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Contextual Analysis (2)


     Here are some more habits and customs of Chinese native speakers that make life difficult for foreigners trying to learn the language.
     In English, when new words are formed by combining old ones, it's fairly easy to distinguish the combinations from the originals. Written combinations are often joined as one word ("airport"); and even if they're not, articles and capital letters help clarify the meaning ("the White House" as opposed to "a white house"). In speech, combinations are pronounced with the emphasis on the first word, while the uncombined words are pronounced with equal emphasis ("HOT dog" for a show-off and "HOT DOG" for an overheated canine).
     Chinese forms new words almost exclusively by combination, but the combinations continue to be written and pronounced as separate words. Also, there are no articles or capital letters. Foreigners struggling to learn the language may therefore find it difficult to know whether the words are intended to be understood separately or in combination.
     For example, a sign in downtown Liuzhou says 学会计. Reading the second and third characters as a combination, the sign means "Study Accounting", and it's clear from the context that that is the intended meaning. I invariably get it wrong, though. I read the first two characters in combination, making the sign mean "Learn How to Count". Only when I get to the third character do I realize with a jolt that I've made a silly mistake.
     Chinese place names are generally combinations of common words and can therefore also be hard to recognize. Take the characters 北京, which mean "north" and "capital city", respectively. By convention, the combination refers specifically to Beijing, China's capital, but a foreigner unfamiliar with the convention might read them as "a northern capital" or "the capital city located up north". These shades of meaning, which we express in English by using articles, capitals and intonation, are expressed in Chinese by alternative phrasing (such as 北方的京城). Foreign students have to memorize the conventional usages and also recognize the alternate phrasing.
     People's names are even more difficult. The three characters in the name Mao Zedong 毛泽东, for example, literally mean "fur benefit east". Native speakers immediately understand that characters used in an unconventional combination are proper nouns; but for language learners, the difference between "unconventional" and "conventional but not previously encountered" can often be discerned, if at all, only with the aid of a dictionary.
     (English has troublesome conventions, too, of course. Try explaining "the" to someone who's native language does not use articles.)
     Chinese scholars have proposed making proper nouns easier to read by
underscoring them, but the idea has never caught on. The Chinese grow up with the conventional usages and thus do not find them as difficult as we foreigners do. For most Chinese, any additional clarity gained by underscoring is simply not worth the extra hassle, since they feel the meaning is clear anyway.

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     One particular type of combination is unique to Chinese (as far as I know). A folk story or historical tale is reduced to a pithy four-word expression, and the combination is then used as a single concept. These expressions are called cheng-yu 成语, which literally means "become a word". Lines from classical poetry or essays are also used in this fashion, especially by intellectuals.
     One example is a story about a fellow who was painting a picture of a snake but, for some reason, gave the creature four legs. The story has been reduced to "paint snake add feet" 画蛇添足, which is used to mean "unnecessary effort" or "superfluous".
     In English we sometimes refer to an old tale as a metaphor or simile, as when we say that someone's life is a "Cinderella story". (If we instead made up a cheng-yu, it might be "lose shoe find love"). But in Chinese, cheng-yu literally "become words", and can be used not only as similes, but also as adjectives, adverbs, nouns and even predicates. You could thus say "This entire post paint snake add feet!" (You can see how word-for-word translations of cheng-yu give the English subtitles in low-budget Chinese movies much of their charm.)
     Idioms are difficult in any language, but the Chinese cheng-yu are especially difficult for Westerners, not only because of the way they're used, but also because of the differences in cultural background. While the "adding feet" expression is pretty obvious, what about "horse arrive achieve success" 马到成功? You almost have to know the background story to figure it out: A general's prowess in war was so great that he didn't have to actually fight battles – as soon as he rode his horse onto the battlefield, the enemy soldiers would drop their weapons and run away. The expression thus refers to instant or apparently effortless success.
     Or how about "mouth lip birth flower" 口吻生花? It means "eloquent" or "well spoken", and comes from a description of an ancient poet who was so talented it seemed that flowers were coming out of his mouth. Imagine that in a movie subtitle!
     If you want to know what it's like speaking in cheng-yu, watch the episode entitled Darmok from the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Or you can read about it
here.

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     Our translations may not be mouth lip birth flower or lose shoe find love, but they're not paint snake add feet, either, so you'll generally be able to read them horse arrive achieve success. Except for the newspaper article "Commuting Cadres", the first story translated on this page, that is. It's an example of the most difficult challenge to learners of contemporary Chinese: wading through the Party Propaganda Drivel (党八股).


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