Sunday, June 15, 2014

As (confusing) as possible

I was revising flashcards recently, and in a relatively short space of time there were sentences that included 尽可能 (jǐnkěnéng - as much as possible) and 尽力 (jìnlì - trying one's hardest).

Aside: 尽 (jin) means something like 'to the furthest extent', so since 力 means 'strength' and 可能 means 'possible', you can see how (尽X) words would work. 

Anyway, so my mind noticed - because the two sentences appeared just minutes apart - that in one I found myself saying jǐn (third tone - which is correct) and the other I said jìn (fourth tone - correct too). Chinese is always confusing - I've written about this plenty before - but I got to wondering when each would be correct.

The other word which then popped into my mind was 尽快 so I looked that up too ... damn!  The dictionary showed that it could be both jǐnkuài OR jìnkuài. So strange.

I was speaking to Judy about this oddity the other day, and she - as a HK'er who uses the traditional character system rather than the simplified system - pointed out the following ...
  • This is a known oddity in Chinese, and even HK people note this when studying Mandarin
  • If you use traditional characters, the words are written 儘可能 and 盡力, which shows us that actually they are not the same character in the traditional set (the 亻 component exists) - which partly explains why the one is third tone and the other is fourth tone
  • 尽量 gets this right, because the one traditional variation is 盡量 which consistently uses the fourth tone (jìnliàng) while 儘量 consistently uses the third tone (jǐnliàng)
  • However, when you look up 尽快 in the dictionary, you strangely find that not only can it be written using both forms of the traditional character (盡快 and 儘快), but even the matching tones that we observed above don't work here!
I guess this is a point of theoretical interest. It's nice to know, but if you're learning by listening & talking (and not just reading) then you'll get these points right anyway. Like in my case, I was actually correctly using the respective first & third tones without realising it - because that's how I learned each - and it was more coincidence than anything that I noticed it.

TL;DR:  Probably the right advice in this case is (a) listen to Chinese more (obviously!) and (b) if you're a flashcards kinda person (and you ought to be, if you're not yet advanced) then make a point of sometimes reading them out aloud - making sure the tones you're saying match the tones you're reading in the pinyin.

I've written before about words which - although the pronunciation remains the same - the meanings can be really flexible. But in this case it's about having the same meaning, but different pronunciations. Do you have any particular words which are as confusing as possible to you? Please leave a comment below ...