Saturday, May 30, 2009

In the beginning ...

So there I was, in a taxi from Taipei airport to my hotel, staring out the window. It was my first trip to Asia (I was on a business trip) and I was staring at the road signs, all written in Chinese.

I noticed one sign which appeared at every exit to the highway: 出口.

You don't have to be too smart to work out that the sign means something like "exit" or "offramp", and I asked my Taiwanese colleague about this the next day.

She explained ...

The first symbol is 出 (chū) which means "outside". It's made up of two mountains (山)(shān). The next symbol is: 口 (kǒu) which means "mouth". In other words, it's the "mouth to the outside", or "exit".

And it was intuitive that "mouth" should look like 口, that a mountain looks like 山, and indeed that "outside" could be represented by two mountains.

She gave me another example. The character 王 (wáng) means king. Apparently, it comes from the fact that there is heaven, man, and earth - and those three dimensions are"connected" by the King.

I was hooked.


  1. Here's an interesting observation. In English we know that "breakfast" is the morning meal. We don't think about it as "BREAKing the overnight FAST", it's just breakfast. And it's the same in Chinese. I was lucky that my Taiwanese colleague broke "出口" into "出" and "口", because that was really helpful for me. Often I tell this story to Chinese people, and they announce "Oh, I just know that it's the word for 'exit' - I'd never thought of it as 'mouth to the outside'."

  2. So when did you start learning Mandarin? And how far along are you now?

  3. Hi Keith

    Thanks for your question. I started learning about 3 years ago, although for the first part it was just listening to 20 minutes of podcasts a day - not really serious study - just developing vocab, a feel for the grammar, etc. After a period of more serious study, I am now "conversational". A long way from fluent, but that's my aim.