The other day I was listening in on a class of Chinese students who were taking an evening course in my native language, Swedish. Their task for the day was to change nouns written in singular form to plural, (that is: “cat” to “cats”). This can be complicated enough in English: How do you now that a bunch of small rodents are called “mice” and not “mouses”? In Swedish matters get even worse, since there are five different ways to mark plural forms.
“So why is this form used for “apple”?”, a student asked.
“Uuhhm.. I don’t know. It just is…”, said I, feeling ignorant
The way that many European languages tend to change their nouns according to numbers and verbs according to time is something that can confuse Chinese language learners, since there is nothing similar in their mother tongue. On the other hand, something that confuses many European learners of Chinese is the simplicity of the Chinese grammar. During my first period of Chinese studies I was constantly getting myself lost in overlong sentences, where I used loads of complicated expressions to make sure the time of the actions was expressed in detail. Then I realized that most of the time you can do fine without them.
Well, if the Chinese grammar isn’t complicated for a European language learner, the words themselves are. This is partly because many words lack a counterpart in the learner’s native language, but I also think is because many words express so much. Just a two-syllable combination of Chinese characters can describe an action that would require half a sentence in most Indo-European languages. Granted, English has a few of these words as well, “regicide” and “defenestration” being my personal favorites, but in Chinese they are everywhere.
One example of this kind of expression is “承重孙” (cheng2zhong4sun1), which in my dictionary translates to: “eldest grandson replacing his dead father as chief mourner at his grandfather’s funeral”. Try to say that in a short way in English. Or how about “解菜”,(jie3cai4); ”to abandon a vegetarian diet”.
So far, my all time favorite is an expression that I came across in a friend’s Chinese textbook,: 遛鸟 (liu4niao3), which had been poetically translated as “To go for a walk in a quiet place carrying a bird”. My suggestion for an easier translation of this activity would be: “to go birding”. Nice and simple.