Learning Mandarin: PinYin Sound Groups

In an earlier post, I described the use of Pīnyīn (拼音). It allows us to enter Chinese characters quickly, using a keyboard that's designed for Western languages like English.

When you first look at the characters though, you might not realize that there isn't a random pattern to them, the characters are constructed from particular groups of sounds.

The words are constructed from 声母(Shēngmǔ) or "initials" and 韵母(Yùnmǔ) or "finals".

The initials come from this list of single characters:

b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, x, z

and this list of double characters:

ch, sh, zh

The finals come from this list of single characters:

a, o, e, i, u, ü 

and this list of double characters:

ai, ei, ao, ou, ui, iu, an, en, in, ün, er

and finally, this list of triple characters:

ang, eng, ing, ong

You'll find that all words are created from this list of initials and finals.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Electric words

I mentioned last week that the word for computer 电脑 (diànnǎo) was wonderful because it was literally "electric brain".  I tend to learn words in groups rather than individually, and the words related to electricity  (diàn) are fun.

I love the allusions that they bring forward, and I thought you might enjoy knowing a few of them.

电力 (Diànlì) or "electric power" means just what it says but is often used for just electricity.

电子 (Diànzǐ) could be translated like "electric child", so that one's a bit odd. It means "electronic" as an adjective, and "electron" as a noun.

电梯 (Diàntī) or "electric ladder" is an elevator.

电影 (Diànyǐng) is one of my favorites. It's close to "electric shadow" and means "movie".

电话 (Diànhuà) or "electric speech" is "telephone".

电视 (Diànshì) or "electric vision" is "television".

电信 (Diànxìn) or "electric letter" is "telecommunications".

A less common one today 电报 (Diànbào)  or "electric newspaper" is "telegram".

电池 (Diànchí) or "electric pool" is "battery".

电车 (Diànchē) or "electric vehicle" is "tram".

电灯 (Diàndēng) is literally "electric light".

电线 (Diànxiàn) or "electric line or pipe" is "wire".

Also, some the other way around like:

闪电 (Shǎndiàn) or "flash electricity" is "lightning".

And there are many, many more. I really love the way that many of these have been formed.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Using measure words

Over the years, I've enjoyed attending trivia nights at local pubs and schools. It's fun to try to stretch your thinking, and of course, fun to meet up with lots of interesting people. I can't tell you how many times though, I've been asked about collective nouns for words in English.

"Group" is a common enough word, but if you use it all the time, you won't be considered very literate. While you can say "There is a group of dogs", it's more correct to say "There is pack of dogs". Instead of "There is a group of sheep", you say "There is a herd of sheep".

A similar thing applies to individual items within a collection. We could say "This is a paper", the meaning isn't the same as if we say "This is a piece of paper". The word "piece" is a type of word that's used to measure part of a collection i.e. it's a "measure word". "Three coffees" isn't quite as meaningful as "Three cups of coffee". If you said "Three pieces of coffee", you'd probably get strange looks.

A similar thing happens in Chinese, but it's even more pronounced. That's most likely because it doesn't have separate words for singular and plural nouns like we do. We know that when we say "goose" we mean one, and by "geese" we mean more than one.

The general word for a unit is  (gè). While you could use it for almost anything, you'd sound like you can't speak properly. So part of the trick is learning a bunch of measure words. So, instead of

那是一个狗。(Nà shì yīgè gǒu.) or "that is a dog"

you'd instead say 那是一只狗。(Nà shì yī zhǐ gǒu.)

or even 那是一条狗。(Nà shì yītiáo gǒu.)

Note that the measure word for dog is  (zhǐ) but (tiáo) is also a generic measure word for long skinny things. It can be used for dogs, but also applies to snakes, fish, etc.

So, previously I mentioned "a piece of paper". That would be: 一张纸 (Yī zhāng zhǐ) In this case (zhāng) is the measure word  or 量词 (Liàngcí) for paper (). So three pieces of paper is: 三张纸 (Sān zhāng zhǐ)

And while it's important to learn that  (Chuán) is a ship or boat, it's just as important to know that five ships is 五艘船 (Wǔ sōu chuán) where  (sōu) is the measure word for ships. And two books is 两本书 (Liǎng běn shū) where  (běn) is the measure word for books. One computer is 一台电脑 (Yī tái diànnǎo) where  (tái) is the measure word for computers.

By the way, the word computer 电脑 (diànnǎo) is wonderful. It's literally "electric brain".

This is a pretty good reference for these measure words: 

http://www.languagerealm.com/chinese/chinese_measure_words.php

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Tone rules also apply

I mentioned in an earlier post that Mandarin was a tonal language and I described the four tones and the neutral tone. Well, while that's all true, things aren't quite a simple as that.

There are also tone rules that can change the pronounced tone for a word. Let me show you:

One rule says that if  you have two third tones in a row, the first character changes to second tone. (It will still be shown as 3rd tone in pinyin). An example is the simple greeting (literally "you good" but used as "hello") that is the first thing most people learn in Mandarin (although not all that many natives say it that often):

你好 (nǐ hǎo)

It's not pronounced with two descending and rising tones like the tones (both 3rd tone) would suggest. The first character is pronounced with a simple rising 2nd tone, and the second character is pronounced as expected.

One tricky rule deals with the character 一 (yī) that means "one". On its own, it's 1st tone. But then it gets messy. If the next character is 4th tone (a sharp fall), then this one is 2nd tone. But if the next character is any other tone, it becomes 4th tone. Here is an example:

一个 (yī gè)

The word ge is a general purpose measure word. But because it's 4th tone, yi is pronounced as a 2nd tone instead of its usual 1st tone. That helps to make the falling sound of the second character more emphatic.

Another rule for today is about the word  (bù) (which means "not"). It's normally 4th tone, but when it precedes another 4th tone, that would sound a bit odd, so it changes to a second tone. Again that makes the drop on the next character (which is the more important one for the meaning), more emphatic. Here is an example:

不错 (bù cuò)

This basically means "not bad" or more literally, "not wrong". Learning

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Tones used in Mandarin

I mentioned in an earlier post that Chinese dialects are tonal. As well as words being different in different dialects (but often still the same characters), the tones are also different for different dialects. Mandarin is generally considered to have four tones or  声调 (Shēngdiào) plus a neutral tone. So, some would describe that as a total of five tones.

The first tone or 第一声 (Dì yī shēng) is often drawn as level but it's actually both high and level.

An example is  (Mā) meaning mother. The second tone or 第二声 (Dì èr shēng) is a rising sound.

An example is  (Má) which is a word for hemp. The third tone or 第三声 (Dì sān shēng) is a falling then rising sound.

An example is  (Mǎ) which means horse. The fourth tone or 第四声 (Dì sì shēng) is a sharp falling sound.

An example is 骂 (Mà) which means to curse or is a curse.

The neutral tone is both central and flat. An example is  (Ma) which is like a question mark. In the main image above (by Lufti Gaos), you can see yet another "ma". The second word from the top means "code" and is also 3rd tone. (The sentence basically means "scan code, use bike". The last word is more like "vehicle" but here it'll be an abbreviation of the word for bike).

It's important to understand that Chinese people don't hear the above words like variations of the word "ma". They hear them as different words.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: What is pinyin?

I've mentioned before that the Chinese language uses tens of thousands of characters. It's the same for either simplified or traditional Chinese. That can make it hard for someone learning the language, as there seems to be an endless list of characters to learn.

You also might not have thought about it, but how do you type all those characters on a standard computer keyboard? The answer to both those questions is Pīnyīn (拼音).

For people who are familiar with western character sets,  Pīnyīn provides a way to represent the Chinese words with familiar characters.  This makes it easier to type them on a keyboard as well.

In the main image above, I told Google Translate that I was going to type Chinese characters. Instead, I typed the characters pinyin into it, and it showed me things that I could have meant. Here's another example. I'll type ma:

It shows me the characters and I can choose which one I want by just typing the number. The first one is a horse, the second one is like a question mark, the third one is a mother, and so on.

Tones are really important and while each of those is ma, they don't all have the same tone. We'll talk about that more another day. We don't need to enter the tone to find the character.

While the Pīnyīn characters look familiar, and many are pronounced as you'd expect, you do also have to learn how to pronounce them. For example, the character is written as Xīn but is pronounced more like "shin". Additional characters also change things. For example, while  is written as  and pronounced like "chee", the character  is written as Qiě and pronounced more like "chair".

There are also some sounds that we really don't have. For example, the character  is written as Céng but the "c" is pronounced more like "ts", so this is like "tseng".

If you try to learn this, it won't take that long to get to a point where you can read Pīnyīn fairly easily. Because Japanese has a lot of Chinese characters (they call them 漢字 or Kanji), they also adopted a way of writing using our familiar characters. It's called ローマ字 or Romaji. It works much the same:

 

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Loan words can be tricky

In English, we often "borrow" words from other languages. The Chinese call these "loan words". For example, we might talk about a feeling of Déjà vu. Now we'll often write it without the original accents on the "e" and the "a" but we'll happily just use the French word in conversation.

Ironically, the French tend to do the opposite. They keep inventing words to fill in the gaps in their language. I've heard that this is causing them great difficulty in technical words and that their language academy is a long, long way behind in creating those words.

In Mandarin, a similar thing happens. And it's one of the things that confuses me when I'm reading Mandarin. Let's look at an example:

夏洛克  (Xià luòkè)

I normally read the first character as being related to summer. The second character is often a surname. It's also an old name of several rivers in Henan, Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Anhui. The third character is typically used for the word gram.

So when I read this, I'm thinking "summer, some name, gram". And it's only after a while I pronounce the whole thing and realize that it makes no sense at all as written. It's all about how it sounds. In this case, it was meant to be Sherlock (as in Sherlock Holmes).

I find names quite tricky to recognize to start with, but these transliterated words are especially tricky. But they are used extensively. It's not always names though. Here's another:

巧克力  (Qiǎokèlì)

Again when reading this, the words are like "skillful, gram, force or energy". But the word is chocolate.

And another:

酒吧  (Jiǔbā)

In this case, the first word is Chinese for alcohol, but the second word means bar in English.

So when reading Mandarin, and the words seem to make no sense at all together, one of the things I'm learning to do, is to step back and pronounce them, just in case the meaning of the characters isn't relevant, and only how they sound matters.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: East, West, Something, and Nothing

In Mandarin, the word for compass directions are:

East is  (Dōng)
West is 西 (Xī)
North is  (Běi)
South is  (Nán)

Curiously though, the Chinese don't say North, South, East, and West for compass directions like we do. Instead they say (Dōng), (Nán), 西 (Xī), (Běi) ie: they do them clockwise which is probably more sensible than us.

Awesome image by G Crescoli
Awesome image by G Crescoli

These directions are often combined with  (Biān) which roughly means side.

You'll hear 北边 (Běibian) as the north side (or sometimes more like locating something as being to the north of).  (Fāng) might also be used in a related way but mean more like in the direction of.  So 北方 (Běifāng) would be "in the direction of north" or perhaps "northward".

You'll often also hear them in relation to cities:

北京 (Běijīng)
南京 (Nánjīng)

The character  (Jīng) means something like the capital of a country or a region. So Běijīng is really like "northern capital" and Nánjīng was more like "southern capital".

And you'll hear them combined together, much the same way we say "northeast":

东北 (Dōngběi)

When they are combined like this though, East and West always come first.

But then the most curious combination of all is:

东西 (Dōngxī)

which you'd generally expect to mean East to West, and while it can have a meaning like that, it's generally used for "something".

我会买东西。(Wǒ huì mǎi dōngxī) or "I will buy something".

Not having it can also be used to define "nothing":

我没有东西。(Wǒ méiyǒu dōngxī)

is literally "I not have thing" would mean "I have nothing".

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: Chinese Medicine – Is there anything to it?

The Chinese have a very long history as a civilization. I'm frequently told:

中国已有五千多年的历史。
(Zhōngguó yǐ yǒu wǔqiān duō nián de lìshǐ.)

or China has more than 5000 years of history. It's something the country is very proud of. During that time, they've developed a form of medicine somewhat parallel to Western medicine.

Before I really started looking into it, I passed it off as almost non-scientific nonsense. There are many parts of it where I still think the same, but nothing is ever black and white.

Western medicine seems to believe they always have the answers, and they mostly do. But many times now, I've been really impressed by the outcomes achieved by 中医 (Zhōngyī) or Chinese Medicine (often now just referred to as Traditional Chinese Medicine to differentiate it), and the 中医师 (Zhōngyī shī) or Chinese Medicine practitioners.

I think the challenge is that the concept of traditional Chinese medicine covers many areas including herbal medicine, manipulation, acupuncture, diet, and exercise. I don't see all of them as being equally efficacious.

I look at techniques like cupping, etc. (which many people in South East Asia and others also use), and I just don't buy the arguments for it. Even if it does help, I'm sure it's for reasons other than the ones that they supply.

In regards to the herbal medicines, I see them as a mixed bag. I could imagine some helping, but others I really don't see as doing anything notable.

Awesome image by Ndispensible

But on the subject of manipulation (massage), etc. I have to admit to being a complete convert.

The first time I really saw it in action was shortly after I was married. During a drive south through NSW, my wife had something happen that left her with a really stiff neck ie: could barely move it. It was quite bad.  If I had that issue, I would have done one of these two things:

  • Just lived with it until it was better
  • Gone to a western doctor

If she had gone to a western doctor, she would no doubt have been given some anti-inflammatory drug to take, and she might have then slowly improved. Those drugs are also lousy in how they affect your stomach overall.

Awesome image by Rawpixel
Awesome image by Rawpixel

But my wife went into a Chinese doctor in a small town that we passed through. He manipulated her neck (which sounded pretty scary to me), and less than 20 minutes later, she walked out of his office without the slightest problem. There was no evidence at all that she'd ever had a problem.

Since that time, I can't tell you how many times I've seen something similar.

There is so much that we in the west do not know or understand.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Learning Mandarin: What is Singles' Day?

What's the biggest retail event in the world now? Black Friday? Christmas? If you didn't answer Singles' Day, read on.

One thing that learning Mandarin has done for me, has been to open my eyes to many aspects of Chinese culture, but it's also made details of Chinese technology and business much more approachable. One curious business phenomena is Singles' Day.

Chinese Singles' Day was also called Bachelors' Day and had its origins back in 1993 at Nanjing University.  But Jack Ma from Alibaba really made this fly. He promoted it as a form of anti-Valentines Day. China has many unmarried singles who now have significant disposable incomes, and Singles Day is a day that celebrates their pride in being single. The date chosen was 11/11 (November 11 or as many Chinese say about this event "double one double one" or "four singles").

Basically rather than feeling bad that no-one is buying them something on a day like Valentines Day (which is becoming somewhat popular in China), it's a day where singles spend money on themselves. Yes, true consumerism.

From a business and technology perspective, Singles Day is fascinating. This year, Alibaba made their first billion US dollars worth of sales, in the first 7 minutes.

Read that number carefully. At the time, they were processing over 290,000 sale transactions per second. Nothing else on the planet comes even into the vicinity of that. And they ended up doing over $30 billion USD in sales for the day.

And Alibaba's rival JD.com also did over $20 billion USD in sales.

While you might not have come across Singles Day yet, I suspect that you will. In Australia and several other Western countries, it'll be slower to take off, as 11th November is Remembrance Day. But I am already seeing it happening even in these countries.

Learning Mandarin

I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.