Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mandarin is just a series of maths formulae

I have successfully found a series of formulae that works out a word's meaning by looking at the characters which make up that word!!!!

An earlier post of mine entitled Permit Access (permit+permit+exist+take) got me thinking (and it's always scary when I think) ...

In taking the phrase "permit access" and dissecting the Chinese word 允许存取 into its component parts, I found that while on one hand (permit+permit=permit, because both 允 and 许 mean permit, as does the compound word 允许); and on the other hand you also get (exist+take=access), which is a completely different make-up.  

As an actuary, I have a background in maths & stats, and I started wondering whether I could create a series of mathematical equations to help you work out how to derive the meaning of any two characters which have been combined to create a compound word.

And by golly I think I've done it!   It's time to take out your high school maths textbooks in order to understand Chinese better :-)

When 1+2=3
As we saw in the above-mentioned article, the word 存取 (cúnqǔ) can be calculated as follows:  access=exist+take.  Think of it like "take something that exists" - it makes up a logical build-up, like 1+2=3. Simple. This logic can be seen in many other two-character words, including:
     你好 (nǐhǎo): hello = you are good
     满意 (mǎnyì): satisfied = full thinking
     意外 (yìwài): accident = outside your thoughts
     过奖 (guòjiǎng): flatter = pass the reward
     怕痒 (pàyǎng): fear the itch = ticklish

When 1+1=1
This one is mathematically slightly less intuitive, but in Chinese it makes total sense.  We also have from the previous article that 允许 (yǔnxǔ) is 'permit', and in simple terms: 'permit'=permit+permit (允+许=允许).  Good, for once Chinese seems simple. Mathematically, this can be written as 1+1=1  :-)   This is a common enough construct, and you can also see it in words like:
     讨论 (tǎolùn): discuss = discuss+discuss
     练习 (liànxí): practise = practise+practise
     自己 (zìjǐ): self = self+self
     选择 (xuǎnzé): choose = choose+choose
     依赖 (yīlài): reply = rely+rely
     应该 (yīnggāi): should = should+should
     休息 (xiūxi): rest = rest+rest
     帮助 (bāngzhù): help = help+help
     号码 (hàomǎ): number = number+number
(And so many others: 犯罪, 错误, 继续, ...)

But going beyond the equations from the earlier article, we can also observe some others in use ...

When -1+1=0
This is well-known way of creating words in Mandarin, and there are plenty of blog posts where people have written about this. Some of the better known examples include:
     多少 (duōshao): lots+little = how much
     左右 (zuǒyòu): left+right = approximately
     上下 (shàngxià): up+down = about
     大小 (dàxiǎo): big+small = size
     东西 (dōngxi): east+west = things
     买卖 (mǎimài): buy+sell = business

When 1+2=12
     楼下 (lóuxià): building+down = downstairs
     水平 (shuǐpíng): water+level = horizontal
     领带 (lǐngdài): neck+strap = necktie
     声频 (shēngpín): sound+frequency = audio frequency
(And I'm sure you can derive many more instances of this type yourself!)

When 1-1=1
Yes, this exists too - where even introducing a completely contradictory word doesn't change the meaning of the first ...
     忘记 (wàngjì): forget+remember = forget
     全部 (quánbù): whole+part = whole
     但是 (dànshì): but+indeed = but
     毒药 (dúyào): poison+medicine = poison

When 376+1=1
     白痴 (báichī): white(!)+dumb = dumb
     干净 (gānjìng): dry(!)+clean = clean
     原谅 (yuánliàng): source(!)+forgive = forgive
     愉快 (yúkuài): pleasant+fast(!) = pleasant

When 1+2=634
How about this ...
     漂亮 (piàoliang): pretty = tossed light
     面包 (miànbāo): surface+package = bread
     马上 (mǎshàng): horse+on = immediately
     有机 (yǒujī): have+machine = organic
     厉害 (lìhai): severe+injury = awesome
     消息 (xiāoxi): extinguish+rest = news

OK, so I lied. I really have not succeeded in breaking Mandarin down into a number of mathematical formulae. I think most of you figured that out when I announced that 1+1=1   :-)   

In fact, I've warned you before about the problems of trying to be too logical with Chinese, in a post called Mandarin is not "antidisestablishmentarian".

But it's still instructive when trying to remember words - and in learning another language you really do need to learn a lot of words - to consider how compounds are put together, and to be conscious about what you're taking in, rather than relying only on brute force to absorb it all.


  1. Hi Greg!

    Loved this post, it's a really great way to think about Chinese. Helps to order things logically like this, really make sense out of some of those complex combinations.

    It's interesting, some of the more weird ones (like 面包: surface+package = bread) actually come from the original characters being Simplified. In Traditional characters, it's 麵包 = flour + package = bread.

    Yes yes my advocacy for Traditional Chinese is showing through :P

    Also about organic, I had the same conundrum and wrote about it here:

    Hope things are going well with you! :D

    1. Hey Greg, thanks for your comments.

      In terms of 面包 the funny thing is here in HK I saw the traditional one all the time, but didn't actually make the link until you pointed it out. As with all mathematical formulae, you have reduced it to a similar form.

      And for organic, I had actually read your article by the time my post came out - although not before I had queued the post. Nevertheless, it's still quite a stretch to 'get' that meaning, and so I will just leave it in the "1+2=634" category :-)

  2. Facinating ideas with a new perspective on how to learn Chinese. I think the language scares off many Americans with its' perceived complexity, but I've got my seven year old already studying it!

  3. Hi Greg.

    Cool post. I'll be studying some of these words that I didn't know like 原谅, 有机 and 依赖 and some others.

    For 面包 - makes sense as flour + parcel, same for 面条 (flour + strips).

    干净 - Initially thought this one was weird with 干 in there then realised clean (hygienic) conditions would mean things to be dry too, thereafter made more sense - haha :)

    忘记 - Oh my - can't tell you how many times I've stuffed up these two.

    水平 - What's interesting about this one is that you can use it in sentences like these '政府要提高生活水平‘ and '汉语水平考试’ which more likely places it in the 1+2=634 category - IMHO :)


    1. Hi AiMei, thanks for stopping by

      Firstly, in terms of your new words, here are a couple of sentences from my pack which might help you:

      bread will be available
      miànbāo huì yǒu de

      He hurt me again and again, I won't forgive him
      tā yīérzài de shānghài wǒ, wǒ búhuì yuánliàng tā de

      Susan is a devious person, we can't depend on her
      Sū​shān​ shì​ gè​ jiǎo​huá​ de rén​, wǒ​men​ bù​néng​ yī​lài​ tā​
      苏姗是个狡猾的人, 我们不能依赖她

      Yes, 面包 makes sense if you use the 'flour' interpretation - but I was caught in the 'face' interpretation when writing the article (next time: more thinking, less writing).

      And I also agree with your comment on 水平 - there are probably quite a few words that could belong in multiple groups - especially those that have both figurative as well as literal meanings. I might actually add a few more myself :-)

  4. Thanks for the sample sentences :)

    PS: 面包 wasn't one of my new words. That's one of the first things I learned in Mandarin! :)

  5. Love your post! You have a really unique way of looking at Chinese. I'm sure everyone who has studied the language for longer than a week has noticed some of the consistencies (or not) that you have pointed out, but this article is the first I've seen that puts it all together. And in a pretty witty manner, might I add. Mandarin learners have the best community. Adding myself to the Feedburner!

    - Danji

  6. Thanks Danji for your comments, and pleased to have you following along through Feedburner too. I look forward to getting more comments from you in future!

  7. For some more interesting discussion on the topic, take a look at the East Asia Student article which is really worth reading too.

  8. ¡Very interesting! As a mathematician in China I couldn't let this post pass.
    I agree with most said, specially the 1+1=0 section which is IMHO one of the most interesting features of cmandarin that could be adopted by other languages. Please allow me comment on 3 of the words below.

    In 毒药 (dúyào): poison+medicine = poison; the point is that yào has a second meaning of "drug" that does not qualify its object as positive or negative, just neutral. So the sum makes sense as a "poisonous drug".

    In 干净 (gānjìng): dry(!)+clean = clean; one has to bear in mind a second meaning of 干, which is "to hang" (being literally a pictogram of clothes hanging from a pole). A third meaning os "to do" as in "How are you doing/hanging?" or "ni gan shenme?"; so it makes sense for the sum as "to make (something) clean".

    In 面包 (miànbāo): surface+package = bread, as was explained, the point is that mian stands for flour, and if miantiao is "streched flour" (noodles), then a bag or bun of flour stands logically for bread.

    1. Alfonso, welcome - glad to have your equation-solving skills here :)

      Thanks for your clarifications. Yes I certainly agree that as one's Chinese skills increase, the non-sensible words kinda start making sense - like your explanation of 毒药. I guess in the beginning, we all typically know just one meaning per characters, and discover to our shock over the months & years to follow that characters can have very different meanings!

      The simplified/traditional split is certainly responsible for a fair amount of confusion in this regard - like in the 面包. But also, as you point out 干's double meaning, and quick check on MDBG shows that 'dry' is 乾 in traditional, while 'do' is 幹 in traditional. Oh dear!