November 23, 2012 | Mandarin

I Might Be Falling in Love with Chinese

I am growing enchanted by the language I was most afraid of.

My curiosity about the Chinese language is being significantly helped along by my curiosity about other aspects of Chinese culture.

On a Thanksgiving Day Walk Yesterday, Central Park

On a Thanksgiving Day Walk Yesterday, Central Park

I am reading about tea, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and various other things Chinese, and my fascination is growing, which in turn makes the language experiences more enticing, however daunting they may be at times.

I did not mention in the last entry, where I talked about the Chinese massage I got, that about five minutes into it, it crossed my mind to ask her if she could do anything for my chronically dry eyes. Under normal circumstances, I would not have asked a massage therapist such a thing—I would have felt ridiculous doing so—but based on what I have been learning about Chinese medicine, I thought my question would be meaningful to her.

A recurring theme of the Eastern approach to health is that everything in your body is related. In Western medicine, you go to specialists: an ophthalmologist for eyes, a gastorenterologist for stomach problems, and so on.

The Chinese approach does not chop up the human body into little subspecialties and then consider symptoms in isolation. As I expected, my nice masseusse, who is from Beijing, was not remotely surprised by my inquiry. My question seemed as natural to her as pointing to an aching muscle in my back.

So, towards the end of our session, she gave me an eye massage that almost instantly brought tears to my eyes (a good thing, since tears are what I have been missing!). The benefit lasted overnight, and even now, although my eyes are getting kind of dry again, they still feel better than they did. 

Eye massage: who knew?

In my Pimsleur lessons, I am starting to uncover some remarkable features of Chinese grammar. One is the way you construct questions. I have so far been taught two ways to say, “Do you want some American dollars?”

Pell Street, Manhattan's Chinatown

Pell Street, Manhattan’s Chinatown

Nyi yow mei-ching ma is the first way. That is not so unexpected. That means basically, “You want American dollars” with the particle ma tacked onto the end to indicate that this is a question rather than a statement.

Nyi yow pu yow mei-ching is the second. This one is less expected. Here, the literal translation is, “You want don’t want American dollars?” The pu is the negative. So a question is indicated by a kind of flipping back and forth between positive and negative forms of the verb. When you go this route, the particle ma goes away.

I can’t explain this construction with sophistication, because Pimsleur doesn’t elaborate on grammar, but it’s just one of the things I am learning so far that seems new and different. If I saw this kind of positive-negative question structure in a previous language, I don’t remember it.

Another odd thing that has come up in my Pimsleur lessons: different negative particles. While in the above example the negative is expressed with the particle pu, it is different in the sentence “I don’t have money,” for which the translation is wa me yo chien. (“I not have money,” I think.) The particle is me this time, and I don’t know why. I am in a purely imitative phase. 

I love the way basic numbers are formed in Chinese. Two is ar, and ten is shi. To make twelve in Chinese, you say the equivalent of ten two: shi-ar. To make twenty, you say the equivalent of two ten: ar-shi.

How logical is that? It’s like taking a few simple little puzzle pieces and just putting them together in whatever arithmetic combination you need. Forty-three is just the reverse of thirty-four, I think. Suh-shi-san (four-ten-three) and san-shi-suh (three-ten-four), respectively. Fabulous!

I can’t say numbers are entirely a snap, though. They are complicated by classifiers, which came up in Japanese, too. I don’t yet know much of anything about classifiers in Chinese, but in Japanese they indicated something about the nature of the thing you were counting.

Off-Track Betting Legacy in Manhattan's Chinatown: An OTB Sign in Chinese

Off-Track Betting Legacy in Manhattan’s Chinatown: An OTB Sign in Chinese

If you ask for one beer in Chinese, you have to add a classifier to the expression, so it is ee pei pee-ee-chee-oh. Ee is “one,” pei is the classifier, and the pee-ee-chee-oh is the beer. 

In Chinese you would use a different classifier for money than you would use for beer, according to what Pimsleur has taught me. “One American dollar” translates as ee quai mei-ching. The quai is the classifier this time around.

A last language observation for the day: it seems to me that there can sometimes be a lot of sh sounds in Chinese. Yesterday I learned (while in Pimsleur lesson 18) to construct sentences such as, “Your husband would now like to drink water.”

Nyi-da shien-shung shientzai shiang hu-a shway.

My apologies for any transliteration missteps, but I think that’s the gist of it in any case!

Comments (3)

Kris • Posted on Wed, November 28, 2012 - 9:15 pm EST

Beer always made me pee-ee too!

Charles • Posted on Mon, December 17, 2012 - 6:18 pm EST

Bu can be used with any verb to negate it.  Mei is used to negate you (to have) and the two together are used to negate verbs in the past.

Check out these three points at this grammar wiki for Chinese:


The front page of the wiki is:

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, January 09, 2013 - 8:21 pm EST

Thanks so much for this, Charles!

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