Words in Chinese

Due to popular demand (well, ok, one question, but hey, I take what I can get around here), I’ve decided to start off my “pitfalls for foreigners learning Chinese” series with number four on my list: assuming words are words. Here’s what I mean by that.

For more advanced speakers, imagine, if you will, your innocent self back in Chinese 101. In your first week–no wait, your second week (your first week was probably spent on pronunciation drills)–you learn some words. You might learn things like 学生(xuésheng) ‘student’ and 老师(lǎoshī) ‘teacher’ and 朋友(péngyou) ‘friend’. You are excited: “I know three words in Chinese! I am awesome!” You go on your merry way and learn more words. You come across 钢笔(gāngbǐ) ‘pen’, 铅笔(qiānbǐ) ‘pencil’, and 毛笔(máobǐ) ‘writing brush’. You think to yourself–or maybe your teacher even points out to you–“These words all have a 笔(bǐ). They are all writing implements. They must be compounds! I can recognize a compound word! I am awesome!”

Then you learn a few more words, say 先生(xiānshēng) ‘Mr.’, 医生(yīshēng) ‘doctor’, and 老(lǎo) ‘old’. If you are an extra clever student, you begin to be suspicious. Are 学生(xuésheng),医生(yīshēng),and 先生(xiānshēng) compounds, just like the 笔(bǐ) words were? I know 老(lǎo), and I know 老师(lǎoshī), so  what does 师(shī) mean? This is why you have learned characters. Without them, you might never have these suspicions–you would just wonder why all Chinese words sound alike. But you have learned characters, and you know how to use a dictionary. You think to yourself, “I will look up all the individual characters! I will learn their meanings! Everything is a compound word! My dictionary will reveal their secrets! I am awesome!” And so you look up 朋(péng) and 友(yǒu). You find they both mean ‘friend’. You think to yourself, “What a waste of effort. Why say ‘friend-friend’? Surely just ‘friend’ is good enough.” So you try a sentence: 她是我的朋。(tā shì wǒde péng) ‘She is my 朋.’  And the result is … actually I’ve never tried. I’m guessing befuddlement. You are humbled. Chastened, even. You think, “My textbook must actually know what it’s talking about. I will abide by its pronouncements.”

You continue your studies with fewer exclamation points. You start to learn verbs. You learn how to say sing: 唱歌(chànggē) and dance: 跳舞(tiàowǔ). You discover that you can’t just say drive or read, you have to say drive a car: 开车(kāichē) or read a book: 看书(kànshū). Your neighbor falls asleep in class one day and you learn the word for sleep: 睡觉(shuìjiào). You memorize them all. And then you learn … you were wrong again. If you dance quickly, you don’t 跳舞得很快(tiàowǔ de hěn kuài). You 跳舞跳得很快(tiàowǔ tiào de hěn kuài)。If you drive a car for three hours, you don’t 开车三个小时(kāichē sān gè xiǎoshí)。 You 开三个小时的车(kāi sān gè xiǎoshí de chē)。That 跳(tiào) that you thought was part of a compound, that 开(kāi) that you couldn’t say by itself, there they are–not quite alone, but not in a compound, either. Then you hear a sentence like 她又唱又跳(tā yòu chàng yòu tiào) ‘She sings and dances’–not a hint of a compound, nor an object for that matter, in sight. Even 睡觉(shuìjiào) ‘sleep’, it turns out, isn’t exactly a word. If you sleep for a long time, you don’t 睡觉很长时间(shuìjiào hěn cháng shíjiān)。You 睡很长时间(shuì hěn cháng shíjiān), and if you feel like it, you tack on a 的觉(de jiào)–this despite the fact that you were the annoying student who asked “Can I say 觉(jiào) all by itself?”, and they told you, they told you, that you couldn’t do it.

But the more you learn, the more you realize that words in general seem to be a little more fluid in Chinese than they are in English. Chinese people really are very fond of two syllable words, so if a word is only one syllable long, well, you tack something else on the end (most often a 子/zi). If your compound words are getting out of control, on the other hand, into impossibly long four syllable territory, just cut some syllables out. 超级市场(chāojí shìchǎng) ‘supermarket’ is far too long–超市(chāoshì) will do just fine. Getting your hot chocolate fix at Starbucks? Forget about 热巧克力(rè qiǎokèlì) (even if that is what the menu says). Just get yourself a 热巧(rèqiǎo)。And sometimes you can even get rid of a syllable from a two syllable word–可以(kěyǐ) ‘can’ can turn into plain old 可(kě), though I’m guessing only under certain circumstances.

Hmmm … I was supposed to also help people avoid these pitfalls. For this one, I think that at the beginning level, awareness is probably good enough. Expect the unexpected. Don’t let your defenses down. Learn your characters so you have some help in tracking these bits and pieces of words. That sort of thing.

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3 Responses to “Words in Chinese”


  1. 1 staples May 28, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Wah. I am simultaneously humbled and confused. So I suppose the best thing to do is don’t ask questions, memorize what they tell you, and watch lots of dramas so you get random phrases down ;) It comes in extremely handy when someone is telling you something in mandarin and you’re not sure what they’re saying but you know they’re attempting to insult you. All you do is take a deep breathe, channel some [enter name of actor here] and say “bi zuai” (which is probably spelled wrong T.T)

  2. 2 Confused LaoWai May 28, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Woah, your description of the Chinese learning process is pretty accurate! This is pretty much how I came to terms with words in Chinese.

    Also, I reckon the preference to two syllable words is one the reasons why Chinese is hard to listen to at first, ’cause the words come by so quick and they all sounds to homophonous!

  3. 3 Syz June 8, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Very cool post. Just be glad you’ve realized the muddiness of “words” this early in your Mandarin. I was way too slow and continue to have problems.

    One nice thing about figuring out the sneaky two-part word thing is that it makes reading easier. I mean, let’s say you’re trying to parse a printed sentence and it doesn’t make any sense. Often, you can find “words” that are split up; then you can look them up as a single word to understand the meaning and make sense of the whole phrase.

    The whole exercise in word definition must gray the hair of every lexicographer who ever undertook the parsing of Chinese.


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