Learning About Chinese Characters

As some of you know from my posts, I recently returned from China. While visiting foreign counties, you can’t help but notice and compare cultural and linguistic differences. I found that I really learned a lot from my trip.  This is very useful to me, since I have many Chinese students that I teach online.  I have slowly been working at learning to speak and write some Mandarin over the last few months.  So, I thought I’d discuss a bit about some of the interesting things I learned about Mandarin Chinese that I find important.

English, as you may or may not know, is considered a Germanic language. It developed out of a number of other languages such as Flemish, Low-German, Dutch, etc. It also uses many words with Latin roots. It’s roughly 50% Saxon and 50% Latin based. Interestingly enough, although considered a Germanic language, English doesn’t borrow from German very much at all, rather it borrows quite a bit from Latin, Greek and even French. English uses an alphabet consisting of 26 letters. These letters combine to form sounds that then form words.

Mandarin Chinese, on the other hand, developed from Old Chinese and Middle Chinese. It didn’t acquire the broad linguistic influence that English did. One of the biggest differences from English is that it doesn’t use an alphabet. Rather, Mandarin uses an ideographic and pictographic system. Ideographs are used to describe ideas or intangible qualities but not a particular word or phrase. Pictographs are used in conveying tangible information, like an object. These are utilized in their character system, which many native English speakers, like myself, find quite daunting to learn.

I decided to investigate the process of learning to write the Mandarin characters.  I found that when learning this system of writing, you’ll begin to learn a lot about Chinese culture as well. It’s quite interesting to see the characters and begin to understand the things they represent. It’s estimated that there’s about 40,000 to 50,000 characters in Chinese (though this number varies in other sources) but to communicate effectively you only really need to know about 3,000 to 4,000 characters. So far, I learned about two dozen.

However, I was disappointed to realize that with no alphabet it means there’s also no palindromes, anagrams, crossword puzzles, etc. But a distinct advantage to this system is that Chinese can be read everywhere and from any era. I learned that although someone from ancient China would not be understood by a modern Chinese speaker, however, if they were to write down what they were saying, a person today could easily understand it. That’s why the Chinese have no problem reading and understanding ancient text. This opens up a treasure of ancient poetry and prose to the modern reader.  Whereas in English, the language has evolved and changed so much that it’s difficult to decipher, even for an expert, an Old English or a Northumbrian English text.

Notice how the word for ‘mountain’ in looks like a mountain  and the word for ‘tree’ looks like a tree.  This image compares modern with ancient characters, showing how the pictograph system developed.  Words like this are the building blocks of the character system.

chinese
Mountain and Tree in ancient and modern Chinese

So while I continue my progress in learning my characters, I will leave you with a link to a fascinating YouTube video about learning characters with ShaoLin’s Chineasy.  I highly recommend this series to any English speaker wanting to learn more.

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