A Chinese tidbit

I will begin this post by noting that I’ve always enjoyed studying foreign tongues, albeit that I think you may’ve deduced this from some other posts. I particularly like observing the syntactics of a given language, as they allow me a great amount of subtle insight into the thought processes of the native speaker. Some may say that idioms are the aspects of a language that really express its speakers’ modes of thinking, but I think that the laws governing the syntax of a given language are bursting with information about those that utilize it. While the etymology of some words enables us to unearth a vast amount of information concerning the relations between the culture whence they stem and the culture currently employing them, syntax aids us in understanding the logical and analytical capabilities of a given population.

When I’m feeling brave, I approach idioms. I’ve never been socially capable; examining idioms almost feels as though I’m conversing with and attempting to comprehend people. It’s exhilaratingly frustrating.

In any case, I digress:

I’ve been learning Mandarin for approximately two years now; although my pronunciation remains absolutely atrocious, I can write in a moderately understandable manner.

When I first began learning to write in Chinese, I discovered that a functive verb could be utilized in combination with the particle 了 to denote that an action had occurred in the past. This was understandable enough.

Upon consulting several grammatical texts, however, I found that most did not distinguish between inserting the particle after the functive verb and inserting it at the end of the sentence. In other words, most resources claimed that both placements of 了 were syntactically sound, as depicted in the exceedingly simple example found below.

我吃晚饭了
我吃了晚饭.

By dint of having rather obsessively read many Chinese texts, however, I determined the first usage (that is, 了at the end) to be more generally used (particularly in more complex sentences), and thus more desirable. Now, I recognize the latter form as being “unidiomatic”; so too, it seems, do most Chinese people.

However, what’s in an idiom? Does the former’s being the most accepted usage suggest anything about its speakers, from a psychological perspective?

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This entry was posted in Chinese, Etymology & Linguistics, Foreign Languages, Literatures, & Translation. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Chinese tidbit

  1. Tyr says:

    Now, I would say that a languages not only reflects a culture’s thought process, but, over time, directs it and can even constrict it. Look at 1984; the systematic use of newspeak to limit the ideas of the people. It even talks about how the declaration of Independence would not be translatable into newspeak at all.

    I would also say that programming languages can also define the way programmers think, perhaps, even to a greater extent than spoken languages. The concept of mapping a function over a set of values is very hard to express in C, to the point that most people simply don’t do it, and solve the problem in a different way, while mapping feels more natural in languages like the LISPs. Even in the LISPs, there is variation. The more concise the notation, the more accessible the concept. Arc’s [] lamdba syntax is better than the (lamdba (x) ..) natation.
    Compare
    (map [+ 1 _] '(1 2 3 4)) to
    (map (lamdba (x) (+ 1 x) '(1 2 3 4)) . Now, I would propose that Haskell’s currying and dot composition is even more expressive.
    map (+1) [1..4] or
    map (negate . sum . tail) [[1..5],[3..6],[1..7]] (The dot is function composition. So that reads:the list you get when you negate the sum of the tail of the inner lists [1,2,3,4,5],[3,4,5,6],[1,2,3,4,5,6,7].)

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