I enjoy explaining to others just what it is that makes me enjoy learning and speaking Mandarin Chinese so much, as it is a language which is poorly understood. Shrouded in mystery in the west, we’re likely to see it employed as a “mystical” tattoo instead of as a communicative tool.
A Language with History
What is so cool about the Chinese language is that it is like studying Latin and a Romance language at once. You actually can get a good amount of the etymology of a word by examining the characters which comprise it. Furthermore, the Chinese writing system was the basis for the other Asiatic systems (Japanese, Korean, etc.). Despite the fact that most cultures use the “simplified” writing system today, Mandarin Chinese remains much closer to its roots than most modern languages.
The Chinese writing system (characters) began as a pictographic script, using images to display the world around it. The characters actually evolved from an “oracle bone” script, etched on to bones and shells to depict the world around the writers, roughly 3,500 years ago. This image shows how the script evolved from simple pictures to the characters we know today:
Why is this important? Well, because it effected how the language was eventually constructed. As the complexity of what needed to be expressed increased, the language drew upon existing ideas. For example, vague ideas like “a day” and “a month” (as a unit of time) used the existing character for “sun” and “moon.”
This ultimately means that even the most complex and abstract ideas are fundamentally built upon the evolution and combination of real-world objects, in the form of radicals…
All Chinese characters are built upon a collection of “radicals.” These basic building blocks are the foundation upon which the rest of the character is built. More importantly, they can provide valuable insight into the meaning of a character even before you learn anything more about it. For example, the word for a “doorway” contains the character for “mouth,” which more generally implies a sort of “opening” or “coming and going.” Likewise, if you see the “hand” radical, there’s a good chance that the character may have to do with something physical or practical instead of abstract.
These are far from hard-set rules, but they give a great sense of what might be happening, and provide valuable ways to help remember the meaning of characters. Students of Chinese who skip over the radicals and just try to memorize each character individually face a much larger challenge because they lack the context which radicals provide.
Language from Legos
I like the “Legos” analogy because each Chinese character feels like a block which interacts with the characters around it. As a result, the language tends to be immensely logical.
The first time this became immensely clear for me is when I saw the word for “cave.” In English, the word is one which stands completely alone – a student must memorize the word “cave” as a new and unique word. In Chinese, though, the word is literally “mountain hole” (two characters). Not only is the word comprised of two (presumably) previously-known pieces, but the astute student is very likely to be able to guess at the meaning with even a minimal context.
Even more interesting (and, perhaps, logical) is the fact that you can add a character to make a sentence a question, or to soften the tone of the language so that it becomes more of a suggestion. Chinese does not have any verb conjugations, meaning every action is “done right now” (so to speak). To translate literally, Chinese would sound something like “yesterday I go to store. Tomorrow I go to store also.” This may sound absurd at first, but it actually works quite well – each character has its place, like chemicals in a reaction.
In other words, Chinese compounds upon itself. While the initial barrier to learning is high (to learn characters and tones), once you have the basics of this information at your disposal, the rest of the language is largely built upon this knowledge.