Chinese Grammar Issues
16 Feb 2006
This week I’m finally getting around to writing my two remaining final papers for last semester. Classes don’t start until something like the 27th though (I think). One of my assignments is to revise my paper on Chomsky according to my professor’s comments. That shouldn’t be too hard, except that she left a few questions on my paper that would seem to warrant entire essays of their own in order to answer. (Ah, she won’t remember what she wrote on my paper, right??)
The other essay is a response to one of the lectures given in a seminar course. The Chinese name of the course was 当代学术前沿讲座 which basically translates to “a bunch of boring lectures.” The only one I found remotely interesting was 汉语语法的问题和方法 (Issues and Methods in Chinese Grammar). So that sure narrows down my possible writing topics.
Looking at my notes for that lecture, I discovered a mere half page of scribblings. (Yeah, I sure got a lot of daydreaming done during those lectures…) Well, at least I managed to record the “issues” the professor discussed:
1. The issue of word order and functional particles (虚词) in Chinese
2. The issue of formal written language
3. The issue of the non-correlation of parts of speech and sentence components in Chinese
4. The issue of special sentence patterns
Hmmm. Fascinating. I think I’ll write about word order some and throw in other stuff I think is interesting. This isn’t a research paper, so I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to write. Are they asking for BS? Regurgitation? It’s all unclear. So I plan to share my amazing and unique insights as a foreigner.
One matter the professor brought up which I did find interesting is the matter of word parsing. Since there are no spaces between words in Chinese sentences (and even the concept of “word” as it applies to Chinese is debated), you can get some confusing possibilities. The professor offered this example:
The sentence seems pretty straightforward, and can be translated as something like, “Water accumulated on the surface of Jiefang Boulevard [lit. ‘Liberation Boulevard’].” Actually, though, any two adjacent characters in that sentence comprise a “word.” Check it out (definitions courtesy of Wenlin):
– 解放: jiěfàng* v. liberate; emancipate ◆n. ①liberation ②〈PRC〉 | ∼ qián before liberation in 1949
– 放大: fàngdà* r.v. enlarge; magnify; amplify
– 大道: dàdào n. ①wide road ②the way of virtue and justice ③the Great Dao; the Great Way M:¹tiáo
– 道路: ¹dàolù n. road; way; path M:¹tiáo
– 路面: ²lùmiàn n. road surface; pavement
– 面积: miànji n. surface area
– 积水: ¹jīshuǐ* n./v.o. stagnant/accumulated water; flood
This issue is especially relevant in computational linguistics. How should computer programs interpret a sentence such as the one above? Wenlin doesn’t try to figure out which definitions apply semantically, it just offers you the definition of whatever word starts with the character you hover on (so if you hover on “放” you get the definition for 放大, not the relevant 解放). But if you were writing a script which would attempt to parse the sentence according to its actual meaning, how would you do it? This is a major issue for translation projects like Adsotrans.
Obviously, this can also be a serious issue for students of Chinese. More than once I’ve been stumped by this kind of thing.
Another issue I think is somewhat interesting is one of punctuation. Specifically, the 逗号 (，) versus the 顿号 (、). The 顿号 is a special kind of comma used for items in a list. When I first started studying Chinese, I thought, “that’s dumb. Why do they think they need that? If one kind of comma is enough for English, why shouldn’t it be enough for Chinese?” It wasn’t until I got into some translation work involving long, complex sentences that I began to truly appreciate the 顿号. In the beginning, I would sort of read both kinds of commas in the same way, but then I would hit certain sentences which required me to pay attention to the 顿号 or I would lose the meaning of the sentence.
Sometimes I think of the Chinese comma (逗号 / ，) as sort of a run-on enabler. This is because Chinese is much less fascist than English about when you need to end a sentence with a period and when you can just keep blabbing forever, adding the occasional comma. This feature of the language leads to a tremendous amount of run-on sentences when Chinese students write English, and it can be very annoying to English teachers.
This entry has been sort of an exercise in brainstorming to figure out what I’m going to write about in my paper. Any comments are very welcome (the sooner the better!), as they may provide further inspiration for what I write about in my paper.