Chinese: A brief biography of an enduring language

By Katia Grubisic, Montréal, Quebec

Credit: Bob Jagendorg

Whether you find yourself in China or Chinatown early this February, you are likely to hear greetings of “xīn nián kuài lè.” This salutation is used to ring in Chinese New Year, the most important event in the Chinese calendar. During this 15-day celebration, parades snake their way through city streets, people cleanse their homes of bad luck, and families gather to prepare and share feasts.

Although Chinese New Year is many centuries old, the words that make up the celebratory wish for joy and happiness go back much earlier. Some 3,000 years ago, long before the days of papier-maché dragons and crisp bills slipped into red envelopes, people in eastern China, carved markings onto turtle shells and bits of bone. Used during the Shang Dynasty to divine everything from weather to health to warfare, these oracle bones, as they are called, are the earliest evidence of Chinese writing.

文言文: The classical language

Until the early twentieth century, all correspondence in China and, for a time, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, was written in Classical Chinese. This elaborate ideogrammatic, or symbol-based, script was established during the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE) and is the language of the Analects of Confucius and the Tao Te Ching—two texts that remain among the Chinese literary canon.

Chinese writing has evolved considerably since its origins. At one time, Classical Chinese words were composed mostly of one syllable, and parts of speech, such as verbs and nouns, were used more fluidly. Today, words may contain more than one syllable, and parts of speech are more strictly regimented. Despite this transformation, Classical Chinese is read and understood widely in China. There are even some conventions in Modern Chinese writing—the farewell wishes at the end of a letter, for instance—that rely on Classical Chinese expressions.

A brush with art

As an ideogrammatic language, characters in both Classical and Modern Chinese are used to represent objects, abstractions and pronunciations. For example, the characters for the numerals one, two and three are made up of that number of lines, while the character for “mountain” imitates a three-peaked range.

Chinese calligraphy verges on an art form. It consists of eight fundamental strokes and has rules on the order and direction in which these strokes are written. Chinese characters, created by these strokes can be written vertically or horizontally. Although the People’s Republic of China (in 1955) and Taiwan (in 2004) regularized writing to run in left-to-right rows from the top of a page to the bottom, it is not uncommon to see writing on street signs and shops in these countries that flows in several directions.

Some messages, however, need no explanation: many people celebrate Chinese New Year—and invite good fortune into their homes—by hanging in their doorways red banners on which are brushed couplets of verse.

Lost—and found—in translation

Not all messages are so clearly understood. As commerce and culture increasingly cross borders, the interpretive flexibility of Chinese ideograms often poses challenges. For instance, when one American soft-drink company launched its product in China, local shopkeepers went through a few peculiar brand-name possibilities—including a name that was read as “bite the wax tadpole”—before the trademark was registered as Ke Kou Ke Le (可口可樂). These four symbols are used to evoke flavour and happiness, a slightly more appropriate suggestion than waxed tadpoles.

Not that Canadians should laugh too loudly. In our bilingual and multicultural country, we are no strangers to odd translations. Consider the mistranslation on a box of noodles that were, as the label states, “made in China.” In French, the country of origin went homonymously awry to become “fait en porcelaine”!

Are you my mother?

Part of the interpretive ambiguity of Chinese languages, particularly to Western ears, is the tonal basis of the spoken language. As in other tonal languages—such as Vietnamese, most languages of sub-Saharan Africa and First Nations languages of the Athabaskan and Iroquoian families—Chinese languages use pitch and inflection to convey meaning and grammatical information. As a result, non-native speakers can get into all sorts of trouble. In Mandarin, for instance, means horse, while means mother!

A world of words

Dealing with two languages is child’s play compared to what Chinese speakers have to deal with. In Chinese, the two linguistic concepts—the written language and the spoken languages—are distinct. Depending on whom you ask, there are up to a dozen linguistic variants in the Sinitic, or Chinese, family of languages. Variations are particularly notable in southern China.

Whether some variations are languages or merely dialects, however, is open for discussion. By definition, dialects are considered to be mutually understandable. Yet some Sinitic languages differ from each other as much as German differs from English. As a consequence of these radical permutations, written Chinese is universally intelligible, while many people who speak a Chinese language cannot understand each other.

Spoken Chinese ranges from Mandarin spoken by 836 million people worldwide, to Ping, a sub-dialect of Cantonese, spoken by a mere two million. In the middle of the twentieth century, Mandarin was designated the official and educational language of the People’s Republic of China and of Taiwan. It is also one of the official languages of the United Nations. Yet, in Canada, the most common Chinese mother tongue is Cantonese. Originally the vernacular of the southern Chinese city of Canton, Cantonese is spoken by most people in Hong Kong, Macau and the southeastern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi.

So which variant should you use this Chinese New Year? Whether you are strolling down the Bund in Shanghai, Spadina Avenue in Toronto or Pender Street in Vancouver this February to pick up New Year’s fireworks or some tasty nián gāo, a friendly ni hao is a simple and perfect way to begin any conversation.

Where do you speak?

  • Putonghua or Mandarin: northern and southwestern China
  • Yue or Cantonese: Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macau and parts of southeastern Asia
  • Wu: Shanghai, and Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces
  • Min: Fujian, Taiwan and parts of southeastern Asia (Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore)
  • Xiang: Hunan
  • Hakka: southern China, Taiwan and parts of southeastern Asia (Malaysia and Singapore)
  • Gan: Jiangxi

Published on Monday, January 24, 2011

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