Mandarin has around 1.2 billion speakers. But most Westerners have a little idea how 15% of the world communicate. Here are six cool things you likely never knew about Mandarin!
6. Mandarin Grammar Doesn’t Have Tenses
Ever wonder why Chinese speakers often mess up English tenses? It’s because Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have them. Mandarin verbs don’t conjugate or change according to the time of action. If you want to say, ‘Yesterday I went to school.’? Just say, ‘Yesterday I go to school.’
The time word ‘yesterday’ covers your context! Sure beats having to learn those pesky subjunctives in Spanish!
In English, we say ‘What’s up?’ or ‘How are you?’ to mean ‘hello.’ Mandarin uses a different method. Chinese speakers rather ask, ‘Have you eaten?’
吃饱了吗？ – chī bǎo le ma?
Sharing food is extremely important to Chinese people. Asking ‘Have you eaten?’ shows they care about the other person. Also, it implies the other person is going to treat you if you haven’t. So, be careful! Never reply, ‘no.’ The other person could feel awkward and obligated to pay for your dinner! Time is relative, so always answer, ‘yes!’
While English has its four-letter words, Mandarin has its four-character idioms. Contrary to what you might think, these four-character idioms reflect culture rather than vulgarity. Each idiom usually implies an ancient story which gives a rich depth to meaning.
人山人海 (People Mountain, People Sea = ‘It’s Crowded’), 一石二鳥 (1 Stone, 2 Birds = ‘Kill two birds with one stone’) or my personal favorite 人多嘴渣 (People Many, Mouths Bicker = ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’)
Chinese speakers use such ancient idioms frequently. With 5,000 years to accumulate them, any person who can effectively use loads of Mandarin idioms demonstrates remarkable intellectual prowess!
3. Female or Male?
Written Chinese will differentiate between male and female, but the spoken will not. The word for ‘he,’ ‘she’ and ‘it’ (tā) sounds the same. Thus, if you’re a late-comer to the conversation, you might be unsure for a while if ‘he’ is ‘she’ or ‘she’ is ‘he’ or if it’s an ‘it!’ Next time you hear a Chinese person mixing up masculine or feminine pronouns in English, you know why!
2. Hey, Fat-So!
When you see someone you haven’t seen for a while; often people will say 你變胖喔！This roughly translates, ‘Wow, you’ve gotten chubby!’ You may think it sounds insulting, but the insensitivity to proclaiming someone ‘fat’ could be linked to ancient times when famine was common. You can think of it as a compliment, as those who were prosperous gained weight! But I must admit when you’re trying to lose weight, this one can be demoralizing.
1. Some Chinese Characters Say It All!
While not all characters operate this way, some characters pictorially describe their meaning all too well.
The traditional character used for ‘love’ (愛 – ài) has a ‘heart’ (心) in the middle. Logical, right?
Well, starting in the 1930s, the Chinese Government started to revamped around 2,000 common characters to make them easier to write. And they decided to change 愛 (love) to 爱 (love).
Notice the change? Well, it’s a big one!
They replaced the ‘heart’ (心) in the middle with ‘friend’ (友) at the bottom.
Considering Chinese Civil War and the Chinese Communist Cultural Revolution which killed millions, I guess there was no room left for the ‘heart’ in ‘love,’ the centrality of love is found in the comradery of fellow man.
Well, these are just a few things which make Mandarin an utterly fascinating language! It’s quite literally a new discovery or shock every day!