Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mandarin is not "antidisestablishmentarian"

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, tiào​shuǐ​, literally: 'jump water'),  'mermaid' (美人鱼, měi​rén​yú, 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 (suǒ​wèi): 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 (wú​suǒ​wèi): 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 ...


  1. There's no way I could ever defend Chinese, it's bloody difficult to learn, end of story :)

    But there's no way I can say that English is 'intuitive' either. A lot of English words are just seemingly random, then you have tense and state, all of which are full of inconsistencies. Not that this is a bad thing, the beauty of English is that it's derivative and evolves, but I couldn't justify using it to make a point that Chinese is unintuitive.

    what do you think?

  2. I don't have any comment other than thanks! I just started really trying to learn Chinese and I am having a heck of a time with it. I just subscribed to this blog and in the few posts I've read already I feel like I'm not stupid. Thanks again :)

  3. Hi analogue40. English is not completely easy, I accept that. In fact, I had written about exactly that quite a while ago here. However, in terms of putting words together & decomposing words/phrases to get the meaning, Mandarin is the messiest language I have come across.

    I guess it comes down to personal experience. For me, as an English-speaker learning Chinese, it's the above scenario which so often baffles me.

    In your case, what would you say it the part that makes it "bloody difficult to learn"? :-)

  4. Temujin, you're welcome to join us. I'm glad that reading these articles has given you a context to your own learning. Where are you based? (And good luck with your learning!)

  5. I believe you're misstating the problem. In fact in English there are many words that don't make sense unless you know their Latin or Greek roots.

    Similarly, knowing that "所" meant "that which" (particularly in classical Chinese, which admittedly few learn before Mandarin) would help with Mandarin.

  6. Hi pkd, thanks for your comment. Naturally, for a post like this, I am generalising. English isn't always clear, Mandarin isn't always confusing.

    However, my experience is that this problem is more of an issue with Mandarin that with the other languages I've learned.

    Another example, just the other day, I read a sentence with 将 (jiāng​) - which normally means something about the future tense. But that just didn't make sense in the context, so I went back to the dictionary. According to, this is "will / shall / ... / just a short while ago".

    "Just a short while ago" <-- Yes, although most of the time 将 is about future tense, there is a subtle meaning which has a past tense meaning. That was how it was being used in that sentence!

    So too, in this case, 所 has a subtle meaning - but for the majority (all?) of Mandarin students, we simply won't know that. Our instinct will be to add 无 and assume we have now negated what exists before.

    I appreciate your input and must admit that it had previously taken me a few reads of the dictionary to understand the word. I look forward to your future input - very useful, thanks.

  7. To make non-sense of something in a foreign language ocurs only if you translate from one language to the next. That is, from your L1 to L2. Better to learn a foreign language without translating from L2 to L1 and back again. But through repeated input in the L2, you will come to understand the L2 word for what it represents and not for its translated equivalent. For example, BONITA does not equal PRETTY. BONITA represents images, feelings, and visions of ...(you feel in the image, feeling, emotion).

  8. 无所谓 was one of the words in Chinese that I had the toughest time getting a grip on, and even still it baffles me in the same way as you wrote above. Like you said, some words and phrases just need to be memorized.

  9. Cesar, that's an important observation, and one which I wrote about here. However, before you get to L2-natural, there is a lot of intellectualising to do ... and that's exactly where I got caught up this time! :-)

    for the love of languages, I'm *really* glad that I'm not the only one to get brain-tied with this word! You have any others that you got stuck on?

  10. At last ... an explanation of 所谓 that makes sense! This is a great article on suo.

  11. I just started learning mandarin and i've already found an example to add here:
    小 = Small
    心 = Heart
    but 小心 means carefully. This is mind-boggling for me but i guess i cannot compare languages and learn completely. Thanks for your posts and links that you provided to other blogs.

  12. Hi KC

    Thanks for your example - yes "small heart" sounds a little odd, doesn't it? Part of the challenge of Chinese is so many words have multiple meanings! So although 心 means 'heart', it can also mean 'intention' - and thus 小心 might more literally be about "pay a bit of attention". Make sense?

    But most of the time I've found that you have to learn this the hard way! You will notice some odd combinations (like you did above) and then that's how you realise the character can have another meaning.

    If you think the above is interesting, have you read my other related article that makes Chinese seem like mathematical formulae?