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[HugChina] Chapter 2:Chinese Syllable, meaning, and word (1)

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Bernd Chang

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Posted on Thu, May 19, 2011 09:11 AM 01937

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One of the features of Chinese is that each syllable is associated with a meaning. The most common length of Mandarin words is two syllables, and a number of common word formation strategies exist which help to create and maintain the two syllable word.

1. The special status of the Mandarin syllable

1.1 The syllable and meaning

One of the features of Chinese is that each syllable is associated with a meaning. For example, the Mandarin word for bus station/train station or bus stop/train stop is ch?zhàn. The syllable ch? means vehicle and the syllable zhàn means stand. Occurring together as a word, ch?zhàn is very nearly the sum of its parts: vehicle stand.

Some words in English have the kind of structure that Mandarin has, but for most English words, syllables need not have independent meaning. For example, the English word lettuce consists of two syllables let and tuce. These individual syllables do not have meaning on their own, and it makes no sense to ask about the meaning of ‘let’ or of ‘tuce’ in the word lettuce. In contrast, with very few exceptions, the individual syllables of Mandarin words have identi?able meanings, and when learning new words, it makes good sense to note the meanings of the individual syllables.

NOTES

1. In Chinese, a small number of syllables are not associated with a meaning. The most common is the noun suf?x z? See 2.1.1.

2. A multi-syllable Mandarin word is not always simply the sum of its parts. For example, the word gùshì ‘story’ is composed of the syllables ? gù ‘former, previous’ and ? shì ‘situation, incident.’

1.2 The syllable and Chinese characters

In Chinese, the syllable is associated with a Chinese character as well as a meaning. When a syllable is associated with more than one meaning, it is generally the case that each meaning is written with a different character. For example, Mandarin has a number of meanings associated with the pronunciation zhàn. Each meaning is written with a different character:

? zhàn dip in liquid (like a pen in ink)
? zhàn occupy
? zhàn fight
? zhàn storehouse
? zhàn to split; to burst open
? zhàn to stand; a stop, a stand

Because of these differences, the status of the syllable is much more important in Chinese than in English. Conversely, the status of the word is less important in Chinese than in English.

2. Multi-syllable tendency in Mandarin words

Although Mandarin syllables have meanings, they often combine to form words. Here is a short list of Mandarin syllables and words that they form.

Syllable     Word    
? Xue Study,study of      
? sh?ng give birth to;grow ?? xuésheng student
? ch? Produce,go out ?? ch?sh?ng to be born,birth
? k?u opening, mouth ?? ch?k?u Export,exit
? b?n Printing block/printing ?? chub?n publish 
? xiào school ?? xuéxiào school
? zh?ng head, one in charge ?? xiàozh?ng principal 
? zh?ng middle ?? zhsngxué middle
? chart  
? piàn a slice, a part ?? túpiàn picture 
? earth ?? dìtú map
? sh? book      
? gu?n Place for activities ??? túsh?gu?n library
? Fan Rice ?? fàngu?n restaurant
           

2.1 Strategies that create and maintain the two syllable word

The most common length of Mandarin words is two syllables, and a number of common word formation strategies exist which help to create and maintain the two syllable word.

2.1.1 The suf?x ? zi

One syllable words may be turned into two syllable words by the addition of the suf?x ? zí. This suf?x adds little or no meaning to the word. It usually occurs in neutral tone (zi).

Some nouns occur in contemporary Mandarin only with the zi suf?x, for example ?? háizi ‘child,’?? fángzi ‘house,’ ?? w?zi ‘room,’ ?? b?nzi ‘notebook,’ ?? wàzi ‘socks.’

Some words can occur with or without the suf?x. These include ? ch? ,??/ ch?zi ‘car,’ ? xié ,?? xiézi ‘shoe(s),’ ?,?? pánzi ‘plate(s),’? piào,??piàozi ‘ticket.’

NOTE

In the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, the suf?x ? (é)r is routinely added to words in many categories,especially to nouns and classi?ers. ? r suf?xation adds a retro?ex (r) sound but no additional syllable to the word. If a word ends in a ?nal consonant, the ? r suf?x replaces the ?nal consontant: f?n,f?r‘a portion,’ wán,wár ‘to play,’ diàny?ng,, diàny?r ‘movie,’ etc. The suf?x may also replace a vowel in the ?nal: hái,hár ‘child.’

In this book, we write -r suf?xed words in terms of their changed pronunciation. That is, we write wár and not wánr or wán’er.

2.1.2 Location suf?xes

Location words may be suf?xed with ? tóu, miàn, ? or ?bi?n to make them two syllable words: ?? xiàtou ‘below,’ ?? wàimian ‘outside,’??zu?bi?n ‘left side,’ etc.

In Mandarin spoken in southern China and Taiwan, the speci?ers ? zhè,? nà,

nèi and ? n?, n?i are suf?xed with ? when they are used as location words:?? zhèl? ‘here,’?? nàl? ‘there,’ and ?? nál?? ‘where?’

2.1.3 Abbreviation

Words and phrases that are longer than two syllables are often abbreviated to two syllables. The two syllables that form the new, abbreviated word are typically the ?rst syllable of each of the words in the phrase or the ?rst two syllables of the ?rst word in the phrase, though other combinations occur.

???? ch?ojí  shìch?ng supermarket ?? ch?oshi
???? g?nggòng  qìch? public bus ?? g?ngqì
??? f?ijrch?ng airport ?? j?ch?ng

 

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