Sunday, April 29, 2012

The sentence with (the girl with (the dragon tattoo) )

One thing that made Chinese slow for me to pick up was the sentence structure - it is far less linear than English, or indeed than the couple of other languages I learned at school.

The subject of this article is stated somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it gives an idea of how I had to start perceiving Chinese sentences before I could work out what was going on. I've had this article in my mind for sometime now, but every time I've tried to write it I've ended up getting frustrated at my (in)ability to put into words what had become more natural to me after studying hundreds off sentences through flashcards, and reading even more through casual (low-level!) reading.

Learn by Example

So I've decided rather to just give a few example sentences, in the hope that by highlighting this for you - especially if Chinese is not yet natural-feeling for you - it might add value. If you have alternative explanations, or other examples, or better linear translations, please leave your comments below.

tl;dr: Try to think in terms of bracketing phrases to more easily understand Chinese.

(Note that if my explanations confuse you, just ignore them - put the sentences in your flashcard pack and learn them. What? You don't use flashcards yet??? Well now is a great time to begin ...)

A. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
龙纹身的女孩 龍紋身的女孩"
lóng wénshēn de nǚhái

The literal translation of the above sentence is "dragon tattoo'd girl". If we tried to stick with English, we might do something like 女孩龙纹身 or 女孩龙纹身, but according to a native-speaker I was chatting with, this sounds more like there is a girl, and there is a dragon tattoo. Separate things.

B. People who want tattoos should go to a professional tattoo shop
yào​ wénshēn​ de rén​, bìxū​ qù​ zhuānyè​ de wénshēndiàn​

Since we're chatting about tattoos, here's another sentence from my flashcard pack. What I remember clearly about this sentence when I first learned it (2 years ago, according to Anki :-) was that the opening phrase was translated as "(want tattoo)'d people", rather than what I instinctively tried to say, which was roughly "那些人要文身,他们必须...". Clearly mine was clumsier.

We see the same format in the second part: "(professional)'d (tattoo shop)", but that is more obvious to us English-speakers because we mentally identify 'professional' as an adjective. What I'm saying here is we could see the part of 'wanting a tattoo' as an adjective to 'people', and things would make more sense.

C. From the moment that I met her, I hated her
zìcóng wǒ rènshi tā de shíhou, wǒ jiù hèn tā

Again, showing brackets into the sentence to show what is happening, we get:
     From (I met her)'s time, I hated her
This is so much nicer than literally trying to say "From. the. time. that ...".  Once you're more comfortable with Chinese, there won't be anything amazing about this sentence - it will feel very natural - but it clearly is a bit of a leap from a linear translation of the sentence.

D. What's a pretty girl like you doing here all alone?
xiàng nǐ zhèyàng de měinǚ zěnme huì luòdān?

I've used this sentence in a previous post, but this time focusing on the sentence structure. Using brackets, it looks like this:
     like you (this kind of girl) how come alone?
I'm frustrating myself again trying to describe what is happening, rather than just leaving you to read the sentence, and see for yourself. So I'll now leave you simply to read the sentence and see for yourself ...

E. He is a man full of adventure
ta shi yige chōng​mǎn mào​xiǎn jīng​shén de ren

This is another really simple sentence, which is simply:
     he is a (...)'d person
I think that trying to linearly translate this would produce something like the following, which is terrible:
     he is a man, his characteristics are to be full of adventure

F. I met my wife on a blind date
wǒ hé wǒ de qīzǐ shì tōngguò xiāngqīn rènshi de

Literally this is:
     me and my wife are (through blind-date)'d met
Sorry for the grammatically incorrect use of " 'd " but I hope it's helpful to identify the adjectival phrase which is happening. (And yes, I'm also aware it should be "My wife and I ...")

It's worth noting that I'm not saying this is the only way to translate this sentence, and in this case you might be able to come up with a relatively good linear translation. However, the key is that when you're listening to someone, or reading Chinese, your brain needs to act relatively quickly to put these notional brackets into place to allow the concepts to be sorted and understood.

G. People should have the ability to think for themselves
rén yàoyǒu dúlì sīkǎo de nénglì

People should have (independent thinking)'d ability

H. There are many things which can cause heart disease
zàochéng xīnzàngbìng de yuányīn yǒu hěnduō

(causing heart attack)'s causes are many

I. Avoid being subjective and one-sided when looking at problems
kàn wèn​tí de shíhou yào bì​miǎn zhǔ​guān piàn​miàn

(look at problems)'s time, you should ...

J. The houses are sold out within this price range
zai zhege jiàwèi fànwéi zhīnèi de fángzi yǐ shòuwán

Note how the whole phrase about a being within a certain price range, is turned into an adjectival phrase which applies to the houses:
     (within this price range)'d houses are already sold

K. Insurance companies do not cover any accident which is caused by an act of God
bǎoxiǎn​gōngsī bùhuì lǐpéi rènhé yóu tiā​zāi suǒ yǐn​qǐ de yìwài​shìgù

insurers do not pay any (caused by an act of God)'d accidents

L. When we decide which sickness rates we need, I will ask you to help provide it.
dāng quèdìng xūyào nǎ jǐ xiàng jí​bìng de fā​shēng​lǜ shí, wǒ zài qǐng nínmen bāng​máng tí​gōng

This is an extract from an email from a client of mine, where the clarifying phrase applies to time again.      (when we decide which sickness rates we need)'d time, I will ask you ...

M. Don't disappoint your parents
不要辜负父母(对你)的期待 不要辜負父母對你的期待
bùyào gūfù fùmǔ duì nǐ de qīdài

I'll leave you to think about this one, but depending where you put the brackets it might look like your own expectations, or those of your parents. What should it be?

Use your Mental Brackets

If (you enjoy (the thoughts that I wrote down here)'d article)'s time, please (at (below-situated)'d area) leave comments.