For The Chinese, Context Is Everything

It ain’t much, but it’s the first story I’ve written in Chinese.

I’d wanted to write about Chinese political philosophy, but I found that my vocabulary was too limited to do it. Surprisingly, some Chinese ideas about governmental legitimacy are the same as those of our Western tradition, just dressed up in different language.

My story is kind of pointless, but it’s what I could write at my current skill level:

“Yesterday evening, I bought a new truck. I drove it to the airport. There, I discovered a party. I met Mr. Fish. I said to him, ‘Excuse me, do you have a business card?’”

As television host Johnny Carson used to say when his audience didn’t laugh, “These are the jokes, folks. I get paid either way.”

Literally translated, my story says:

“Yesterday evening, I buy (the verb is followed by a completed action marker) one unit new of truck.

I drove to go (“go” was omitted, so it’s in red) airplane field. I at that location (I had put “at that location” in the wrong place, so it’s crossed out and re-inserted) discovered one unit of evening meeting (i.e., a party).

I meet Fish Mister (the context indicates that I did it in the past). I say to him, “Please may I ask (I had omitted the little square in the middle of the character for “ask”), you have name card (yes/no question marker)?”

It wasn’t until I studied Chinese that I realized how similar all Western languages are. English, French, Spanish, German, and even Russian and Hebrew all do the same things in basically the same ways. Not Chinese:

  • The most obvious difference in spoken Chinese is that pitch changes indicate the meanings of words, so speaking Chinese is a little like singing. We English speakers tend not to hear the pitch changes because we don’t expect them and don’t listen for them. It takes practice to do it.
  • Written Chinese is not phonetic. From the way a word is pronounced, you can’t tell how it’s written, and from the way it’s written, you can’t tell how it’s pronounced. Depending on the context, the same written word’s meaning or pronunciation can change a lot. You simply must learn all the different meanings, pronunciations, and when to use them.
  • Chinese verbs do not have tenses for past, present, or future. The context shows when the action occurred. Sometimes, a completed action marker follows the verb, but often not. You just have to know the context.
  • Chinese nouns are usually preceded by “measure words” that indicate what type of object is under discussion. For a car, it’s lee-ahng; for a party, tzi; for a person, ge, and so on. My “concise dictionary” has a seven-page list of measure words for different kinds of things. Heaven knows how long the list is in dictionaries that aren’t “concise.”

The bottom line is that if they work at it, most people can learn to read and understand some Chinese. But to speak or write it correctly takes much more knowledge. I’m slowly getting there.

If I were to draw one lesson from studying the Chinese language, it’s that for the Chinese, context is everything. Nothing is seen in isolation. Even the word for “nothing” can mean half a dozen other things, depending on the context.

Whether as our ally or adversary (probably a little of both), China is going to be a player on the world stage. The more we know about it, the better we can play.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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3 Responses to For The Chinese, Context Is Everything

  1. Jim Grey says:

    Understanding another culture’s language opens so many doors to more deeply understanding the culture. Thank you for this concise introduction to how the Chinese language differs from Western languages!


  2. J P says:

    I had heard that Chinese is an intricate and complex language but your explanations were helpful in seeing the ways in which it is so.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      It reminds me a little of “chess theory.” Chess theory does have a few general ideas, but it mostly amounts to memorizing countless thousands of variations on sequences of moves and board positions. Last week, I was struggling with a couple of lessons in which the same Chinese character pronounced the same way could mean a dozen different things, all depending on the context.

      Liked by 1 person

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