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context and keywords

Context and keywords: that’s the trick to faking understanding. Scan a sentence in your second language for keywords, for structures, and the half of the words you do know will tell you what the other half means.

This is actually easier in Chinese, because of the nature of the language, where all the syllables, morphemes bound or unbound, have their own meanings and combine and recombine amongst one another: the zhi in “fangshezhi” tells you that you’re talking about a kind of medical treatment*, and then its neighbours to the left tell you that you’re dealing with “an emission [of rays],” and boom there you go: “radiotherapy.” All you have to do is keep up and keep your ears open for familiar, friendly syllables. Hello, Mr. Root Morpheme. Hello, Mr. Affix.


Root morphemes and affixes were the topic in Xiandai Hanyu, “Modern Standard Chinese” class last Monday. Xiandai Hanyu is about the basic structure of Mandarin Chinese – at least, Mandarin Chinese as it exists in its official form – and targeted at native speakers of the language. This actually gives me some advantages, in that there are certain things that foreign speakers of a language must learn that native speakers don’t ever think about, e.g., ‘renmin.’

“A morpheme is the smallest unit of linguistic meaning,” says the professor. “It’s what you get when you divide a word into its smallest meaningful parts. Take ‘renmin‘ [‘the people’].”
He writes it on the board.
Renmin is a word, right?”
–Mumurs of assent from the Chinese students.
“But you can divide it into ren [‘person, people’] and min [‘people’]. Once you’ve got ren and min,” –he points at the individual characters, one for each syllable — “you can’t divide any further. So ren and min are both morphemes. And ‘ren‘ can occur on its own, but in Modern Chinese, ‘min‘ can’t. So it’s a bound morpheme.”

We went on to talk about affixation, and although previous to this class I’d had not the slightest idea that cizhui meant ‘affix,’ the context made that abundandly clear. And even if it weren’t for the context, a simple look at ci and zhui — happy little morphemes themselves, meaning “word” and “stitch” respectively — was enough.

And still, I walked out of Xiandai Hanyu feeling drained. The effort of constantly staying on my toes and pricking my ears up for keywords was more than I’d bargained for, as was the mental processing required to decipher the cursive characters the professor had written on the board.

Hanyu Xiezuo – Chinese Composition – was a welcome break: a writing class intended for foreign B.A. students (i.e., Koreans), and although it was at a higher level than the language classes I’d taken before, it was still nothing more than a language class, and I can eat that shit up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

And then there was <<Lao>> <<Zhuang>> Daodu, Guided Readings in Zhuangzi and the Daode Jing, where the topic of the day was textual analysis.

I took my notes mostly in Chinese, with occasional digressions (e.g., “Oh, shit, I’m in way over my head here”) in English. They went something like this:

“Mawangdui texts earliest extant Laozi — wait, no, newer ones found recently…”
“De and Dao portions of Laozi reversed in Mawangdui, variations on some passages…wang written differently in Ch. 33.”
“Meaning of this passage is that ‘who dies but whose Dao persists has real longevity.’ Han-dynasty xuanxue (?) (oh – metaphysics) commentator interpreted it as…(something totally wacky-ass).”
“Some portions of Laozi clearly earlier than others, probably edited in later or vice-versa.”

And all the while, I’m wondering whether some archaeologists way off in the post-Mao Dynasty future will find my notebooks, and whether what I’ve written will still be legible, and whether, after they’ve analysed everything I wrote, they’ll think that I had my shit together, or that I was kidding myself to think I could keep up.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s the former.

13 Comments

  1. Kaiser wrote:

    Dude, I’m envious. Sort of. I enjoyed the shit out of my classical Chinese courses, and had a great time reading the Huang-Lao Daoist text from Mawangdui. Good stuff — ever come across it?

    Friday, February 27, 2004 at 6:53 am | Permalink
  2. Adam Morris wrote:

    Yep, scanning is the way to go. All good language learners do that, and the really good ones have their facial expressions respond to their discoveries.

    I have a self policy (yuanze) though. If I hear three words in a sentence I don’t know, I assume I didn’t know what it meant. I can guess, but it’s a guess, and I need to find another situation to confirm it.

    I’m certain you know what I’m talking about.

    Sunday, February 29, 2004 at 1:12 am | Permalink
  3. Adam wrote:

    Dude, I feel your pain. I’ve started taking classes in the 歷史研究所 and it’s severely kicking my ass. Not only is the material in 中國宗教:歷史與主題 tough, but I have to contend with my professor’s thick Taiwanese accent and interspersed 閩南話, my notes look something like this: “中國宗教歷史上[聖]和[俗]沒有西方的那麼明顯的區別,但ㄨㄚ ㄒㄧㄟ ㄎㄠ ㄜㄚ ㄕㄧㄞ???!@%!@$^%*!”

    You’re so lucky to be in Beijing.
    BTW, there’s another extremely young, extremely talented Chinese linguist here (20), he’s at the same level as me in the language center (421, Classical Chinese) and, quelle coincidence, is also named 博恩 (Brian). The reason he’s in Taiwan is that he can’t study on the mainland , ever since he participated in a 法論功 protest in 天安門廣場 he’s been blacklisted. Don’t worry, he’s not as cool as you are, you could probably beat the shit out of him if you met him in a dark alley.

    Cheers,
    adam

    Monday, March 1, 2004 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  4. Brendan wrote:

    Lily – nah, relevance is not a requirement.

    It’s funny; I find cursing in Chinese to be really unsatisfying. It completely and utterly fails to 过把瘾, as far as I’m concerned.

    Kaiser – I think I read some of the Huang-Lao texts in translation for a class at Penn a few years ago, but it’s been a while, and the stuff from that class that really left an impression on me was ‘injaculation’ and other such wackiness.

    Thursday, March 4, 2004 at 6:15 am | Permalink
  5. Daniel wrote:

    You can cut English words up (like all Indo-European languages) into their component morphemes as well. We have bound and unbound morphemes, prefixes, affixes and suffixes all over the place. Take a word like “photography”. You got at least four obvious morphemes there, by which, if you happen to know the meaning of the morphemes but not the whole word, you can deduce the meaning.

    There’s “phot-“, meaning “light, radiant energy” from the Greek (whence are also derived photon, phosphorous). This stem morpheme “phot-” is derived from the Indo-European root morpheme “bha”, from which root are also derived true Old English words like “berry”, “beacon”, as well as other loanwords like “banner” (from Latin) and “buoy” (from French).
    The morpheme “-o-” is part of the Greek loan.

    Then there’s “-graph-“, which is also borrowed from Greek by way of Latin and then French. The Greek root is ultimately “graphein”, meaning “to write”. The Indo-European root here is “gerbh-“, which means “to scratch” and from which root we also get words like “carve”, “crawl” and “program”.

    Finally, there is the suffix “-y”, which in one letter when in combination with the other morphemes tells us that what we are dealing with is a noun describing an activity. Pretty cool huh? This suffix can denote other types of nouns (such as “jealous-y”) and adjectives (such as “sleep-y”) as well when in combination with different morphemes. The “-y” suffix here is ultimately a weakened form of the Latin suffix “-ium”, which we are familiar with in its full form also in such words as “museum” and “bacterium”.

    So you could say, “an activity where you write light onto paper” instead of “photography”. I don’t know enough Chinese to say with confidence what the Chinese morphemes making up the Chinese for photography mean, but I think it might be something like “a method by which you absorb images”. Morphology can tell you lots about cultures.

    What Indo-European languages retain (some, like Icelandic, in a very strong form, some, like English, in a very much weakened form), but what Chinese never had in the first place, is inflexional morphology. So we have inflected morphemes like “-s” (as in “dog-s”), and “-r-en” (as in “child-r-en”) to tell us “more than one”. And we have morphemes like “-ed”, as in “walk-ed”, and vowels which change which are like morphemes but inhabit a strange in-between place, because you can only know them if you know the gradation, like the “-a” in “sang” in association with the “-i” in “sing”, and the “-u” in “sung”, and these tell us “this happened in the past”. And we have morphemes which are words themselves, such as “I”, which denotes not only a first person, but that this person is a subject as opposed to “me” which tells us first person, object. This latter type is a relic of what is called the case system, where nouns are declined to show their function within a sentence. Old English (like modern Icelandic) had a horrendously complex case system (for example the word “man” in English is, in Icelandic, “mathur” if it’s a subject, “mann” if it’s a direct object, “manni” if it’s an indirect object, and “manns” if it’s genitive. All that’s left of our case inflections is the pronouns, and the -‘s, to denote possession. Everyday I thank God that English ditched its case system long ago, otherwise I’d be spending forever teaching Chinese kids word endings, instead of watching movies.

    Morphology… don’t ya just love it?

    Thursday, March 4, 2004 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  6. Daniel wrote:

    Postscript:

    Even though the word “affixation” is not officially, so to speak, a word, you have done here what most of us do every day – combined some morphemes to make a legitimate, sensible new word.

    You’ve combined the morphemes “af-“, and “-fix” with the morpheme “-ation” to give us a brand new English word. Cool!

    “af-“, by the way, is a variant of the prefix “ad-“, meaning “to” or “near”. “-fix” is ultimately from the Indo-European “-dhig(w)”, meaning to stick, to fasten. (Words like dike, ditch and dig are also derived from this root.)

    The etymology of the morpheme “-ation” is rather complex and I won’t bore everyone anymore with it, but it basically comes from Latin, and denotes abstract nouns.

    So affixation can be transliterated as “near-fasten-abstract noun”.

    Thursday, March 4, 2004 at 11:43 am | Permalink
  7. lils wrote:

    chinese makes for very bad rap music. as per my previous comment, how are things on the romantic side of life?
    I cuss in chinese at work, and recently this dude tells me that it’s awesome to know so many languages. I was like ni tamade fanbufan a? since he’s made me stay until 5am very night for the past three weeks and is trying to be nice.
    he was impressed and asked me what it means. i told him to go learn it for himself. wangbadan.
    is that bad?
    ok, are these comments suppose to be relevant to your posting?

    Thursday, March 4, 2004 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  8. lils wrote:

    chinese makes for very bad rap music. as per my previous comment, how are things on the romantic side of life?
    I cuss in chinese at work, and recently this dude tells me that it’s awesome to know so many languages. I was like ni tamade fanbufan a? since he’s made me stay until 5am very night for the past three weeks and is trying to be nice.
    he was impressed and asked me what it means. i told him to go learn it for himself. wangbadan.
    is that bad?
    ok, are these comments suppose to be relevant to your posting?

    Thursday, March 4, 2004 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  9. donny wrote:

    post u lazy ass! i mean that with all due respect, of course.

    Saturday, March 27, 2004 at 10:42 am | Permalink
  10. Cokane wrote:

    yeah–what donny said.

    Sunday, March 28, 2004 at 1:02 am | Permalink
  11. Adam wrote:

    Dude,

    whazzup? Are you going to be in Beijing in early/mid August? My family and I’ll be passing through, it’d be cool if we could meet up. What’s the reporting on the Taiwanese election scandal in the mainland like? I’m so disappointed, I had such high expectations and respect for rapid and stable evolution of Taiwanese democracy; now both the politicans and the system seem so petty, so American. Were it not for the fact that the ministry of Education just gave me a $40,000 NTD scholarship, I’d be out of here.
    I got into Columbia for East Asian Studies, but they’re too cheap to fund my ass, so I’m not going. I’m probably going to enter TaiDa’s history department in the fall, unless I can find something better to do.
    Hope we can meet up in August,
    adam

    Sunday, March 28, 2004 at 3:21 am | Permalink
  12. Alainna wrote:

    I’ve always found it easier to liken radicals to morphemes, given that Chinese is a monosyballic language. (In my experience, the problem with explaining morphemes to a native speaker of Chinese is that, given that the language is a monosyballic one, one will often say, ”Ah, but that’s a word! And ‘renmin’ is just a compound word!”) Of course, phoneticians (which I, given my love of syntax, am not) would immediately disagree as characters are simply an invented manner of representation, but given that Chinese has that aspect of language… anyway. I imagine that I would find it difficult to explain morphemes in languages that are monosyballic, just as I find it difficult to explain tonemes to non-tonal languages.

    Monday, March 29, 2004 at 10:55 am | Permalink
  13. Ma Yiping wrote:

    “All you have to do is keep up and keep your ears open for familiar, friendly syllables. Hello, Mr. Root Morpheme. Hello, Mr. Affix.”

    I worked with a Chinese-Swedish dictionary for a very long time and in lack of this wonderous definition of Chinese morphology I stopped a couple of years ago…

    Thanks Mr Bokane.org, your blog sure makes me feel taking up the acquaintance once again…
    /Yiping

    Sunday, May 30, 2004 at 3:54 am | Permalink

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