Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mandarin is just a series of maths formulae

I have successfully found a series of formulae that works out a word's meaning by looking at the characters which make up that word!!!!

An earlier post of mine entitled Permit Access (permit+permit+exist+take) got me thinking (and it's always scary when I think) ...

In taking the phrase "permit access" and dissecting the Chinese word 允许存取 into its component parts, I found that while on one hand (permit+permit=permit, because both 允 and 许 mean permit, as does the compound word 允许); and on the other hand you also get (exist+take=access), which is a completely different make-up.  

As an actuary, I have a background in maths & stats, and I started wondering whether I could create a series of mathematical equations to help you work out how to derive the meaning of any two characters which have been combined to create a compound word.

And by golly I think I've done it!   It's time to take out your high school maths textbooks in order to understand Chinese better :-)

When 1+2=3
As we saw in the above-mentioned article, the word 存取 (cúnqǔ) can be calculated as follows:  access=exist+take.  Think of it like "take something that exists" - it makes up a logical build-up, like 1+2=3. Simple. This logic can be seen in many other two-character words, including:
     你好 (nǐhǎo): hello = you are good
     满意 (mǎnyì): satisfied = full thinking
     意外 (yìwài): accident = outside your thoughts
     过奖 (guòjiǎng): flatter = pass the reward
     怕痒 (pàyǎng): fear the itch = ticklish

When 1+1=1
This one is mathematically slightly less intuitive, but in Chinese it makes total sense.  We also have from the previous article that 允许 (yǔnxǔ) is 'permit', and in simple terms: 'permit'=permit+permit (允+许=允许).  Good, for once Chinese seems simple. Mathematically, this can be written as 1+1=1  :-)   This is a common enough construct, and you can also see it in words like:
     讨论 (tǎolùn): discuss = discuss+discuss
     练习 (liànxí): practise = practise+practise
     自己 (zìjǐ): self = self+self
     选择 (xuǎnzé): choose = choose+choose
     依赖 (yīlài): reply = rely+rely
     应该 (yīnggāi): should = should+should
     休息 (xiūxi): rest = rest+rest
     帮助 (bāngzhù): help = help+help
     号码 (hàomǎ): number = number+number
(And so many others: 犯罪, 错误, 继续, ...)

But going beyond the equations from the earlier article, we can also observe some others in use ...

When -1+1=0
This is well-known way of creating words in Mandarin, and there are plenty of blog posts where people have written about this. Some of the better known examples include:
     多少 (duōshao): lots+little = how much
     左右 (zuǒyòu): left+right = approximately
     上下 (shàngxià): up+down = about
     大小 (dàxiǎo): big+small = size
     东西 (dōngxi): east+west = things
     买卖 (mǎimài): buy+sell = business

When 1+2=12
     楼下 (lóuxià): building+down = downstairs
     水平 (shuǐpíng): water+level = horizontal
     领带 (lǐngdài): neck+strap = necktie
     声频 (shēngpín): sound+frequency = audio frequency
(And I'm sure you can derive many more instances of this type yourself!)

When 1-1=1
Yes, this exists too - where even introducing a completely contradictory word doesn't change the meaning of the first ...
     忘记 (wàngjì): forget+remember = forget
     全部 (quánbù): whole+part = whole
     但是 (dànshì): but+indeed = but
     毒药 (dúyào): poison+medicine = poison

When 376+1=1
     白痴 (báichī): white(!)+dumb = dumb
     干净 (gānjìng): dry(!)+clean = clean
     原谅 (yuánliàng): source(!)+forgive = forgive
     愉快 (yúkuài): pleasant+fast(!) = pleasant

When 1+2=634
How about this ...
     漂亮 (piàoliang): pretty = tossed light
     面包 (miànbāo): surface+package = bread
     马上 (mǎshàng): horse+on = immediately
     有机 (yǒujī): have+machine = organic
     厉害 (lìhai): severe+injury = awesome
     消息 (xiāoxi): extinguish+rest = news

OK, so I lied. I really have not succeeded in breaking Mandarin down into a number of mathematical formulae. I think most of you figured that out when I announced that 1+1=1   :-)   

In fact, I've warned you before about the problems of trying to be too logical with Chinese, in a post called Mandarin is not "antidisestablishmentarian".

But it's still instructive when trying to remember words - and in learning another language you really do need to learn a lot of words - to consider how compounds are put together, and to be conscious about what you're taking in, rather than relying only on brute force to absorb it all.