You Know What I Don’t Understand…

Chinese writing…. The term ‘Mandarin’ actually refers to the largest of the Chinese dialect groups, and is more accurately described as modern standard Chinese or Pûtōnghuà meaning ‘the common dialect’. Spoken by over 800 million people worldwide, thus making it the most spoken language on planet earth.

To make life easier in China, we decided to buy a book in attempt to learn some Mandarin, it was only then I realised what a mammoth task I face. We all know that Chinese writing is completely different to the Roman alphabet we’re all used to, the bulkiest of Chinese dictionaries can consist of tens of thousands of characters or ‘pictures’, but they say you only need to know a few thousand to get the gist of a basic newspaper. Thankfully in 1958 the Chinese created a way of writing using the Roman alphabet, Pinyin was born.


Typical menu in a Chinese cafe

Obviously I wasn’t going to learn the Chinese alphabet as quickly as Cyrillic, but the Pidgin writing system give me some hope of learning some phrases from the book. Then came along the proverbial spanner in the works…Chinese is a tonal language.

To put it simply, Mandarin raises and lowers the pitch of certain syllables to identify words. Pinyin uses diacritic marks to distinguish tone.

For example the word ‘ma’ can have five different meanings distinguished by tone

Mā – Mother
Má – Hemp
Mă – Horse
Mà – Scold
Ma – Question marker

A change to what I’m used to where ma only mean ‘ma’.


So, I’m aware that a lot of languages have these tonal qualities, just to a smaller extent, even English. Let’s not be too precise just yet and see how the natural contours of my voice work out. Until then ‘Māma qí mă, mă màn, māma mà mă!’ (mother rides the horse, the horse is slow, mother scolds the horse).

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