Chinese Linguistics

This semester I’m taking a class on Chinese Linguistics, and it’s one of the more interesting and useful classes I’ve ever taken. I really wish I could have taken it when I started learning Chinese, because suddenly, a lot of things that seemed random suddenly make sense. This post probably won’t interest anyone unless you like linguistics or speak Chinese, but one of my favorite things about learning Chinese is discovering all the weird ways that it makes sense, even though it seems pretty arbitrary.

For example, “this” and “that” in Chinese are “这” and “那”. But sometimes, even most of the time, you’ll hear people pronounce them as “zhei” or “nei”. I thought that it was just kind of a weird accent, lots of people in Chinese have accents and nobody really pronounces things exactly how they sound on textbook CD’s. But that’s not the case! It actually makes so much sense, because “zhei” and “nei” are just shortened versions of “这一” and “那一” (zhe yi and na yi), meaning “this one” and “that one”. It’s a little thing, but it makes so much more sense now.

If you’ve ever written a paper in Chinese, you’ve hopefully used the great trick of mentioning someone or something with a really long name, and then instead of just using a pronoun, write out the whole name as often as possible to help bring up the character count. Maybe not everyone does that, but I do that. And if you haven’t done it, that’s the way to go when You’ve also probably noticed that if you do this you don’t ever get called out for it. Apparently, that’s because Chinese speakers tend to use third person pronouns a lot less than English speakers do, and it’s totally normal to just say the full name all the time. I never noticed before, but now that I’ve been told this, it’s really noticeable every time I read something in Chinese.

There are a lot of other small things that I found interesting, which I won’t go into here becasue this post would be really long otherwise. I would really encourage everyone learning Chinese, or any second language, to take a linguistics class specific to that language, it uncovers a lot of connections that were unclear before, and helps make sense of all the things about language that seem really arbitrary.