Nouns are weird

So, first of all, sorry I couldn’t post last week. I teach English and beginning of the year is a crazy time with the company. I have been pretty consistent with my studies these past two weeks though. The whole “Chinese Cloud” thing really helped because even if it’s for five minutes I’m doing some Chinese every day.

Anyways, excuses aside, one of the things I’ve been working on is this Chinese Through Poetry book. I’ve only done the first 40 pages, but really it’s awesome. Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned like its author, but I like the whole classical literature approach. Though to be honest, it doesn’t feel outdated at all. But before this becomes a whole “I love this book” post, let me just stop here and give you the low-down on the book structure and purpose.

The book is a compilation that Archie Barnes made of his notes throughout his whole teaching career. It has a double goal, to teach you Chinese and Classical Chinese Literature, at the same time. Crazy right? Well, to be honest, not so much. The text has an introduction that includes a short intro to pinyin, grammar, and Chinese script. Don’t get ahead of yourself newbies, even though this intro is there, this book is not really for pure beginners. I mean it’s just too much too soon. The rest of the book has two parts, Unit 1-15 and Unit 16-40. The first part is basic grammar stuff, vocabulary and some special comments on grammar structure. The second part is based on 57 poems, which are for translation purposes. It sounds tedious, doesn’t it? Not at all, or maybe I’m just a big nerd.

Let’s start with Unit 1, so you can see what I’m saying. As I study more, I’ll have posts with my notes on the book so you can follow along. For now, I just wanted to share some stuff about the first unit.

Unit 1: Nouns

Nouns. Yeah, you think you know all about nouns, I mean, they’re the easiest thing in language: people, places and things. There’s not much to them. And so the unit starts with some special nouns in Classical Chinese Literature, which, from now on, I’m going to refer to as 文言文. The nouns are easy ones, if you’re an intermediate learner or even just a non-newbie elementary learner:

春 风 花 林 木 鸟 秋 日 山 声 水 夜 雨 月 竹

Though in the book they are all in Traditional script (but only wind, bird, and voice/sound have a different writing in this case). This matters because the book has some extra info about the etymology of each character and its radical composition based on the Traditional script.

After the vocab, he talks about the symbolism behind each character. And this is where the good stuff begins. I don’t want to give it all away, which means, I’m not going to post full notes on each character, but just associated words.

春 and 秋 [Spring and Fall]: change, sadness

春: youth, renewal, lost youth, far from home

秋: old age, decay, death

风 [wind]: freedom, moral influence, customs, dangers, obstructions

花 [flower]: glory [of springtime and youth], wilt, virtuous

林 [forest, woods, countryside]: retirement, escape

鸟 [bird]: wild goose, homesickness, message-carrying; swallow, nest builder, one of a pair; spring, song-bird, marital love, fidelity

山 [mountain]: hills, source of timber and fuel, haunt of wild beasts, Five Sacred Mountains, tourist pilgrimage

声 [voice/sound]: nature, music, crowds, reputation

水 [water]: river (which flow east to west), barrier, peril, time, eroding youth

山水: complementary pair, yin/yang, landscape painting

夜 [night]: loneliness, drinking, talking with an old friend encountered in ‘exile’

月 [moon]: bright moon, reunion, far from home, lunar month

日月: yin/yang

竹: strong, flexible

So, cool things. He includes little interpretation comments for each character, which I find very interesting. But the next part is what really blew me away.

Wait there’s more?

He then goes on to talk about nouns in Chinese. When you learn Chinese in a class nowadays the first thing you learn about nouns is that they don’t contain any inherent quantification, you can’t tell from a character/word if the speaker means one or many. So, 花 is flower or flowers. That’s not to say you can’t talk about a specific number, that is a whole other story with measure words and such (there’s even “many” or “a couple” for more undefined number). Now you might be thinking, this is basic, I knew this already. Yeah, me too, just wait for it.

Then he goes on to “qualifier-head noun-phrases”. Don’t panic, it’s not as weird as it sounds. A noun-phrase is just two nouns put together side-by-side like “autumn day” where one of the nouns, in this case “autumn”, is saying something about the other one, “day”. Chinese has these, too. The thing is, in English you can switch the nouns around, granted, with some extra stuff: “day in autumn”. With a simple “in” you’ve basically formed the same noun-phrase.

Chinese doesn’t have that.

The other thing is, this applies to all qualifiers. Thus, “sad day” and “day that is sad” is only “sad day” in Chinese. Notice that the second word order, “day that is sad” is actually a phrase. Hence the name “phrasal qualifier”. Because Chinese only uses the first word of two, or “head” word, to qualify, it has a “qualifier-head noun phrases” characteristic. Yay, now you can forget about that strange term or repeat it at dinner-parties.

To get the meaning, Archie’s explanation is pretty much on the dot:

“Phrasal qualifier following the head:
a day in autumn (qualifier is a prepositional phrase),
the day (that) he died (qualifier is a relative clase),
a day remembered by all (qualifier is a participle plus a prepositional phrase),
a day to remember (qualifier is an infinitive).

In Chinese, the equivalents of all the words in italics must precede the head (here ‘day’), so that we get the literal equivalents of the following:

an in-autumn day,
the he-died day,
remembered-by-all day.

He calls this Chinese being “economical”. It blew my mind. I’ve seen it all over the place, large noun phrases where you’re like, “woah, what’s going on…”

It really comes down to speaking with a bunch of hyphens. In my mind I’m going, “I can totally do that”. Yet, this also means that if you want to actually translate something into real English things can get kind of hairy. You can’t go around saying things like “the he-died day” and not get weird looks. You will have to enter the poet’s world, immerse yourself in its sounds, colors, imagery. But it’s you who has to do it, wonder into the uncertain and make choices.

文言文 will not spoonfeed you.

Thanks Chinese for treating me like an adult.

I’d love to hear comments. I hope to post some more on noun-phrases and some translation exercises.

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2 responses to “Nouns are weird

  1. Pingback: Mandarin Weekly #53 – Mandarin Weekly (每周中文)·

  2. Pingback: Nouns are weird: translation exercises | Mandarin with Manu·

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