Monday, May 22, 2006

Where's the grammar?

It was only at the end of the my second course that our teacher gave handouts on Chinese Grammar. There are a number of reasons for this.

  1. Before even getting to the grammer there are the famous tones. These are the ones that allow a sentence like "ma ma ma ma" means "does mother swear at the horse?". To quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up. More on these in a later blog entry.
  2. There are the characters to learn as well, and even though you are best learning these at a slower pace to begin with, they still distract from the typical activities of learning a new language (I imagine a similar effect happens when switching to arabic or even Russion from a language that uses a roman alphabet).
  3. There doesn't seem to be that much grammar there! At least not as we know it!

Ok - sentence structure is predictable enough and comfortingly similar: Generally speaking it seems to be Subject-Verb-Object. But there are no tenses, as we know them in English. There are no noun genders as you may have learned them in other European languages. There is no declining of verb as existing (a little) in English (I go, you go, he goes etc.) and (a lot) in, for example, Italian (io vado, tu vai, lui va, etc.). In Mandarin Chinese it's the same word for go, rendered in pinyin as qu4, no matter who's going.

I have the sneaking suspicion that while this absence of overt grammar makes the language look easier to begin with, it means difficulty later on. I imagine that a lot of suble context is required to correctly translate a real Chinese sentence and there won't be much by way of formal rules to lean on. We shall see!


Seal&Vito said...

actually theres another sentence struture: subject-adjective

Brendan Lawlor said...

True - and indeed according to the handout there are many many more. One of the things about Chinese that has been pointed out to me is that it is possible to recombine words in all kinds of orders - with typically the part that is to be emphasised at or close to the end.

To me, that's another example of a 'lack' of grammar, at least by comparison with european language. Word order is flexible. Again, I suspect this will make things harder later on, when the subtleties of meaning are expressed in these terms.