Archive for the 'Vocabulary' Category

Undoing the erhua

A while back, I mentioned in a comment that relating an erhua-ized word to the standard pronunciation you were taught isn’t so hard. But I should clarify–this only applies if you know what the “correct” pronunciation is or how to guess it. It’s not always straightforward. Some time ago, my teacher taught me the word for braid. It sounded like xiǎobiàr. Now I’d been studying the language long enough that I was pretty sure that neither bia nor biang were possible syllables, and so the biar had to have come from bian.

You might at this point be wondering why I care, since as long as I stay in this city, I’m highly unlikely to hear the standard pronunciation anyway. (Surely there wouldn’t be any other reason you’d wonder, right?) Dear reader, today is your lucky day, for I am about to explain. I wanted to make a flashcard on my computer with the characters on it. However, in order to type in Chinese, you need some method of transforming the 26 letters that show up on your keyboard into the thousands of characters in Chinese. The easiest method, at least for a beginner like me, is to use pinyin. My computer takes the (toneless) pinyin I type and generates a list of corresponding characters for me to choose from. I select the correct one, and presto, Chinese characters appear on my screen. But it only recognizes standard pronunciation. And now, back to the the erhua.

I dutifully typed xiaobian into the Chinese field of my flashcard and was given only one choice for characters: 小便. “Aha!” I thought to myself, “an easy one,” and I hit tab so that my nifty plugin would fill in the other fields for me. Unless you read Chinese, you too can imagine my surprise when the definition that appeared was not ‘braid’ but rather ‘urine’. Clearly something had gone drastically wrong. I tried searching a few dictionaries and found the same thing: xiaobian only yielded one word, and ‘braid’ wasn’t it.

So what happened? I had forgotten a couple of key facts. First, the r isn’t just a random sound; it’s actually a diminutive ending. As such, it often replaces another diminutive ending, -zi (子). In other words, it can wipe out an entire syllable and the end of the preceding syllable with one fell curl of the tongue. Fact number two: there’s a very strong preference in Chinese for two-syllable words. The result is that, if they knock a syllable off the end of the word, they’ll often tack one on to the beginning just for good measure. The syllable of choice? You guessed it: xiǎo(小) ‘small’. Once I looked up bianzi instead, I got the expected result.

In fact, I suspect some native speakers–specifically, those who aren’t highly educated and haven’t traveled widely–also have a bit of trouble with this in the opposite direction. For example, my husband, who speaks erhua-less Chinese, was inquiring in a restaurant about a fish that didn’t have too many bones (yúcì), and he wasn’t understood until he tried yúcìr. So next time your Chinese isn’t understood, try throwing in a few more r’s. Who knows, it might work. Unless you’re in Taiwan, in which case, I imagine it will just make things worse.


A useful verb they’ll never teach you: 摁

Lugging a one-year-old around with you is useful for language learning in any number of ways.  One of them is that people will verbalize things to a child that they wouldn’t otherwise bother to say out loud.  Not only that, but they’ll often repeat a word several times, using a short, simple phrase.  Thus it was that I learned the verb 摁 (èn) ‘to press’.

I have yet to come across this word in a textbook, and I can understand why.  After all, people don’t typically sit around talking about pressing things.  News articles aren’t written about the topic.  You don’t walk down the street and overhear someone saying “I pressed a really cool button the other day.”  No one updates their social media of choice with “Just pressed the button in the elevator.”  (Actually, they probably do.  This is why I don’t use Twitter.)

Just how uncommon is this word?  According to handy character frequency lists compiled by someone named Jun Da, it ranks number 4705 in general texts, showing up 249 times.  Other characters with the same frequency include 苁 “Boschniakia glabra” (whatever that might be), 铤 “ingot, big arrow, to walk fast”, and 涔 “overflow, rainwater, tearful”.  I don’t know how many characters were in the corpus he used, but for comparison, some higher ranked characters with their frequencies:

1 (的)- 7922684
10 (他)- 1595761
100 (实)- 368494
500 (列)-    82418
1000 (顶)- 31318
2000 (泡)-    7046
3000 (忖)-    1890
4000 (坂)-    576

Incidentally, the last one isn’t given a definition in Da’s list.  My own little pop-up dictionary defines it as a Japanese or non-standard version of another character.  And this character _still_ shows up almost twice as often as our poor little 摁. In what he terms informative texts, it fares even worse, ranking only #5907. It doesn’t make the HSK list. No wonder it’s not in my textbook.

My guess, though, is that it ranks much higher in actual spoken Chinese–just not in the type of spoken Chinese that anyone is likely to be able to collect for a corpus study.  Since I learned this word about a month ago, I’ve heard it in some number of situations:

-Press the button (in an elevator)
-Which button should I press? (on a cell phone, to take a picture)
-Do not press this button (on a remote control–the big red one that looks like it should be a power button.  I still don’t know what that button does, but I won’t press it.)
-Press the clasp to open it (on a necklace)

See?  Useful!  So … anyone want to borrow a one-year-old?

Looking for suggestions …

Has anyone out there found a way to memorize vocabulary that isn’t completely tedious?  I don’t suppose so, but if you have, please let me know.  I’ve found myself drowning in vocabulary lately, and between that and a new textbook that’s a bit beyond my own opinion of my level (They’ve taken away my pinyin! They’ve taken away my English!), my inspiration for blogging seems to have dropped considerably.  I have a bunch of half written posts sitting around, but they all sound like they’re written by someone who’s spent far too long staring at flashcards, and I so far I have retained enough benevolence to avoid the need to extend that feeling to anyone else’s life.

I suppose the upside of all this memorization is that I actually find myself starting to have a chance of saying what I want to say or understanding what people say to me.  I still can’t have a real conversation of any length, but people don’t automatically give up on me and walk away.  I even had a proud moment where I contributed appropriately to a Chinese conversation among 6 or 7 people.  Ok, so my contribution was one word, but still, it answered the question they were discussing.  You have to start somewhere, right?

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.

Vocabulary + culture: 嫁

Yesterday I learned the word 嫁(jià). It’s a common word, my teacher tells me, and it means marry. But under most circumstances it can only be used to describe a woman marrying a man. I can say Jane married Bill: Jane 嫁给了 Bill (Jane jià gěi le Bill), but I can’t use this word to say Bill married Jane: NOT Bill 嫁给了 Jane (Bill jià gěi le Jane). If I do say the latter, it means that Jane’s family covers all the wedding expenses, Bill takes on Jane’s family name, and their children will all carry on Jane’s family name. I’m guessing, although I don’t know, that this is something that would happen traditionally if there weren’t any male heirs in Jane’s family. I’m also told that Bill must be very poor to agree to such a thing.

Incidentally, I am aware of the fact that Jane and Bill aren’t Chinese names. I just didn’t know of any Chinese names where the gender would be obvious to non-Chinese speakers.



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