Can I use my electric brain on the fire car?

I’ve been visiting China for a month, and have been having a darn good time. In my (mostly fruitless) efforts to learn a bit of survival Chinese, I quickly realised that Mandarin is an extremely complex language, and is perhaps as far away from English as you could ever get.

The main difficulty is the tonal system. Whilst this is something ingrained in Chinese people from infancy, to native English speakers it can take a lot of getting used to. Getting the right word is only half the battle – depending on how you say the word (that is, the intonation of your voice), a word can have wildly different meanings.

Take, for example, the single syllable ‘ma’:

  • 媽/妈 (mā) “mother” — high level
  • 麻 (má) “hemp” or “torpid”— high rising
  • 馬/马 (mǎ) “horse” — low falling-rising
  • 罵/骂 (mà) “scold” — high falling
  • 嗎/吗 (ma) “question particle” — neutral

There’s a fine line, then, between describing your mother and describing your horse!

The age of the Chinese language means that it has to adapt itself to new concepts and ideas. For example, Mandarin for ‘train’ is 火车 (huǒ chē), which literally means “fire car”. Likewise, a computer – 电脑 (diànnǎo) – is an “electric brain”; and a helicopter – 直升机 (zhí shēng jī) – is a “straight-rising machine”.

These all make a certain amount of sense, of course – I guess Chinese isn’t as ‘lucky’ as English is, in that we can simply steal words from other languages (e.g. karaoke, Japanese for “empty orchestra”), or make our own from Latin/Greek roots.