Chinese Culture [3]: Our Language is Simple

Chinese Culture Appreciation is a blog series that aims at explaining tidbits of, well, the Chinese culture. As a girl from Hong Kong, I really hope to share more of my amazing, historically rich world with you.

First of all, the post title is a big fat lie.

I've heard it said that Chinese is one of the three most difficult languages to learn, and goddammit if it isn't true. I mean, in a language that has this word, what do you expect?
Must be why we ace all our tests. ;P I'll be honest, I still can't write that properly without a dictionary. But here's what's really unfair: most of China actually writes it like this:
Wow, that is actually legible! The difference is that the first word is written in Traditional Chinese, more similar to ancient Chinese and retained in only a few places like Hong Kong. (Grrrr.) The second one is in Simplified Chinese, and was developed after China underwent a bunch of wars and half the population was illiterate.

Apparently, the government was smart enough to realise that traditional Chinese is rather difficult to learn, so a new system was invented. However, just as there are those who disdain American English:
Similarly, some people think that simplified Chinese doesn't stay true to the more "accurate" version of traditional Chinese. Which is an opinion I find amusing, firstly because no one would finish their essays in public exams if they didn't use simplified Chinese.

Besids, actual ancient Chinese is literally just pictures, and the evolution of the Chinese language has just been continually simplifying it.

And I mean, do you really propose to force 1.3 billion people to relearn this monster of a language? It was bad enough the first time round.

But if we were to apply western ideals of democracy here (why would you, though?), then the overwhelming population of mainland China would mean that Hong Kong and Taiwan should just revamp our language system.

Here's the funny thing: it's more difficult for a person who knows simplified Chinese to learn traditional Chinese than the other way round. So in terms of efficiency, this isn't even that hard ... and like I said, most students have learned it themselves yet.

That said, I would be absolutely horrified if traditional Chinese faded out of use completely.

Yes, there are some practical benefits to simplified Chinese. Yes, you could call it the natural evolution of our language. But there is something infinitely glorious in the complexity of the strokes, and calligraphy is 100 times more beautiful in traditional Chinese.

Take, for example, the traditional Chinese word for speech/language: 語. It contains the character 言, also meaning speech, which contains the character 口, meaning mouth. But the simplified Chinese word becomes 语, which simplifies the 言 and seems to embody somewhat less of the original derivation.

This sort of simplification is all the more regrettable because the Chinese language is supposed to look like what we're talking about, in some ways, and the way these characters are combined and reformed to make new associated words are somehow lost in simplified Chinese.

To sum up, I think Gandalf said it best:
Gandalf. What brought you back? Looking behind.
Never forget to look behind.

Is taking a "shortcut" in languages acceptable? Why or why not?

By the way, grasshoppers (betcha forgot the community name), is the Related posts/Linkwithin widget working? Let me know in the comments whether you can see it!

Twitter-sized takeout:
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  1. This is so cool! I always thought Chinese characters looked really neat, but I've never known much about the actual language. It would be a tragedy if traditional Chinese died out completely, but I can also see why simplified Chinese is--in some cases, anyway--the better option. Great post!

    1. I'm glad I've been able to show you a slice -- albeit a very, very tiny slice -- of the Chinese language then! And the debate has been going on a long, long time between traditional and simplified Chinese, so I don't think either's going to be disused anytime soon :)

  2. *glares at Elizabeth Windsor* There's a reason we got rid of you in the 1700's. Take your British English AND KEEP IT ON YOUR LITTLE ISLAND. You don't even get to talk to us until you learn to spell "manoeuvre" right.

    *sniffs imperiously which is ironic because her enter empire consists of a bedroom*

    Switching to discussing Chinese (although the British had their noses all up in your business for a long time as well—which probably had a lot of economic benefits and things that wouldn't be taken into account with the vehemence I am speaking with I AM SUPPOSED TO BE TALKING ABOUT YOUR POST) I think the writing is so cool. I was like, "Hey, that looks like a ram." and then it was a sheep! I think my favorites are the snake and the chicken because the first looks like the Geico gecko and it is HUMP DAYYYY and the second because the chicken looks impaled and mutilated. I am sure the people who invented this language were fun people.

    I think I can see that the spelling differences would be complicated and confusing, although I see that Chinese is WAY more symbolic than English. Like, in English, it bugs me that a lot of times British put the e at the end of the word instead of before an r, i.e. "spectre" versus "specter." Because you say it like "speck-tur" not "speck-tray" or something like that. I mean, blame me for taking Spanish for six years but that doesn't look like English. However, English letters don't work the same way as Chinese words. The way you broke apart 語 into 言 into 口 was like, "o.O MAGIC." Because a) the thing you are talking about is supposed to look like the character and b) you can squish words into other words and it is like your language is made up of thinly sliced pieces of ham and cheese, which can then be put into pieces of bread and it is not like the ham and cheese are not there but there is a new connotation of sandwich and that is kinda cool! And so... would changing the way that it looks kind of change the connotation? Because things that mean the same thing do not always mean the same thing. Anyway, there is a ton of history in traditional Chinese, and I imagine certain connotations and just the magic of the mixing-and-matching to create meaning...

    I don't know. I'm an outsider in this regard. The extent of my Chinese is entirely verbal, as learned from Firefly, Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat, and my grandpa's trip to China like ten years ago. At the same time, even as an outsider, I can see how the efficiency of writing can be desirable for the common man, but you would never want the beauty of a language that is basically an art in itself to completely fade either.

    However, if American English is being counted as a shortcut then hell yeah it's okay. *hoards her own spelling choices* However, just because the shortcut is there and something I like to use, doesn't mean I can't appreciate the way that other people write and speak, and the art that exists within their own choices. I just don't like it when people degrade the way I do things or force me to do things another way.

    So, I suppose in that regard, I would want the coexistence of both versions to exist if it were my own language. And I'm pretty sure it does, when posh and tyrannical monarchs aren't having their media goons make snide comments on the Internet.

    P.S. I also like the pig character, but I think the pig has a sword through its head, which reminds me of dead pigs, which reminds me of bacon, and I love to eat that stuff.

    1. I know you said you liked long comments but I didn't get enough sleep last night so I'm still sorry because when I wake up this evening I think I'm going to regret getting excited about reading a new Chinese culture post ten minutes after I woke up.

    2. I do like long comments, so keep them coming. You deserve an award for such amazing comments.

      Your tirade about the Queen cracked me up! Yeah, I sympathise, considering we had to kick her and her Governors out of Hong Kong too. And I do recall that you corrected me on spelling manoeuvre at one point :D

      You know, everyone else is like "oh Chinese is beautiful" and "we must not let trad Chinese die out" and you're like, "Ooh, this looks like a gecko." Do not ever change, Heather. And of course we were fun people. They're MY ancestors. *sniffs*

      Well, English is pretty much infamous for stealing from other languages and just presenting all the stuff to us disorganised. And while your sandwich metaphor made me hungry, it's actually fairly accurate. I should break down more Chinese words some other time. But the great thing is that we can literally create new phrases (not words, we're not ancient enough for that) just by mashing together various single words. Sort of like German and schadenfreude and that stuff.

      Heh, that sounds like an odd assortment of Chinese. The great thing is that you can learn it verbally without ever writing a single word down if you have crazy good memory, because it's not really connected. (Well, it is, but more for simplified Chinese because ... okay, it's really complicated. Never mind.)

      Co-existence is definitely the best option right now. And really, you Americans should be the last people to complain about celebrities using social media.

    3. Ha, I just say what is in my brain. XD

      I'm American, we tirade about royalty and then obsess over their children, I guess. It was not my idea, but that is what happens. And yes, Hong Kong had to be reclaimed, as I recall. Go Team China. (Yeah, I don't like that spelling.)

      Well geckos are lovely things too. XD I have gecko earrings, actually. But it is a valid observation! And it is a fantastic geckos as while, I might say. And I in no way meant to insinuate that your ancestors would not pass on their funness onto you; if they didn't I doubt this blog would be less populated with your snark and science.

      English is pretty much infamous for a lot of things. YOU SHOULD TOTALLY BREAK DOWN MORE CHINESE WORDS AND PHRASES SOMETIME. I like learning about roots, and cognates; they are my favorite. The system sounds cool!

      My crazy good memory only seems to recall that something that sounds like "luh-suh" means crappy and it is not a word you use to describe the spaceship. And mei-mei means little sister, even though I am not one. I just have three. It does sound complicated, though. It would take a lot more studying than I think I have time for this moment. XD

      Indeed. (And why? It's our celebrities who are making the biggest fools of themselves on social media, probably.They are making me look bad...)

    4. Your brain is truly a wondrous thing, then XD

      Geckos are fantastic. So is Chinese, and judging by the comments to this post, I probably shall write more of these posts. In the very, very distant future though, since I'm just not in the mood for more Chinese during exams :D

      That sounds about right! I have a British teacher who's learning Cantonese right now and it's wonderful to watch him piece it together based on the roots :)

  3. I've always admired Chinese characters and people who can write fast with it. I even have a friend who used to live in China and said that the language wasn't that hard once you got used to it, but it still seemed scary. I think your worry with traditional vs simplified Chinese is similar to the debate between "proper" English and casual English. On one hand, casual English is easier for the general population, but it would be pretty sad if some words and writing styles died out because they're deemed unnecessary these days. But I guess that's the way the world works. Everything changes eventually. Great post, by the way!

    Oh, and I don't see any related posts. But maybe it's because I'm on mobile?

    1. When I meet your friend, I will bribe them with tea and make them tell me their secrets. IT IS SO SCARY. I just don't feel the resonance.

      Yes! The debate between the utilitarian and the artisan can go on forever because it's a completely separate set of ideas. But we can't stop change forever -- like Gandalf said, look ahead and look behind.

      Hmm, I don't think that's it since someone else mentioned not seeing it too. I'll fix it ASAP - thanks!

  4. First off, I don't see related posts, so I don't think that's working.

    Secondly, I LOVE this post - the idea of the Chinese language seems completely overwhelming to me and I'm sure I could never learn it (especially traditional), but it is BEAUTIFUL, so I definitely agree with you that it would be a horrible shame to lose it. Oh, and I kind of love the ancient version of the language - especially the monkey. :-)

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    1. Thanks for letting me know, Nicole! A lot of languages seem complicated to me, but hey, people speak them, so they can't be THAT hard. (Except Latin. Only English students speak that. And the Pope.) The ancient version is really quite amusing, is it not?

  5. This post is super interesting to me because I've always been intimidated by how gorgeous and esoteric traditional Chinese seems. I've been wanting to learn more about the Chinese language but have been stopped every time by this mounting sense of WHERE DO I START panic. I definitely agree that traditional Chinese should stick around; I feel like it's a part of the language's evolution and legacy, which is important.

    Of course, this is coming from a Korean. Our written language wasn't invented until one of our kings realized that Chinese was too hard to learn for the vast majority of the population and we needed a simpler system to write Korean in (although writing the Korean language in Chinese characters never really made sense in the first place, IMO—it was probably only that way because HISTORICAL CONTEXT). It was basically invented TO BE EASY. So I guess it's not surprising that Chinese overwhelms me a bit :P

    BTW, this post series is the best thing. Thank you for doing it.

    1. Hmm, should I attempt to teach Chinese on this blog? Probably not, since it really is mind-boggling, but I will try to break down more words. The thing is -- how alive does legacy have to be? I mean, English evolved from Latin, but no one uses Latin except for English students and the Pope. Is that enough? Or should there be regions who actively use this?

      Ha, yes! The straight-lines-and-circles of Korean are completely incomprehensible to me, especially since you're geographically closer to us than Japan, but Japanese still has elements I can recognise. But inventing a language to be easy is pretty smart, so go ancient Korean people!

      Aww, thank you. It's wonderful to see that the Internet community is as interested in learning as I am in sharing!

  6. I love Queen Lizzie's quote, I have to say. Also, what even is Farenheit? Wake up America. :') (I'm totally kidding by the way).

    It's funny because I've had people point at Korean characters (I'm Korean) and think they're Chinese, when the two written languages don't even look alike. There's something about Chinese letters that I find visually appealing (I guess this is why the West puts random Chinese words onto t-shirts). I like the ancient Chinese animals you posted. At least no one will get confused about what they mean, right? :)

    1. The Queen is naturally fabulous. Unless you're American. OMG, Farenheit messes me up so bad. (But it makes sense, 'cos it follows the temps your body is comfortable with.)

      They absolutely do not! The entire building blocks of the language are clearly different if you speak one of them :) Well-done calligraphy really has that beautiful vein, doesn't it? And yep, confusion totally avoided. Except for the virtually identical pig and dog.

  7. I love this, Alyssa! Ever since I started school as a two year old, I've always only learned traditional Chinese. It baffles me when cousins from other schools write in simplified Chinese and I can't read a single word of it. And like you said, it's actually easier to remember traditional Chinese because you can get the meaning of the word by looking at individual parts of the word.

    Also, I love writing Chinese calligraphy (even if it takes me 2 hours to write 16 words), and it would not be as gorgeous in simplified Chinese. ;)

    1. It took me a while, but eventually I've managed to get the knack of guessing what word they mean. But I'm so slowwwwww. It's definitely more fun to smash the bits of trad Chinese together, but I write way too slowly in simplified Chinese.

      I write calligraphy really quickly, because I just sort of finish the word and give up. But I should probably try it out sometime!

  8. Ohhh my goodness. This is my favourite thing in the entire world because I am a huge language nerd (er, as you probably know by now). Honestly, simplified Chinese is difficult enough for me - as someone who has a much more extensive knowledge in Western languages using the standard 26-letter alphabet, I've found it a HUGE challenge to learn an Eastern language. It definitely stretches a different part of the brain.

    At the same time, though, you're right: it is so incredibly important that traditional Chinese doesn't fade out altogether. It's part of the legacy of China - letting it go would essentially be erasing a part of your history.

    Simplicity is all well and good, but at the end of the day, keeping traditional Chinese around equates to remembering. And remembering, I think, is the most important thing.

    1. I know very well, Topaz. *nods* Simplified Chinese is a little harder to start off, because you can't play with the building-blocks theory as much, but later it's much more convenient. Hmm, yes, there are all those posts about "every book you've ever read is the rearrangement of 26 letters" and I'm like "Ha. Ha.ha.ha. Ha."

      Exactly. Not forgetting is the core idea I've been trying to get across, even as we consider other factors and reasons. *hugs messy calligraphy*

  9. Ehe, Taiwanese girl here. :))
    This post is definitely interesting--though I already understood what you're talking about it's always fun to know what others think about the language and and explain it in another language.
    Here's the awkward thing you already knew, we use traditional Chinese here and some people actually kind of hate simplified Chinese because a) "communist China and their weird language ugh" and b) they're just not pretty. Personally I don't mind a bit of simplified Chinese because really traditional Chinese is HELL when you're taking notes (in biology there's always 體,and 與 is just being terrible everywhere.) Those two, actually, are the two simplified characters that people here use the most often (but it's inappropriate to write simplified Chinese in formal occasions like exams, but if there's no simplified characters for them we'll still find replacements anyway. Me, I really love the ampersand.) We still take pride in using and writing traditional Chinese, and I think it's starting to become some kind if a national consciousness. Gah, it's impossible to talk about this without going into politics is it.
    Okay. Language. I find it interesting when deciding whether Chinese is hard. When it comes to writing and memorising the characters, yes, it's freaking complicated, but when you look at the grammar it's REALLY simple because you don't have to worry about changing the words to suit the tenses, you just need an adverb to specify the time. There's even a TED talk about how retaining the element of time in grammar affects how people think in general. Cool stuff, though I don't really know if it's really a thing. Language never fails to fascinate me.

    1. *high-fives* I completely forgot about the political connotations! It's definitely not as serious here, even though some people do get irritated at simplified Chinese menus in tourist areas and such. And YES. Taking notes in trad Chinese is nigh impossible. I sometimes use pinyin to stand in :)

      True, our grammar is so simple. None of that run-on fuss. I've heard about that theory before, but not the TED talk -- I shall check it out!

  10. Initial thought: isn't this like Old English evolving over time?

    So, obviously, this lad here is dumb. I agree with that statement you mentioned, though, on the early part! I haven't tried learning your language but just listening to it gives me the how-do-I-even-start-with-this. And then you have the characters. Oh boy. But I digress! I guess, I just wanna say that evolution in language is inevitable and almost necessary. But if people who practice simplified Chinese cannot understand traditional Chinese in some level, I think the gap may be too much.

    1. Close, I'd say. (Not dumb at all!) Except that it's like changing from those fancy Greek letters to the alphabet. Old English --> modern English is more like switching from the version of Chinese when they left out half the words and didn't use punctuation to modern Chinese. Traditional and simplified Chinese are extremely simple to 'translate'.

      Mmm, definitely. I mean, if we're forced to study Shakespearean English ...

  11. Wow! This is so cool! But at the same time, I can see what you mean. It is definitely difficult.

    I love how intricate the traditional Chinese is. How everything is pieced together to make a whole. That it's all about the little details. But at the same time that does make it hard to learn and grasp quickly.

    I can see why simplified Chinese might be a necessity at times. But if I were to learn Chinese, I would go for the traditional first. Sure it would take longer. But I would want to appreciate where are the pieces of the language is derived from. It's just awe-inspiring.

    1. Yes, that's definitely part of the beauty of Chinese. It might seem hard to grasp, but I always thought that it made the learning process simpler because you start from easy building blocks and move up to more complicated things.

      Mmm, yes. Learn traditional Chinese for fun. Use simplified Chinese for exams. XD

  12. Thanks for writing that up; it's super interesting. :) I must confess, I would DESPAIR if I had to learn that, and if I already knew it, I'd probably either use the simplified version or some weird mix of the two because that's how I roll. I'm always interested in how languages developed, because there are just so many different ways they evolved while still fulfilling the same basic function. I didn't know that it's all picture based and evolved from there. It's so different from how German/English works. I tried to learn Hindi last year and failed miserably. A huge part of why I dropped it was because my teacher sucked, but I also really had trouble with the alphabet, because I didn't even hear the difference between some of the letters and then you think you've gotten the hang of it and suddenly you discover there are tons of ligatures, so people don't just use the letters individually but connect them. My teacher kept saying you don't have to learn them all individually, you'll see which one is which and I was like O_O No? :D Aaaaaaanyways, great post!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post! Chinese culture posts are my fav to write and seem to be a favourite in the comments section too :D

      Oh, yes, we're very different from most European languages in that regard. I've never tried Hindi before, but at least you still HAVE an alphabet. You just have to learn all the characters ever in Chinese :)

  13. Sadly the Linkwithin isn't working on my end either.

    I love languages and the written word, even though I don't understand a word of it. There is something so lyrical and aesthetically beautiful about the Chinese written word, it's incredibly artistic. So with the newer shorthand Chinese, does that extend to dialect as well? I'm interested to know whether or not they teach the traditional language in schools over there. Absolutely fascinating Alyssa, I had no idea that there was a difference. Thanks so much for sharing <3

    1. Thanks for letting me know -- still trying to fix it.

      The dialect is actually a completely separate issue which may be a post in the future! But this is only for the written word, and even though the simplified Chinese has similar strokes, traditional Chinese has way more complexity. Thanks for dropping by!

  14. The related posts and link stuff are not working for me, sorry!

    I am going to be honest here, I do not understand Chinese language- and I don't just mean I don't know it, I mean, I would not even know where to begin! First, and this question may be super ignorant and if so I apologize, but do you kind of have to be able to draw decently to make all the characters, especially the traditional ones? Because with English and other similar languages, the letters are kind of simple- you're set if you can draw a line and a circle. But these seem so intricate, so precise. I can imagine myself messing up and somehow writing something quite vulgar when I meant to talk about my cat or something.

    Anyway, this was REALLY educational for me! I am so fascinated by languages and culture, and this is a first for me! Thank you so much for sharing!

    Shannon @ It Starts At Midnight

    1. Hmm, thanks -- I shall try to poke around and find an alternative method.

      I personally wouldn't say so -- it is rather hard to write semi-nicely when you're young and can't control the pen, but it's rare that words are so similar that you mix them up so easily and anyhow you'd be able to differentiate by context. It's like making a typo with homophones -- people generally know what you mean, and most typos aren't with homophones.

      I'm glad this was informational! :D

  15. Ahh, I loved reading this! Can't wait to see more of this series. I adore calligraphy, and I've always wanted to learn ever since I saw my brother doing it.

    I guess taking shortcuts in languages is okay as long as the traditional style is prevented from dying out. I mean, spoken Tamil as it is now is drastically different from how it was a hundred years ago, but people still make films in Suththa Tamil (translates to 'pure Tamil'), teach it in school and hold debates on TV and such.

    If I had to pick another language... Danish. *falls face-down on the floor and cries for a hundred years* While I don't know much about its history, I think most Danes (and their Scandinavian neighbours) will agree that Danish at the moment is not spoken as it was even a few decades ago, and even Danes can't understand what they're speaking anymore. Honestly, I don't know why I'm trying to learn this language.

    1. I might do a post with my attempts at calligraphy at some point -- either as part of the CC series or a WTA extension post.

      Mmm, yes, languages do evolve. It would be important to preserve trad Chinese for things like archaeology or calligraphy, so I don't think it'll die out -- but should it be kept from becoming a dead language where no one uses it generally?

      I'm not familiar with Danish, but it seems to be quite important to you, so I wish you all the best in learning it and its past forms! :D

  16. This post is really beautiful. I actually can't write in Mandarin but I tried taking lessons for a few years. It just wasn't for me, I guess. Anyway, I don't really "GET" the traditional chinese since it was the simplified that was drilled into my brain.

    I'm not much of a linguist which might be why I think that while languages hold beauty, I'd rather learn it to be able to communicate. If everyone speaks simplified, I want to learn simplified. Maybe in the future, I'll consider learning Traditional but I want to learn the most current FIRST.

    1. Ah, yes, switching is such an issue. I keep miswriting simplified Chinese words. And I see we have a utilitarian view here -- which is pretty important, and I'm guessing that's the Chinese government's viewpoint too because they can teach the wider population simplified and then scholars and such can do traditional. Makes sense, really :)


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