The world’s most widely spoken language—and one of the most daunting to learn—has its idiosyncrasies dissected in this primer.
Hung (Practical Ophthalmology, 2016, etc.), a retinal surgeon, amateur linguist, and author, is fluent in English, Mandarin Chinese, and his native Cantonese dialect and thus well-qualified to interpret the foibles of Chinese for English speakers. Chief among these is a fiendishly difficult writing system that uses characters symbolizing ideas rather than the simple alphabets other languages use to phonetically spell out the sounds of words. Hung shows how Chinese characters evolved over thousands of years from rudimentary drawings of the sun, trees, rivers, and the like into complicated, abstract tangles of lines only vaguely connected to the concepts they signify. Chinese speakers learn to read and write by memorizing thousands of ornate characters, a task that significantly slows their attainment of literacy compared to the speed at which students learn alphabetic writing. Other maddening quirks of Chinese that he deftly explores are its tonal semantics and its relatively small number of phonemes, which make for a bewildering number of homonyms. The word ma, Hung notes, can mean mother, horse, hemp, or to scold depending on the tone of voice, while whole paragraphs can be written using nothing but the syllable “shi.” The author continues with a beguiling tour of China’s linguistic culture, from the folktales behind cryptic Chinese aphorisms—“Ban’s door, display axe” is an injunction to not show off one’s meager skills—to hilariously wrong-headed Chinese-to-English translations in signage. (He finds restaurant menus touting such delicacies as “binaural infected cucumber” and “grilled sexual harassment.”) Hung’s treatise blends wide-ranging, sophisticated, but very readable linguistic analysis with insightful reflections on his personal experience navigating three radically different languages, all packaged in graceful prose that wears its erudition lightly.
An engrossing introduction to the riches of Chinese that should delight casual language mavens and more experienced speakers alike.