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.