The Challenge – The sound of the character

In English, even when you see a word you do not know, you are still able to read and pronounce it correctly. There is a correspondence between the letters in the word and the way it is pronounced. There are – many – exceptions, but all in all, there is one. And we take it for a universal fact.

Not so in Chinese.
In “The challenge – A language with a complex character“, I’ve explained that the origin of Chinese characters is very different from ours. Chinese characters describe meaning, rather than pronunciation. Hence, it is perfectly possible to understand a text without being able to read it out loud.

It’s an interesting thought that Chinese, who study English, may be capable of correctly reading a text without understanding it. Note that – when was a younger man – the entire system of learning how to read was based on being able to read out loud. Expression came before understanding. Reading silently would come only some years later, and even today, sounds form in my mind when I read a text. I wonder how that goes in China ?

Now, Chinese characters have transcended the purely pictorial. Their construction is complex and subtle, and I’ve pointed out before that I have only a very basic understanding of them. They have elements which describe how it is pronounced, as shown by Gabrielle. For example:

  • 妈 pronounced ad ‘maa’, or ma1 in pinyin; which means ‘mother’
  • 马 pronounced as ‘maha’, or ma3 in pinyin; which means ‘horse’
  • 骂 pronounced as ‘ma !’, or ma4 in pinyin; which means ‘to scold’

You see the common part in each one ( 马 ). This is somehow indicative of its pronunciation.

In all honesty, all this is not a great help when studying and I suspect there are at least as many exceptions to the rule. For instance, ‘麻’ is pronounced as ‘ma ?’, or ma2 in pinyin and means ‘numb’. The ‘马’ is entirely missing here. At this moment, memorizing pronunciations is not my biggest worry. The amount of vocabulary has only grown at a modest pace. I do expect this to change though ( the vocabulary list of our new textbook is already significantly more elaborate than the previous one ). So this will become a challenge soon.

In the meantime, I’m content to have a problem that doesn’t pose itself as one.

Previous post on this topic – The challenge – A language with a complex character


One Response to The Challenge – The sound of the character

  1. Pingback: The challenge – Consonants « Willy Druyts learns Chinese

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