Justin Li

Flexibility and Ambiguity in Chinese


I was surprised to find myself having a new appreciation of Chinese (the language, not the people) on this trip. I've never been a good student of Chinese; my last formal course in it was in middle school, and that I almost failed. I can understand Chinese fine, but I can't write it to save my life. Understandably, I tend to shy away from Chinese literature even though I read it without problems. I was therefore surprised to find myself thinking about two aspects of the language I had not considered before.

The first thought is on how words are constructed. You might have heard that Chinese doesn't have an alphabet, instead using radicals in some combinatorial fashion. It is strange to think of letters and words in Chinese. Not knowing how linguists classify the language (that is, IANAL: I Am Not A Linguist), Chinese seems to jump straight from pen strokes to morphemes. Each radical (usually) has its own meaning, and often may be a "word" by itself. Word is in quotes because, while it is the small free-standing unit, it is often not sufficient to refer to objects. For example, "lions" may be written as by itself, but if mentioned in isolation 獅子 is more often used. In this sense Chinese phrases look more like idioms, except there are also other Chinese idioms with less transparent meanings. Furthermore, each individual word may be used in multiple phrases, which gives that word by itself some flexibility in meaning.

What most textbooks don't mention, however, is how new words (in the combination-of-radicals sense) are often created. There is a common, but not universal, pattern in Chinese words, where one portion of the word gives the pronunciation and another portion gives the semantic association. These portions, especially those for semantics, are often radicals, but they can often be entire words. The word for lion, for example - - contains the word for master - . Indeed, the two words are homophones of each other, and the remaining radical - - is often used in words related to animals. This compositional nesting is similar to the prefix and suffix system in English, which allows the creation of words like anti-dis-establish-ment-arian-ism. I suppose one could call it an infix system - the prime English example being abso-fucking-lutely - except that it's more specific than that. This allows authors to transcribe colloquial, spoken Chinese, which uses words and sounds which did not exist. One example of this is a Cantonese word for stuff - - which uses the traditional word plus the radical for mouth, semantically meaning that it's mostly a spoken word. The expressive power of this system has escaped me until now.

The second source of appreciation of Chinese comes from the ambiguous meaning of single words. The inspiration for this came from a restaurant in the Hong Kong Sheraton, called 雲海. This directly translates to "sea of clouds", which is decently poetic, but not succinct enough to be a restaurant name. Then there's the matter of connotations. The word , or cloud, can also be used to mean a large amount and in high density, usually as referring to people (雲雲人海). Similarly for sea, , which also connotes an unsurpassed depth and vastness. For two weeks, the question of how to properly translate this name popped into my head whenever I was bored. My best attempt, although its still missing some of the connotations, is "rolling clouds". Of course, it's also the case that "rolling" here cannot be directly translated back to Chinese. There's an art to translating more abstract concepts; it reminds me of the various translations of Jabberwocky, whose meaning is not so much written than connoted. For Chinese, I think, there's a power which comes from the ambiguity and flexible of each word, giving every phrase a deeper connotation than otherwise exists.