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Language Thursdays: Parsing Chinese 1.0

Friday, May 7th, 2010


I was flying back from Chongqing recently when I was reminded of the very frustrating problem of reading Chinese. There was a movie on the cabin TV and it had a particularity: it carried subtitles in Chinese and English in parallel, in two lines of comparable font at the bottom of the screen.

As I watched I kept forcing my eyes to stick to the Chinese subtitles in order to exercise my reading (the sound was off) but it was pointless. Every single time, before I had finished reading the Chinese I already knew the meaning of the line anyway. The words in English just seemed to transmit their meaning even if I was not looking at them.

Reading Chinese

We already spoke last year about the problem of Reading Chinese functionally. It is very important for advanced students of Chinese, because progress beyond a certain level depends largely on this ability. Many foreigners are able to read slowly and even do good translations of Chinese texts with the help of a cursor dictionary. But to read functionally, in my definition, is a completely different thing. It means to be able to read all sorts of general texts as quickly and reliably as an average native. Click to continue »

Languages Thursdays: Punctuation Hell

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

canadagoose_300_tcm9139738_thumb344Today I just wanted to comment on the mysterious world of Chinese punctuation. It is a fascinating field in these times when everyone accuses Chinese of discriminating against our foreign symbols. In fact, there is a kind of foreign symbols that are used in practically every sentence of modern Chinese: the points, the commas, and all the rest of punctuation signs.

As is natural in any language, when the Chinese decided to adopt these signs to clarify their script, they set their own rules for using them. There are many examples of punctuation marks that are apparently identical in Chinese and in Western languages but in fact have different meanings and uses. This is not the main point of the post, but I will stop slightly on one of the example that I think is fun.

The sighing mark

For some reason the (!) that is known in the West as exclamation mark got translated in to Chinese as 叹号, that is, the 叹 mark. This 叹 character is most commonly used today in expressions like 叹气, and its meaning is closer to sigh or acclaim than to exclaim. My theory is this is the reason behind that quirk of the Chinese netizens who write “!” marks on every second sentence. Click to continue »