This article answers a question that most of you have been thinking about since you started learning Chinese: How does Mandarin link together the following: Mary Poppins, long English words, mermaids, and total indifference??
I took a huge amount of pride as a child being able to say Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and in later years my long-word-of-choice was antidisestablishmentarianism. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what either of them meant, but because of the nature of the English language, I'm now able to note the following:
anti-X --> against or opposite to X
dis-X --> against or opposite to X
X-ment --> generally makes a noun out of X
X-arian --> having a nature of X
X-ism --> the system of X
Putting it all together we are not surprised to see that the dictionary provides the following definition: "opposition to the belief that there should no longer be an official church in a country". Other than the church referenc, it's quite logical.
But Mandarin doesn't always work that way. And this is part of the reason, I suspect, that so many Westerners have difficulty learning the language. (In other words, sometimes you have to learn something, and not just rely on intuitive extrapolation to guess it.)
Of course, you do get words like 'diving' (跳水, tiàoshuǐ, literally: 'jump water'), 'mermaid' (美人鱼, měirényú, literally: pretty person fish) and 'chameleon' (变色龙, biàn sè lóng, literally: change colour dragon) (see this great blog for more unusual examples) - words which are neatly "built up" out of their components. But below is an example I was thinking about recently which demonstrates my point:
无 (wú): not / without / un-
所 (suǒ): place / actually
谓 (wèi): to speak / to name / meaning
Our first attempt is to piece together 所 and 谓 - which gives us (according to the dictionary)
所谓 (suǒwèi): so-called
It is not impossible to reverse-engineer using the definitions above ("actually" & "to name"), but if you hadn't learned the word already, you're probably unlikely to guess its meaning. That's OK - we see this a lot in Chinese.
But the next step is simply to put the "not" in front of 所谓. This should be straight forward, and I would expect the word to mean something like "not so-called". Right? But instead we get:
无所谓 (wúsuǒwèi): to be indifferent / no matter
Sorry, but even knowing the meaning of all three characters and knowing the meaning of the "meaty" part of the word, there is no way I would guess it has this definition.
This is not an excuse not to learn Mandarin. It certainly doesn't prove that Mandarin is impossible. It merely means that sometimes you have to go past the 'intuitive' - and just learn it.
If you have words that you find non-intuititive, please mention them in the comments below. I'd also love to hear from some of you who have never commented to MandarinSegments before ...