Learning Mandarin to remedy your English

I have a Beijing business associate whose interests seem to lie squarely within the two dimensions of Chinese history and Mandarin wordplay, e.g. he gets excited about retelling 鸿门宴, he’s a cross-talk (相声) aficionado, and he writes Mandarin lyrics for his rock band friends. But he majored in English in college. Also, he teaches Mandarin to foreigners, part-time. Since the English thing didn’t jibe, I asked him why he does so much with a foreign language.

To improve my Chinese! Sometimes I think I didn’t really know Chinese until I tried learning English.

Nicely put. Every second language learner has had aha moments when the second language makes you realize that you’ve been using a native word your whole life but never thought that carefully about what it means or where it came from.

Here’s my “Mandarin for Remedial English” story:

As I’ve moaned about occasionally, my written Chinese acquisition has been slow and painful. Little did I realize at the beginning, though, that my nemesis, hanzi (Chinese characters), would one day be the source for a remedial English lesson.

This lesson was probably the first exciting vista in the first leg of the Long March towards Hanzi literacy. They were two of the simplest of characters for the simplest of words: the two-syllable word for animal, “dòngwù” is composed of*

动 (dòng = move)

物 (wù = thing)

I’d probably known the word, dòngwù, for years. But I’d never learned the characters. So when I encountered the two characters and their meanings it just seemed kind of cute: 动物 = Moving Thing, animal. Ha.

But musing a bit, I had the sudden realization (now glaringly obvious in retrospect) that English does the same thing! Check out the OED entries for

Animal etymology

[a. L. animal a living creature, prop. ‘anything living,’ for anim{amac}le, neut. of adj. anim{amac}l-is having the breath of life, f. anima air, breath. life: see –AL1. As n. hardly in Eng. bef. end of 16th c.; not in Bible 1611. Cf. Fr. animal, animau, 16th c. in Littré.]

Suffix -al in nouns [just a snippet]

4. Adjs. in -al- in various genders and numbers were used substantively in L., thus riv{amac}l-is, ann{amac}l-es, animal, trib{umac}nal, spons{amac}li-a, Bacc{amac}n{amac}li-a. Many of these have been adopted in E., directly or through Fr., as rival, annals, animal, Bacchanals, penetralia, Saturnalia; and the number has been increased by the mod. n. use of many which were only adj., or did not exist in L., as cardinal, principal, moral, oval, signal, regimentals, canonicals.

5. Nouns in -{amac}lia (neut. pl.) which survived into OFr. became -aille (fem. sing.) with pl. -ailles, adopted in ME., as -aylle, -aille, later -aile, -al, as L. spons{amac}li-a, OFr. espousaille-s, E. spousaille, spousaile-s; L. *batt{amac}lia, OFr. bataille, Eng. bataille, -aile, -ail, now battle. On this analogy, -aille, -ail, -al became an Anglo-Fr. and E. formative of nouns of action on vbs. of Fr. or L. origin, as in AFr. arrivaille arrival; so of later formation (some quite modern) ‘revival, survival, approval, removal, avowal, renewal; acquittal, committal, transmittal, refutal, recital, requital; dismissal, perusal, refusal, carousal, rehearsal, reversal, revisal, reprisal, surprisal; dis-, inter-, pro-, re-, sup-, trans-posal; trial, denial, decrial’; occas. also on native final-accented vbs. as ‘bestowal, betrothal, beheadal.’ Bridal and burial simulate this ending, but have a different origin; yet they have probably aided the prevalence of these nouns of action in -al in mod.Eng.

Well, maybe Breath-of-life Thing instead of Moving Thing. But it felt epiphanic nonetheless. If we were creating Ying Zi could we use the same characters?


* Warning: superficial etymology here. The etymology might be true in this case, but please note that the path to Mandarin etymology is littered with words whose characters seem to point to a particularly convenient etymology, but whose actual etymological history is something quite different. (Can someone add an obvious example? I’m drawing a blank right now.) This is NOT an article about using characters to derive etymologies; it’s an article about using a second language to learn more about your first language.

8 responses to “Learning Mandarin to remedy your English”

  1. Hans says:

    台灣 – being an transliteration of the aboriginal name, not to do anything with the characters’ individual meanings (and it even evolved through 太冤/大員 or something like that).

  2. Carl says:

    I’ve long since suspected dongwu of being a calque of “animate being.” Does anyone know the origin of the Chinese term?

  3. Carl says:

    Here’s the Japanese Wikipedia on the origin of dongwu/dobutsu:


    Pre-Meiji Japan (pre-1860s) was dominated by Chinese biology (本草学) which treated inanimate things equally in its classification of things as earth 土, grass 草, bugs 虫, fish 魚, and beasts 獣, and the concept of “animal” 動物 did not exist. The division of living things into the two categories of “plants” 植物 and “animals” 動物 spread from its introduction by Western European scholarship.

    – – – –

    So, they’re not claiming that no one said dongwu before 1860, but I still strongly suspect it was calqued into Japanese and then back loaned into Chinese.

  4. matt says:

    I’m not sure about the term dongwu’s origins, but it appears in the Rites of Zhou 周禮, which is probably a Warring States text (and was definitely in existence from the Western Han). The meaning’s not exactly the same as it is now, maybe, but it definitely refers to living creatures/animate things. This passage, describing 5 different kinds of creatures, states that dongwu from mountains and forests are furry, among other things:
    (from http://chinese.dsturgeon.net/text.pl?node=36699&if=en)

  5. Chris says:

    Recently I had a similar experience with 冰壶,冰壶 is the chinese name of the game of curling, but it translates as “ice pot/kettle”, i found it interesting for I had never looked at curling as anything else but a stone, the chinese however found it more looking like a pot/kettle that slides across the ice.

  6. Zev Handel says:

    English has the luxury — or is it a curse? — of coining new words from Latin and Greek roots, making their etymologies immediately opaque to many English speakers. These Latinate and Greek words have a ring of sophistication to us. Many other languages have drawn primarily only from their native stock of morphemes to coin new words: German, Arabic, Chinese. This makes the etymologies usually quite transparent, and the result often strikes us English speakers as childish seeming. “Animal” is “moving thing” in Chinese; “oxygen” is “sour stuff” in German.

    I’m not sure which style is preferable. There is a wonderful little essay by Poul Anderson called “Uncleftish Beholding” in which he basically writes English the way it might have been if Latin had never happened to it. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncleftish_Beholding

  7. Syz says:

    @Hans: Thanks for the example. Do you happen to have a reference on Taiwan’s etymology?

    @Carl & @Matt: it didn’t even occur to me that the whole concept of “dongwu” has a history. The conceptual evolution would make a cool graphic for someone who was into both art and the necessary historical sleuthwork…

    @Zev: Great essay, thanks for the reference (so I could procrastinate yet again). What’s funny is how easy it is to read after you get the hang of it.

    The English habit of coining from obscure origins is something that has bugged me from time to time. In a number of instances I’m sure it’s a curse, for example making medical terminology WAY more inaccessible than it really needs to be. Chinese by comparison is much better in this regard, allowing you to have at least an idea about what a disease is just by looking at the word. I wish I could find the reference but I once read a great article by a physician on exactly this topic — the bizarre need for physicians in particular to mystify topics with obscure language — I seem to remember that suture vs stitch was one example, but there are much better ones.

  8. Chrix says:

    Zev, I would disagree about German here. Certainly in West Germanic English has been an extreme case, probably due to the Norman Conquest, but Dutch and German have made use of a lot of non-Germanic lexical material as well. In Dutch and German, the Lutheran tradition of calquing and coining words using Germanic roots co-exists with the older tradition of using Latinate roots.

    This gave rise to several purist movements in the history of modern German, starting with the anti-French movement during the Romantic era (in one often-told example, misanalysing “Nase” as a loan from Latin nasus, and proposing the ridiculous “Gesichtserker” (“face bay window”) as an alternative). Modern-day purists prefer to rail against English loans, or German coinages using English lexical material, a phenomenon you can follow at the German equivalent of Language Log: http://www.wissenslogs.de/wblogs/blog/sprachlog (and some more at its old address: http://www.iaas.uni-bremen.de/sprachblog/category/wortersuche/ )

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