Redundancy in Modern Chinese

2611月07

A recent post on Chinese Insights inspired me to write about all the redundancy I’ve noticed in Chinese that one doesn’t notice in speech but which becomes really obvious in writing. For example, except for the very basic words in Chinese (such as 是, 我, 的, etc.), the majority of the Chinese word bank consists of disyllabic words such as 考试, 下午, 准备, 学校, 土地, etc.

What’s extremely interesting to me is that unlike the English counterparts of those disyllabic words, i.e., unlike ‘examination’, ‘afternoon’, ‘prepare’, ‘campus’, and ‘land’, a lot of Chinese words are usually formed out of words that are redundant in meaning. 考试, 准备 and 土地, for instance, all consist of two characters, both of which have very similar meanings. So, if you have a sentence like: 下午我会在学校准备考试, and you want to reduce it to fewer characters while keeping the exact same meaning, you can actually reduce 下午 to 昼, 学校 to 校, 准备 to 准 and 考试 to 试. And although this new sentence should be completely intelligible in written Chinese, it will be non-sensical if you speak it out loud. The very fact that you can do this is because the written and spoken forms of Chinese used to be quite distinct hundreds of years ago and written Chinese was never meant to be directly spoken out loud character-by-character as it is today, and was instead ‘interpreted’ into spoken Chinese; in this way, it could get away with employing a lot of brevity.

However, the Chinese used today is not Classical Chinese, but Vernacular Chinese which was introduced after the May Fourth Movement and modeled after the spoken language. Basically, Chinese started to be written more or less just as it would be spoken. So, Wǒ shì zhōngguórén would be 我是中国人 instead of having to be translated into Classical Chinese before being written down. Of course, this meant that the writing of Chinese would have to undergo some drastic changes because 文言 (Classical Chinese) and 白话 (Vernacular Chinese) were quite different, one of the major differences being that, while 文言 was extremely terse and pretty much used one character per concept, 口语 needed more disambiguation because it doesn’t have the luxury of using characters to distinguish between homophones; there are, after all, 86 characters with the sound shì in common usage (or 139 if you include the obscure ones). Thus, when spoken Chinese is written down as is (which is more or less what is done nowadays), a lot of this unnecessary-in-writing disambiguation comes in with it.

However, these “unnecessary” characters are a great advantage when reading, especially for beginners, because, you may know one of the characters in a two-character word, which will allow you to guess the general meaning of the whole word. For example, if you see words like 伟大, 许多, or 事情, even if you do not know 伟, 许, and 情, you can guess the meaning from the other characters. 伟 in 伟大 is simply used to enhance the meaning of ‘big’; on its own it means ‘mighty’ and together with 大, it still means ‘great’ or ‘mighty’. 许多 means pretty much the same thing as 多 on its own, i.e., “many, much, a lot of”. 事情 means the exact same thing as 事 – “affair; matter; thing; business”.

So, the next time you’re reading a Chinese text and you can guess which characters form disyllabic words from the sentence structure but you don’t know one of the two characters in the word, you can guess the meaning from the one you do know. Context also helps; for example: 我妈是天下最伟大的妈妈. Here, thanks to the context, you can guess that 伟 probably enhances the 大 to make it bigger, because the author seems to be praising his mother.

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