Wide Words

What is a word, exactly? With English, a word is ended with a press of a space bar, but in Chinese, there’s nothing quite as distinct. Ideas which are one word in English can be anywhere between one and seven syllables in Chinese, and even the simplest, first sentence you may learn in Chinese throws up these problems – 你好. 你, as any dictionary will tell you, is ‘you’, and 好 means ‘good’ – so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that 你好 is two words. However, as it most definitely means ‘hello’, it must therefore only be one word.


Maybe the idea of words doesn’t really have a place in Chinese. The word for word (how meta is that?) is 字, the same as the word for ‘character’. Actually, there are a few, some (like ‘花’, more on the side of ‘speech’) even contributing to some fairly mundane descriptions of some fairly important things. Cantonese (the second most spoken version of Chinese, after Mandarin) is called ‘广东话’, translating as ‘wide words of the east’.

Now, I have a few bones to pick with Cantonese. Yes, it’s the most used language in a lot of cool Chinese cities which I’d love to visit, including Guangzhou and Hong Kong. It’s also (according to the Internet, but I might contest this) the most prevalent Chinese dialect spoken outside of China. Practically all the decent films I find on Netflix in Chinese are in Cantonese. But – and this is a big but – there is a reason that I am never learning Cantonese.

Seven tones.

Yes, you heard me right. Seven tones. Forget my fun with ma (read more about that here), and just feel some sympathy for the learners of Cantonese. The count of 7 tones is even contested – the variety of dialects even within Cantonese puts the number at 7, 9 or even 10. Mandarin has four. I’ll just stop complaining right there.

Things I learnt this week:

  • Words are odd. Who’s idea was it anyway?
  • Netflix wants me to learn seven tones to watch TV shows. Who said watching movies was easy?
  • I am never, ever going anywhere near Hong Kong. No offence, guys.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, share with your friends below, or subscribe on the homepage to be notified when any posts are released over the summer. Keep checking back here through July and August – you might find “Success Speech”, “What’s In a Name?”, “A Root of Books”, “Flattering Jam”, “Oh Joe”, “Blind Crabs”, “Hand Wash Room” or (but probably not all of these) “Make Yourself Competent”. Have a great summer!



2 thoughts on “Wide Words

  1. Julia says:

    I remember the first Cantonese drama I watched, it was at the very early stage of my study so I didn’t grasp immediately that I wasn’t exactly listening to 普通话… I think I realised it only when I read ‘thanks’ in the subtitles and I couldn’t absolutely hear ‘谢谢’! XD


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