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© 1997 – 2002 Patrick Hassel Zein

This page was last updated 31.07.2002


Zhongwen he luoji = Chinese and Logic

Chinese and Logics

From time to time it has astonished me to see that a lot of the students of Chinese seem to be computer engineers or students of theoretical physics. How can this be? My suspicion is that itís because the Chinese language is so strikingly logical both in itís grammar and in itís writing. It may also be so simple that people engaged in very strictly technical studies might want to do something totally different to relax their minds... At least I'd say that both these statements are valid for me personally!

Object Oriented Characters

All Chinese characters are written by use of six basic strokes; dot, vertical, horizontal, hook, angle and slanting line. A stroke may be a character, since, for example, a horizontal line by itself represents the number one. The basic strokes are combined into about 214 radicals, i.e. basic characters. All these radicals may then be combined with each other or with simple strokes to create more complex characters. The complex characters may even be developed into more complex characters by adding more strokes and/or radicals. 6 strokes build up 214 radicals that build up more than 15.000 characters. This is what I would like to refer to as an object oriented structure! Once you've understood the structure, it will become easier and easier to learn the language.

Strictly Logical Grammar

The Chinese grammar has very few similarities with the grammars of European language. The Chinese grammar is totally free of inflections -- in European languages the inflections usually correspond to the major part of any book on grammar. In the Chinese language the point of grammar is more a question of how each and every character may be used in different contexts and how to make a text as clear and well formulated as possible. It has struck me that the Chinese grammar just might be described in a way rather similar to the one used for computer languages (those are also free of inflexions!), though I have not had any time to sketch on this thesis, as to get any clear implications...

Disturbing the Linguistic Balance

Since the Chinese language is not at all related to European languages, and since there are a lot of cultural differences in addition to this, there are things that are really tricky to translate – if not impossible. Names, for example, are very difficult to translate from western languages to Chinese – partly because there are no actual letters in the Chinese language, but also because the sounds of the language can not be combined as freely as in alphabet-based languages. In most cases one will simply have to select a new name, or one will have to make a meaningless and vaguely phonetically transcription of the name in question.

An other example of a very confusing translation is the film title "Never say never again". A European might feel that this sentence isn't built around any strange logic, and would probably just look up the Chinese translation of the word "never" in a dictionary. If you do so, then you are bound to find the phrase "yong3 bu4", and you think that you can use it to build a direct translation. Wrong! The little word "bu4" (i.e. "not") is used only to state facts, and not to give instructions. One might say that the word "not" actually has got two different meanings; stating a fact (as in "You are not/never sad") and giving an instruction: (as in "You must not/never be sad!"). If you translate the sentence "Never say never again" word by word to Chinese, then you will probably mix up the negations of type 2 with type 1. If a Chinese person then tries to translate your phrase back to English, you might get something like "You never say that something is always not again" – but most likely you would get a very confused glare.

Illustration © Microsoft Clipart

Have I lost you? Well, I can assure you that I've spent ours, or even days, trying to work out the logic in this horrible phrase. Hey! I spent more than two hours thinking through how to write this explanation of the problem!

If you still are reading, then I will give you a hint to the solution of the problem. If the word "never" is used in an instruction written in Chinese, then you should usually specify both an object and an action clearly, as in "You must not do that" instead of a short "Don't!". If you want to make a general statement, then you must still state object and action, though they may be void, i.e. replaced by words like "someone" or "something". To solve the translation at hand, you will probably have to create a rather watery paraphrase that is at least twice as long as the crisp and rather powerful English sentence; "You must at all times avoid saying 'not ever again'" ("Yong3yuan3 bu4 gai1 shuo1 'yong3yuan3 zai4 bu4'" or possibly "Yong3yuan3 bie2 zai4 shuo1 'yong3yuan3 bie2 zai4') – but a Chinese person would most likely prefer using some ideomatic expression that is less "direct"...

A good sense of logics won't hurt when you study Chinese, and if you are not a philosopher before you start to learn the language, then you surely will get a certain interest for that subject as well in due time! ';-)

Oh, and P.S.: Please note that "Never say never again" actually can be interpreted in more than one way!