a "space Western", following the crew of the Firefly-class starship Serenity as they make a living on the outer edges of space.  In the "history" of the show, the US and China fused together as the world's great superpowers to create a fusion culture as well.  Characters often mix Chinese phrases into English speech, particularly when swearing.  My friend's sole reason for taking Chinese, he has claimed, is so that he could understand what the characters are saying.

Unfortunately, neither of us ended up being all that great at Chinese.  It's a difficult language, and my problem came with one of the fundamentals.  I do not have the greatest ear for music, and Mandarin Chinese is a very tone-dependent language.  By that I mean that four words can have the same spelling in pinyin, the method for writing characters using English letters, but are differentiated by the manner and pitch in which they're said.

For instance, take the word "ma", the traditional example given in class.  When written like this-- mā-- it is pronounced using first tone and means "mother".  In second tone, má, it means "numb", third tone, mǎ, is "horse" and fourth tone mà means "swear" or denotes a question.  Therefore, if you use the wrong tone, you could accidentally call your mother a horse, something I doubt she'd appreciate.  How the tones are pitched is displayed in the image below.

So in order to say "mother", you pronounce "ma" with a higher pitch, keeping it flat all the way through.  To pronounce "horse", your voice starts at a middle tone, falls and then rises.  For a demonstration, rather than my fumbling description of it, check out this video.  I'm sure you'll hear the difference, but could you imitate it?  Throughout the duration of a sentence?  Harder than you may think originally.  Even after a year and a half of Chinese, I never did get my fourth tone correct.  I was never sharp enough with it or something-- words pronounced with fourth tone are shorter than the other three.

I've been told that the reason for these tones is because has far fewer syllables than English does, so in order to make more words, another distinguishing factor was needed.  On one Chinese 101 website I found here, it says that the Chinese language has only about 400 possible syllables, while English has 12,000 or so.  No wonder it's so hard to learn!

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