Tag: grammar


04

Nov 2010

Google Suggest Venn Diagrams for Chinese, Japanese, and English

I was recently introduced to the awesome Google Suggest Venn Diagram Generator by Micah. Some interesting suggested searches by Google were crossed with a Venn diagram by some creative soul, and then the process was automated on the web by request. The result is a unique way to visualize and compare the data indexed by Google.

Here’s an example of what the diagram generator produces:

google-venn_people-girls-americans

So we can see from this graph that according to Google, lots of people are asking (or telling) why both people and girls are mean, why girls and Americans are dumb, and why people, girls, and Americans are all stupid.

I decided to try some queries of my own. I chose the terms “Chinese,” “Japanese,” and “English” as my recurring comparisons, and then added a little color to the results. Here are some of the more interesting ones:

how does _____ …

google-venn_how-does

Yikes, “how does Chinese water torture work“? Gotta love the intellectual curiosity. I like the “how does English sound to foreigners” question though.

learn _____ …

google-venn_learn

Apparently there’s a whole lot of learning going on in the DC area. It’s no surprise that people want to learn online for free, but it’s interesting that Chinese is the only language of the three that people expect to learn in 5 minutes. (Tip: it might take slightly longer than that.)

_____ grammar …

google-venn_grammar

Ah, good old . (I’m kind of surprised it trumped , though.)

awesome _____ …

google-venn_awesome

stupid _____ …

google-venn_stupid

Why is _____ so damn…

google-venn_so-damn-hard

Ah, yes. But we expected that.


26

Apr 2010

New Online Chinese Resources Links

I figured it was about time I set up a page with links to the Chinese learning resources I personally find most valuable and regularly use. So it’s up: Online Chinese Resources.

A few notes:

– I work for ChinesePod and think it’s great, so yeah, I’m going to recommend it. This should not be a big surprise. I’m aware of quite a few podcast alternatives, and I’ve listened to a few, but I have very limited actual experience with them.

– The list is not exhaustive; there are plenty of monstrous ones out there, and the problem is that they’re all way too long. This one is pretty short, and based on my own experience, which is what makes it useful.

– I am open to suggestions, but I won’t add anything until I’ve had a chance to check it out and spend enough time with it to decide it’s a must-have resource.

I’ll be updating the list pretty regularly, but I intend to keep it brief.


19

Nov 2009

Aspect, not Tense

You often hear people saying that Chinese has simple grammar, and the most often cited reason is that “Chinese has no tenses.” It’s true that Chinese verbs do not have tenses, but Chinese grammar does have a formal system for marking aspect. What is aspect? Most English speakers don’t even know.

I’ll quote from the Wikipedia entry on aspect:

In linguistics, the grammatical aspect (sometimes called viewpoint aspect) of a verb defines the temporal flow (or lack thereof) in the described event or state. In English, for example, the present tense sentences “I swim” and “I am swimming” differ in aspect (the first sentence is in what is called the habitual aspect, and the second is in what is called the progressive, or continuous, aspect). The related concept of tense or the temporal situation indicated by an utterance, is typically distinguished from aspect.

So if the temporal situation (tense) of a verb is typically distinguished from aspect, shouldn’t we English-speakers be more familiar with it?

It turns out the situation is a bit muddled in English. From the same article:

Aspect is a somewhat difficult concept to grasp for the speakers of most modern Germanic languages, because they tend to conflate the concept of aspect with the concept of tense. Although English largely separates tense and aspect formally, its aspects (neutral, progressive, perfect and progressive perfect) do not correspond very closely to the distinction of perfective vs. imperfective that is common in most other languages. Furthermore, the separation of tense and aspect in English is not maintained rigidly. One instance of this is the alternation, in some forms of English, between sentences such as “Have you eaten yet?” and “Did you eat yet?”. Another is in the past perfect (“I had eaten”), which sometimes represents the combination of past tense and perfect aspect (“I was full because I had already eaten”), but sometimes simply represents a past action which is anterior to another past action (“A little while after I had eaten, my friend arrived”). (The latter situation is often represented in other languages by a simple perfective tense. Formal Spanish and French use a past anterior tense in cases such as this.)

OK, it’s starting to become clearer why English-speakers aren’t familiar with aspect. But what’s this business about “English largely separates tense and aspect formally”?

According to one prevalent account, the English tense system has only two basic tenses, present and past. No primitive future tense exists in English; the futurity of an event is expressed through the use of the auxiliary verbs “will” and “shall”, by use of a present form, as in “tomorrow we go to Newark”, or by some other means. Present and past, in contrast, can be expressed using direct modifications of the verb, which may be modified further by the progressive aspect (also called the continuous aspect), the perfect aspect, or both. These two aspects are also referred to as BE + ING[6] and HAVE +EN,[7] respectively.

Wikipedia also brings up how Mandarin Chinese fits in with regard to aspect:

Aspect, as discussed here, is a formal property of a language. Some languages distinguish different aspects through overt inflections or words that serve as aspect markers, while others have no overt marking of aspect. […] Mandarin Chinese has the aspect markers -le, -zhe, and -guo to mark the perfective, durative, and experiential aspects,[3] and also marks aspect with adverbs….

If you study modern Chinese grammar, you’ll learn that Mandarin has three aspectual particles (时态助词): , , and . It would be nice if that were all there was to it, but the Chinese situation, similar to the English one, is a bit muddled. That’s about as clear as it gets.

In the case of , the word has a split personality and sometimes acts as an aspectual particle, sometimes as a modal particle (语气词), and sometimes both. There is endless fun to be had studying (I know; I took several syntax classes in grad school).

, on the other hand, is sometimes relieved of its aspectual duties by the adverbs or (or 正在). But then there are some that say that would prefer to draw fine distinctions between these usages as well.

It’s funny to think that Chinese grammar is still in its “Wild West” stage. Linguists are still debating all kinds of fundamental issues of grammar, both within China and without. While you can say with conviction that “Chinese has aspect, not tense,” you can’t say a whole lot more than that. For learners who want to “know the rules,” this can be more than a little frustrating. The good news is that, like all languages, it rewards the persistent. The Kool-aid tastes downright weird at first, but if you just keep drinking it, it starts to taste right.

(If, however, you’re really interested in this whole aspect thing, I recommend you check out Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, which is about as close as you can get to “classic” in this turbulent field. It has over 50 pages devoted to aspect, with plenty of examples, but be warned: no Chinese characters!)


13

Oct 2009

Chinese Modal Verb Venn Diagram

I’m a bit of a sucker for Venn diagrams. When I was recently asked by a student about the Chinese modal verbs , , and 可以 (all of which can be translated into English as “can”), I recalled a nice Venn diagram on the topic and dug it up.

What creates the most confusion with these three modal verbs is not that they can all be translated into “can” in English. The problem is that they are usually explained over-simplistically something like this:

> : know how to

> : be able to

> 可以: have permission to

This is not a bad start, but this sort of definition is eventually revealed as insufficient to the learner because in usage, the three modal verbs actually overlap. Enter the Venn diagram. The image below is a reconstruction of the one on page 95 of Tian Shou-he’s A Guide to Proper Usage of Spoken Chinese:

Chinese Modal Verbs: A Venn Diagram

> A = ability in the sense of “know how to” (“” is more common than ““)

> B = permission/request (use “” or “可以“)

> C = possibility (use “” or “可以“)

> D = permission not granted (use “不可以“)

> E = impossibility (use “不能“)

Yeah, grammar needs more Venn diagrams.

Update: I’ve been informed that this diagram is actually a Euler Diagram. Oops. I stand corrected. I should have read up on the requirements for Venn Diagrams first! (Hey, some of those extensions are pretty cool!)


29

Sep 2009

Can't Afford

Intermediate students of Chinese will be familiar with the following pattern:

> V + 不起 = can’t afford to V

> V + 得起 = can afford to V

This pattern is most commonly about money, the typical example being 买不起 (can’t afford to buy).

The pattern is fairly productive, so you’ll see it for lots of different verbs (and not always about money), but recently I heard a new one. A friend was saying that she was going to eat at an expensive restaurant, but someone else was getting the bill. She said she ordinarily wouldn’t be able to afford even just her own meal at that restaurant (in China, each person getting her own check is a “system” called AA), so in this case, she used: AA不起.

Heard any interesting usages lately?


13

Oct 2008

Syntactic Anguish of the Verb-Object-Modifier Variety

你中文说得很好! You speak Chinese very well.

This is a compliment paid nearly every person with the guts to try out his spoken Mandarin skills in China. All you gotta do is try.

But the simple sentence above contains a grammar pattern which students of Mandarin Chinese take quite some time getting the hang of. Translating word for word, a beginner student will take this English sentence:

You speak Chinese very well.

…and render it as this sentence:

×中文

Unfortunately, in Mandarin Chinese this sentence is ungrammatical. This pattern, fine in English, is all broken in Chinese:

×Noun + Verb + Object + [Modifier of Verb]

There are two solutions to this brokenness in Chinese:

#1 Repeat the Verb

That object between the verb and its modifier breaks a sacred connection. You can’t do it. But while you can’t break the connection, you can simply duplicate the verb:

中文

Noun + (Verb + Object) + (Verb + [Modifier of Verb])

Voila! Connection preserved. You just have to get used to duplicating the verb, which, to a speaker of English, seems mighty unnecessary.

#2 Move the Object

As mentioned above, you can’t break the sacred verb-modifier connection. So why not move the object? This totally works, and it’s usually moved to right after the subject:

中文

Noun + Object + (Verb + [Modifier of Verb])

This is just really awkward for a beginner student. Why do you have to put the object before the verb? It seems really weird. Well, you don’t have to. You can also duplicate the verb. But that feels awkward too.

This pattern is so common, however, that it cannot be ignored. The more input the student gets, the more he sees that (a) Chinese people just don’t say it the way I really, really want to say it, and (b) Chinese people use these other two sentence patterns instead. It seems to me that given the choice between the two awkwardnesses, this is how the linguistic drama tends to unfold over time:

  1. Broken sentences following the forbidden pattern
  2. Experimentation with the verb duplication workaround
  3. Attempts to use the verb duplication workaround exclusively
  4. Reluctant acceptance of the object-movement workaround
  5. Relative verb-object-modifier harmony

These are just my own observations, but apparently the verb duplication seems easier, while the object moving is actually more common in the casual Chinese of native speakers (although both are common).

How about you? Are you in the midst of this syntactic anguish? Do you remember being there once?


Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

25

Jun 2008

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

I’ve been asked many times: Which is harder to learn, Chinese or Japanese? Well, the latest time finally inspired me to make this graphic. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, but some notes will follow anyway.

Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese

In case you couldn’t figure out from the graph, both are difficult, but in different ways. Both have insane writing systems and lots of cultural background to learn, so those basically cancel each other out. Any language requires lots of vocabulary memorization. Japanese has loads of loanwords from English, but really learning to use the loanwords like a native speaker instead of a crutch is not so easy to do, so I left that factor out as well. For me, the major points of comparison come down to just pronunciation and grammar.

Japanese pronunciation is quite easy at first. Some people have problems with the “tsu” sound, or difficulty pronouncing vowels in succession, as in “mae.” Honestly, though, Japanese pronunciation poses little challenge to the English speaker. The absolute beginner can memorize a few sentences, try to use them 20 minutes later, and be understood. The real difficulty with Japanese is in trying to sound like a native speaker. Getting pitch accent and sentence intonation to a native-like level is no easy task (and I have not done it yet!).

Chinese pronunciation, is, of course, maddeningly difficult from the get-go. It can be so hard to make yourself understood when your sentence is only three syllables long. Yes, I know. I’ve been there. If you keep at it, though, things get waaayyy easier. And in the later stages, accent isn’t as big a deal in Chinese. There are so many wildly different accents in China alone that once you get your tones under control and can string a coherent sentence together, Chinese people will often assume you’re a native speaker in telephone conversations.

Chinese grammar starts out fairly simple for English speakers. Some find it so simplistic that they say things like, “Chinese has no grammar.” This is not true, of course, and there are a few difficult points to master (like , which probably occupies a good chunk of the red area in the middle of the grammar graph), but overall, the grammar is not too rough. If you want true mastery of the language, however, you will also eventually have to study 古文 (ancient Chinese), and that’s quite a bit more work.

Japanese grammar starts out seeming like some bizarre alien code. However, through hard work and determination, the persistent can eventually crack it. Once you get over the grammar hump, and verb conjugations, causative-passive,  and , and keigo are no longer a big deal, you’re in a pretty comfortable place. But it sure is rough at first.

Just to be clear, this is all based on my personal experiences as a very acquisition-conscious language learner, not on scientific research. Please feel free to add your own experiences with these two languages in the comments.


16

May 2007

Grammaticalization: Articles for Chinese?

This week in grad school class about Chinese grammar, we covered the topic of grammaticalization. Of interest to me was one paper in which the author made a case for the demonstrative pronoun 这 beginning to take on the role of definite article in Beijing dialect. In this usage, is pronounced “zhe” (neutral tone). The author also examined , and the same thing is not happening.

This made me think of English. We have the demonstrative pronouns “this, “that,” “these,” and “those.” Our definite article is “the.” Might “the” have evolved the same way? It seems almost the same… Just as 这 goes from fourth tone to neutral in the change, “this” perhaps lost its final consonant and the vowel was reduced to a schwa. Or actually, “the” could just be capturing the initial consonant sound of all four of those demonstrative pronouns. Does anyone know anything about the historical grammaticalization of English? I Googled it but didn’t find much.

The paper also talked about the development of an indefinite article (like “a” or “an” in English). The author explains that in Beijing dialect, 一个 is often shortened to 一, but is pronounced “yí” (second tone) rather than “yī” (first tone). It stays second tone because in 一个 the 一 has to be second tone due to Mandarin’s tone changes for 一. It’s not normal for that tone change to stick if you remove the reason for it, though. The author says this tone change sticks no matter what noun precedes it, and gives the examples of 一狮子, 一熟人, 一老外, 一耗子 (which demonstrate that the second tone sticks no matter which of the four tones follows it).

So it makes you wonder… if this trend in Beijing dialect becomes a rule, will it make it into Mandarin as a whole? How soon might students of Chinese have to learn the Chinese definite and indefinite articles?

The actual article goes into 11 pages of examples, as well as semantic and syntactic analysis. If you’re interested, it’s called 指示词“这”和“那”在北京话中的语法化 and it’s by 方梅, published in 2002.


20

Mar 2006

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?

(more…)


16

Feb 2006

Chinese Grammar Issues

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.

(more…)


26

May 2005

Diagramming Fun

Did you ever have to diagram in gradeschool? Remember how that worked? Here’s an example:

They mixed the dough quickly, put it into the oven, and waited.

source: http://www.nambuch.or.kr/eng/diagrams/basicdiagrams26-30.htm#Sentence29

It’s intended to help the mind better grasp parts of speech and how they relate to each other in a sentence. I don’t think it really helps much, though. It seems more like demented grammarians forcing their “fun” on innocent children.

Here’s a quote from Gertrude Stein: “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.” According to her biography on Wikipedia, she was a “conservative fascist.” Makes sense. Still, some people really do like diagramming, taking on such challenges as the Pledge of Allegiance and the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States.

The point is this: the Chinese diagram sentences too! Perhaps it is a universal trend uniting the world’s grammarians. Here’s an example of Chinese diagramming (three different phrases):

Although these are only phrases, the same principles apply to entire sentences. It’s a less visually transparent system, based on hierarchical phrase categorization. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to diagram sentences using this method (called 层次分析法) on my big test next Friday. Fortunately I find it pretty easy.

P.S. I think The bottom Chinese diagram has a mistake in it. I don’t think the bottom two divisions should include ��.

P.P.S. I think maybe this is my most boring post EVAR! What do you think?



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