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Chinese - interesting facts

 

In its Mandarin variant, the Chinese language is the native language for approximately 1 billion people (over 14% of the world's population) and is unquestionably the most frequently used language globally. Chinese is the official language of China, Taiwan, and Singapore.

Chinese is often treated as a macro-language and forms a group of languages that belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family. With a history of approximately 8,000 years, Chinese is considered the oldest language in the world. The earliest discovered inscriptions in the Chinese language are etchings on animal bones, dating back to 1250 BC (during the reign of the Shang Dynasty). The Chinese script is logographic (ideographic-phonetic) and contains around 50,000 characters. This system is open – new characters are continually being created.

The Mandarin language, based on the Beijing dialect, has been the standard Chinese variant for several decades. As a macro-language, Chinese is divided into two main groups: the northern group, where individual languages are related (Mandarin belongs to this group), and the southern group, which includes structurally distant languages and therefore mutually unintelligible. Additionally, each Chinese language has a range of dialects, which are important markers of local identity.

There are two variants of the Chinese script: traditional and simplified. The latter was introduced and began to spread in the 1950s to eliminate illiteracy (around half of the most complicated characters were modified then).

Chinese is one of the official languages of international organisations, including the UN, IMF, International Criminal Court and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Like other Chinese languages and most Asian languages, Mandarin is a tonal language. Each syllable is assigned a tone that determines the meaning of the word. Mandarin recognises four tones (high, rising, falling-rising and falling) and a neutral tone.

There are no grammatical tenses in Chinese. Temporal relations are determined based on context or through time adverbs such as 'yesterday' or 'today'. Particles 了[le] and 过 [guò], indicating the completion of an action, are also used.

Another characteristic feature of Chinese is the almost complete lack of inflexion (for instance, there's no declension of nouns and adjectives by number and case), so almost all words have a single grammatical form.

The Chinese name for Facebook is 臉書 Liǎnshū, which translates as "the book of face". However, many Chinese people use the humorous term 非死不可 (Fēisǐ-bùkě), which in translation means "you must die"!

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Language family

Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family, which includes more than 400 languages. They are mainly used in China but also in countries such as Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar.

There are many dialects in Chinese, but Mandarin is the most widely spoken and spoken language, spoken by about 70% of China's population. Other important dialects include Cantonese, Shanghai, Fukushima, and Hakka. These dialects differ considerably in terms of phonetics, grammar and vocabulary, which makes it difficult for a person who knows only one of them to communicate with users of other dialects.

Writing system

Chinese uses ideographic writing, meaning each character represents a whole word or concept. There are more than 50,000 characters, but the average Chinese knows about 8,000, and reading newspapers is enough to know about 2,000-3,000 characters. Chinese script differs significantly from the one used in English, based on the Latin alphabet. Unlike the Latin alphabet, Chinese writing does not directly convey sounds, which can challenge English-speaking students.

Tone

In Chinese, some tones play a key role in the meaning of words. In Mandarin, there are four main tones and one neutral. Changing the tone can completely change the meaning of the word. Poland does not have a tonal system.

Simplicity of grammar

Although Chinese may seem difficult due to its writing system and tone, its grammar is relatively simple. Changing verbs, nouns, or adjectives by chance or number is unnecessary in Chinese. There are also no grammatical types. As a result, learning Chinese grammar may be simpler than expected.

HSK - Chinese Language Test

HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) is an official Chinese language exam that tests students' reading, listening and writing ability. The exam is divided into 6 levels, from HSK 1 (basic) to HSK 6 (advanced). For Polish students, obtaining the HSK certificate can be helpful when applying for scholarships, studies or work in Chinese-speaking countries.

Pinyin

Pinyin is the official phonetic transcription system of the Chinese language into the Latin alphabet, developed in the 1950s. Thanks to pinyin, students of Chinese, including Poles, can learn the pronunciation of words and understand the tone more easily. Pinyin is also used in dictionaries, textbooks, and smartphones to enter Chinese text.

Varieties of the Chinese language in history

The Chinese language has a long and rich history of over 3,000 years. We distinguish several stages of the development of the Chinese language, such as ancient Chinese, medieval Chinese and modern Chinese. Ancient Chinese includes classical Chinese used during the Confucius era and Chinese used during the Han dynasty. Medieval Chinese originates from the Tang Dynasty, and modern Chinese developed from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. 

The impact of Chinese on other languages

Chinese has influenced many other East Asian languages, including Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. This influence is evident both in the writing system and in the vocabulary. In Japanese, kanji characters are used, which are of Chinese origin, and many words are borrowed from Chinese. Similarly, Korean uses hanji, Chinese characters, and borrowed words. Although based on the Latin alphabet, Vietnamese also has a significant number of words of Chinese origin.

Chinese Proverbs

The Chinese language is rich in proverbs and sayings that reflect the Chinese people's cultural values, philosophy, and wisdom. Proverbs are often used in everyday conversations, and knowing some of them can make it easier to understand Chinese culture and mindset. It may be interesting for foreigners to compare Chinese proverbs with their own, which allows for a better understanding of intriguing differences and astonishing similarities between cultures.

Chinese proverbs, often called Chengyu, are a pearl of profound and timeless wisdom passed down through centuries. These proverbs, consisting mostly of four characters, can offer a rich glimpse into Chinese society's philosophical, historical, and cultural fabric. Understanding and appreciating these proverbs can be a fascinating experience for an English speaker, as they present thought-provoking insights and principles often packaged in a metaphorical, vivid, and exotic language.

For instance, consider the proverb "瓜田李下" (Guātián lǐ xià), which translates to "in the melon field, under the plum tree." The proverb’s roots are found in an ancient guideline for behaviour: one should not tie shoes in a melon field or adjust a hat under a plum tree. The apparent randomness of these actions conceals a deeper moral lesson. In the olden days, it was all too easy for a passerby to be suspected of stealing melons or plums while seemingly adjusting their shoes or hats. Thus, the proverb emphasises the importance of avoiding situations that may lead to false suspicions, even if your actions are innocent. In the English-speaking world, we might say "avoid even the appearance of impropriety."

One of the most intriguing proverbs is "塞翁失马,焉知非福" (Sài wēng shī mǎ, yān zhī fēi fú). Literally, it means, "The old man lost his horse, but how could one know it isn’t a blessing?" This proverb tells the story of an old man living on the border who lost his horse one day. His neighbours sympathised, but he didn't see it as a misfortune. Indeed, the horse returned later, bringing with it another splendid horse. The story encapsulates a profound understanding of life's ups and downs, reminding us that what initially seems like a setback can become a blessing. Its closest English equivalent might be "Every cloud has a silver lining."

"授人以鱼不如授人以渔" (Shòu rén yǐ yú bùrú shòu rén yǐ yú) in literal translation is "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." This well-known proverb emphasises the value of teaching skills over simply providing a temporary solution. In English, we share an identical proverb "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." It stresses the significance of self-reliance and the importance of learning.

Chinese proverbs are a treasure trove of knowledge and wisdom. Delving into them enhances language understanding and appreciation and provides a profound insight into the Chinese way of perceiving and interpreting the world around them. The complexity and depth of these sayings make them both exciting and challenging for English speakers, offering a rich cultural experience and perspective.

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Your Essential Chinese

 

English

Chinese

yes 是的 (shì de)
no 不 (bù)
please 请 (gǐng)
thank you 谢谢 (xièxie)
I'm sorry  对不起 (duìbuqǐ)
good morning 您好 (nín hǎo) / 诸位好 (zhūwèi hǎo)
good evening 晚上好 (wǎnshang hǎo)
goodbye 晚安 (wǎn’ān)    
good night 再见 (zàijiàn)
hi 你好 (nǐ hǎo) /  你们好 (nǐmen hǎo)
how are you?  你好吗? (nǐ hǎo ma?)
well 好 (hǎo)
My name is... 我叫 (wǒ jiào)
I don't understand 我不懂。 (wǒ bù dǒng)

 

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