Healthy Teeth Sanzijing

One thing that struck me early upon arriving in China and immersing myself in the language (almost ten years ago!) was how modern Chinese is permeated with classical Chinese.  I soon came to the horrific realization that if I were to learn Chinese beyond a basic level, I would have to accept this fact.   Of course the most common way this shows up is in chengyu, but we see references to this older language everywhere, especially if we examine how school kids are taught.

One thing that horrified me as a parent was that my kids were asked to blindly memorize many long classics.  One of these is the Three Character Classic.  Because of its three character limitation, it has less possibility for variation in syntax.  There are only these four possibilities for phrase structure (where a repeated letter represents a multi-syllable word (the number of letters equals the number of syllables) and a single letter represents a one syllable word):  XXX, XXY, XYY, and XYZ.

I’m not opposed to studying these things; there is a lot of wisdom in them.  But the way they are normally studied is ridiculous:  they are memorized with very little explanation and recited in a banal rhythm at high speed.  And that’s that.  And they seem to be brainwashed into thinking that by doing so, these treasure troves of ancient wisdom will become part of them, slowly infusing them with beneficence throughout their lives.

Colgate seems to have picked up on this, and has made their own version. Continue…

The mathematics of Mandarin

Not too long ago I started talking about the so-called “vagueness” of Mandarin. This is the perception voiced by some — both native and non-native speakers — that the language is more vague, well, than English at any rate. It’s a perception I’d usually call an intellectual hors d’oeuvre*, a mostly untestable idea of questionable origin that has a whiff of plausibility and some tasty examples to whet your appetite — but is fundamentally unsatisfying. Still, I thought it might be possible that the difference between certain grammatical structures — between Chinese and English — might smear a bit of plausibility on the hors d’oeuvre.

Bruce Humes in a comment on another post expanded on the vagueness perception:

Many Chinese really DO believe that the Chinese language lacks grammar, and having been taught that English does have a very demanding grammar, many Chinese professionals (not just lawyers but also engineers, etc.) then proceed to either 1) Ignore finer Chinese grammar points (which they obviously do know, as native speakers), and/or 2) Consciously or sub-consciously apply English grammar to written Chinese in the belief that this would raise their status in the eyes of others. Continue…

Dear Diary,

As soon as you step into first grade in a Chinese elementary school, you are required to keep a journal for the teacher to check.  This continues until you graduate from high school.

My older son (9) doesn’t like to talk a lot, and hates writing, and can’t see the point in this exercise.  I constantly have to give him ideas, and throughout the two month winter holiday I just let him copy paragraphs from an encyclopedia of the animal world, just to keep his hand moving.  Continue…

Meliorative word

What? That’s not what comes to mind as the opposite of “pejorative term”?

Me neither. The ABC dictionary also offers “commendatory term” as an alternative to “meliorative word” in its definition of bāoyìcí (褒义词). But as far as my own English lexical organization goes, the hard fact is that there’s no standard opposite to “pejorative term.”

Mandarin is another story. For those of middle age persuasion, bāoyìcí (also pronounced bǎoyìcí) is the no-hesitating opposite of biǎnyìcí, which means “pejorative term.” It’s an opposition as perfectly natural as rough against smooth, thick against thin.

I found that odd, probably just because English seems much more comfortable with just the pejorative side. So I went up a generation in wisdom, as there are plenty of this demographic around the house for tomorrow’s new year’s eve celebrations.