Chinese Parts of Speech

OK, this is an entry that’s likely to bore many readers to tears. You have been warned.

While I don’t find the study of Chinese grammar remarkably stimulating, there are some aspects of it that catch my interest. It’s kind of cool how Chinese parts of speech don’t fit so neatly into our Western designations. When China first starting applying Western linguistics to Chinese, Chinese syntax was forced into the Western mold. Over the years Chinese scholars have decided that this just doesn’t work.

So what’s different about Chinese grammar?

Well, for one thing, the Chinese like to divide all words into two big categories: 实词 and 虚词. I’m not completely sold on the necessity of this, but the Chinese sure seem to like it. Basically, 实词 often refer to the “real” (like things, properties, actions, ideas), while 虚词 serve only grammatical functions. 实词 can usually form meaningful utterances by themselves, and can combine with each other in meaningful ways. 虚词 only combine with 实词 and mean nothing out of context.

虚词 are much smaller in number but frequently used. They include prepositions (把, 将, 让, 比, 给, 对, 为了, 在, 从, etc.), conjunctions (和, 跟, 或, 即使, 如果, 虽然, 而且, 而, etc.), auxiliary particles (的, 得, 地, 了, 着, 过, etc.), and modal particles (了, 呢, 吗, 吧, 啊, etc.).

Chinese prepositions are special because they closely resemble verbs in many cases. In fact, most Chinese prepositions evolved from verbs. To illustrate how Chinese prepositions can be like verbs, check out the following simple sentences:

  1. 外面。 (The car is outside.)
  2. 车停外面。 (Park the car outside.)
  3. 不要外面停车。 (Don’t park the car outside.)

OK, so the question is: which of the above s are verbs, and which are prepositions?

Number 1 and number 3 are easy. 1 is clearly a verb; 3 is clearly a preposition. But what about number 2? Well, part of the definition of a preposition (according to the current standard view) is that when it modifies the predicate it must come before it. In this case, it clearly comes after. It’s not a preposition, but rather a verb acting as a complement to the main verb 停. Crazy!

Another special feature about Chinese parts of speech is the nouns. In Chinese you have “time word” nouns performing the function of English adverbs. For example, “today” as in the English sentence “I went shopping today” is an adverb. In Chinese 今天 is a noun. The same goes for other time words like 现在, 明年, 刚才, 平时, etc.

If you can handle all this craziness I will give you yet another example. In English we use prepositions to explain physical spatial relations, but Chinese uses “nouns of locality.” So while we would use the prepositional phrases “on top,” “in the middle,” or “to the east,” the Chinese would use the nouns 上面、中间、东边.

OK, if you made it through all that, I will reward you with an exciting chart showing how simple “nouns of locality” combine to form compounds (and which don’t combine). I like this kind of chart.

~边 ~面 ~头 以~ 之~
上边 上面 上头 以上 之上
下边 下面 下头 以下 之下
前边 前面 前头 以前 之前
后边 后面 后头 以后 之后
左边 左面
右边 右面
里边 里面 里头
外边 外面 外头 以外 之外
东边 东面 东头 以东 之东
以内 之内

Finally, I will end this entry with part of speech statistics “top 4” from my syntax professor. I tried to get the source out of him, but he just told me “structuralist lingustics.”

  • In modern Chinese, “normal” nouns (i.e. not “time words” or “nouns of locality”) make up 45% of all vocabulary
  • Verbs make up 30% of all vocabulary
  • Adjectives make up 10% of all vocabulary
  • Measure words make up a little over 1% of all vocabulary.
  • All other parts of speech make up less of a chunk than measure words.

Conclusion? Chinese grammar is wacky!

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