Chinese as a language
Chinese as a language
The Chinese language is spoken by more than 1.2 billion people. Standard Chinese is called Mandarin. It is the language that is part of the school
curriculum. Mandarin is a tonal language: the meaning of words is created by the tone that the speaker uses. There are four different tones that a student
of Chinese has to master. In its writing, Chinese uses characters. In our curriculum, we use the simplified script that is used on the continent of
China. Even though there are as many as 8,000 characters, passive knowledge of around 2,500 will enable one to read a Chinese newspaper. Chinese characters consist of a limited number of fixed elements. This is why learning new characters becomes easier as one goes along. Hanyu Pinyin
transcription, which uses the western alphabet, is employed to facilitate the pronunciation of characters.
Chinese grammar is easy: there are no inflections, no cases, no verb tenses – sentences are constructed by filling in words in a number of fixed slots. With its characters and tones, the Chinese language looks like a complex language, but it's all not quite as bad as it looks. As said, Chinese grammar is not
as complicated as Dutch grammar, and once you get the hang of writing Chinese characters, you'll see that there is method in the madness.
History of the language
The oldest artefacts that contain Chinese script are oracle bones and ceramics dating from the Shang Dynasty (c. 2nd millennium BC), which have primitive character carvings. As a spoken language, Chinese must be a lot older. The sounds of the spoken language have constantly changed over time, but the basics of grammar and writing have hardly changed. Analyzing features of characters in great detail, scholars have been able to reconstruct the sounds of the Chinese language in the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 BC).
One of the characteristic features of Chinese is its single-syllable structure: each syllable has its own meaning. Verb forms stay the same, irrespective of the subject and the grammatical time. If you want to refer to past or future events, you simply add in words that refer to the point in
time. Neither are there different forms for singular or plural. If you want to make things plural, you add the quantity. As a tonal language, Chinese gives meaning to words not just through pronunciation, but also through tone. Standard Chinese (Mandarin) has four tones.
Chinese script uses characters. These signs (or combinations of signs) can represent all things in life, both past and present. This is why the number of
characters is enormous. In daily life, however, the number of characters that is actually used is rather limited. A Chinese person with an average education
knows about 3,000 characters. Our Western alphabet is read by combining the letters of a given word in the order in which they appear. This combination
of letters (and corresponding sounds) represents a word. A Chinese character is read as representing a specific word, and from your memory you need to dig up the corresponding pronunciation. The structure of the character will help you in the recognition process: a character usually consists of a part that gives a clue about its meaning (the 'radical') and a part (the phonetic element) that gives a hint about its pronunciation. Many basic characters are simplified drawings. In the course of time, the way of writing characters has often been simplified. The most recent of these official simplifications took place in 1956, but only in the People's Republic; in Taiwan and Hong Kong the traditional script is still used. The traditional, non-simplified script is
called 'fantizi', the simplified version used in the People's Republic and Singapore is called 'jiantizi'
Writing regular characters
A Chinese character consists of a number of specific lines. The number of lines can vary from one to more than 26. The order in which the lines are drawn (from left to right, from top to bottom) is exactly prescribed.
Writing characters in calligraphy requires great mind and muscle control. The result can be aesthetically pleasing and quite expressive. A handwritten text also has a personal touch. It is no surprise, therefore, that the art of writing (calligraphy) has been considered a great cultural asset ever since the third century AD. Today, calligraphy is still practiced, as a hobby, or as a profession, in many parks and on many squares in China, where a lot of practitioners, young and old, can be seen 'writing' in the street with a simple brush and a bucket of water, the result rapidly vanishing before your eyes in the dry Chinese climate.
A character does not have one definite pronunciation. This is a problem for anyone studying the standard Chinese language, both for foreigners and for Chinese speakers of dialects. A solution was found in the introduction of an alphabetic spelling of pronunciation. During the past few centuries, a number of these alphabet transcriptions have been designed, but today it is the Hanyu Pinyin transcription that is the most current. Since Chinese is a tonal language, Hanyu Pinyin uses tonal signs next to letters.