The World’s Easiest Language?

早上好 and welcome to the fifth blog post here on the Great Wall of Chinese! So far, I think I (possibly very naïvely, we’ll see) have conquered some of the most famous challenges of Chinese – namely tones and strokes. I am by no means an expert, but it seems that the path is flattening out.

Last week I discovered how easy counting was with the ‘three ten’ and the ‘four ten nine’, and I’ve found that a decent bit of Chinese grammar is significantly easier than some European languages – nowhere to be seen are the cases of German, agreement of French or gendered nouns of nearly every European language. Instead, verbs, nouns and adjectives stay the same wherever you put them – 我是 is ‘I am‘,你是 is ‘you are‘ and 昨天我是 is ‘yesterday I was‘ and they all use the same form of 是. This makes sense when you think about it – how likely are you to say ‘Yesterday you will be’? You’ll be using the past tense, because you’re talking about yesterday. Maybe our European ancestors were a bit too thick to realise that.

Chinese looks like it’s structured the other way round to European languages. It’s lots easier at the start of learning German or French to sound natural with your ‘Guten Morgen’ and your ‘comment ça va’ than looking at a scary page of ‘你叫什么名字?’ but learners of European languages tend to hit their wall soon enough with their (whisper it) past participles and adjective agreements. Chinese warns you from the outset that this is a tough language to master, and then gives you some breathers along the way. It’s also fascinating to see how characters have developed and what it says about the language itself – from ‘火’ meaning ‘fire’, to ‘火山’ meaning ‘fire mountain’ or ‘volcano’ and ‘火山口’ meaning ‘fire mountain mouth’ or ‘crater’ in a way that you just can’t visually see in European languages.

My writing has definitely improved a lot (thankfully, after half my notebook has been defiled by endless scribblings of 我) and hopefully my first full sentence (gasp) will be intelligible by a Chinese person:

IMG_20161024_112606.jpg

Can you guess what that means?

Unfortunately, no. Chinese is not all little pictographs and the more common characters tend to be the ones which have changed the most over the centuries – predictably, I guess, as these ones have been most prone to change. It’s pretty ingenious though when you think about it – as an illiterate primitive society, you can convey ‘one’ easily enough, but how do you draw ‘I am’? I would spend hours drawing little stick men for most people-related characters, but Chinese comes up with little symbols every time – 男 (male) originates from a picture of a person (the four squares) with some sort of weapon. Clever – maybe I judged the Chinese cavemen too harshly last week.

So I think I’ll end it here for this week, and, true to promise from last week, I’ll write my little sentence here.

我是英国人,和我是男孩。你呢?


Things I’ve learned this week:

  • European languages feel the need to remind you that yesterday has already happened
  • Chinese is free from the horrors of past participles and adjective agreement
  • Chinese cavemen were pretty ingenious graphic designers

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, you can subscribe on the home page to be notified when ‘Morning Rice’ is published in the week beginning October 31, 2016.

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