1902 Encyclopedia > China > Spoken Chinese

(Part 38)


Spoken Chinese

We will now pass on to the sounds of the language ; and the first thing concerning them which strikes the student on becoming acquainted with his dictionary is their extreme poverty as compared with the characters. There are over 30,000 characters in the language, and these are represented to the ear by only 500 syllabic sounds. No doubt the adoption of primitives as phonetics, as has been already described, has contributed to this result, since it provided for the due expression of the syllables then existing, but for no more. And thus, though it vastly enriched the written language—one primitive producing as many as 74 derivatives—it at once put a stop to all increase in the number of the sounds. The difficulty then arose as to the way in which 500 syllables were to be made to represent in conversation the thousands of characters in common use. And three methods have been adopted to prevent the confusion which at first sight would appear to be inevitable. These are—

1. By combining with the word which it is desired should be understand another, bearing a similar or supplementary meaning to distinguish it by pointing to its meaning from other words bearing the same sound ; thus, for "to hear," it is usual to say conversation _____ keen,—ting meaning "to hear," and keen "to see or perceive."

2. As regards noun substantives, by placing certain classifying words between them and the numerals which precede them. These classifiers bear some resemblance to our expressions herd, head, fleet, troop, &c., and have a certain reference to the nature of the substantives to which they are attached. For example, the word _____ pa, "to grasp with the hand," is used as a classifier to precede anything which is held in the hand, such as a knife, a spoon yih taou, which might either mean a knife, a small boot, or a fringe, the classifier is introduced to show which taou is meant, and speaker would say yih pa taou, literally "a grasped knife." In like manner _____ keen "a space," is used as a classifier for houses and enclosures ; _____ kan "a root," for trees, poles, clubs, &c., and so on.

And thirdly, by dividing the words of the language among eight tones. These tones partake of the nature of musical intonations, and are divided by the Chinese into two series, the upper and the lower, and are called by them the upper ever, the upper rising, the upper departing, the upper entering, the lower even, the lower rising, the lower departing, and the lower entering. To each character is alloted its appropriate tone, which if wrongly rendered is liable to give an entirely different meaning to the word from the at intended by the remembered that the thirty and odd thousand characters find expression in about 500 sound, thus giving an average of one sound to 60 characters, and these figures show that at best the system of tones, there would remain nearly eight characters of each sound identical both in sound and tone.

But as a matter of fact, only the four tones of the upper series are in general use, to which sometimes the first or even tone of the lower series is added. The evern tone is, as its name signifies, simply the ordinary tone of voice ; the rising tone gives to the voice somewhat of the effect of an interrogation ; the departing tone, of doubtful surprise; and the entering tone, of peremptory command. These may easily be illustrated by repeating our negative "No," first in the ordinary tone of conversation, secondly as an interrogation, thirdly as expressing doubtful surprise, and fourthly as a peremptory refusal :—thus 1No—, 2 No. _,3 No \, 4 No—. The difficulty of acquiring a knowledge of the tones proper even to a characters in common use is, as may be supposed, very great, and the only way to master them is to learn the, as the children learn them, from the lips of the natives themselves. No study of books will give the required knowledge. The Chinese learns them by ear alone, and if an educated man be asked to give the tone of an isolated character, he generally has to repeat a phrase the character occurs in order that his lips may tell ear the intonation proper to it.

It will be easily understood that the mistakes and difficulties into which this intricate system drives Chinese speaking foreigners are often inconvenient and sometimes dangerous. Some years ago a petition on behalf of a Chinese criminal was presented by a wealthy Chinese merchant in person to the governor and council of Hong Kong A. well-known Chinese scholar undertook to interpret on the occasion, and the Chinaman began his speech with a reference to our Kwai \ Kwok or "Honourable kingdom," as he designated England. Now the syllable kwai pronounced kwai / means "devil," and used in combination with kwok is an abusive tern not uncommonly applied to any foreign country. Unfortunately the interpreter confused the two tones, and turning indignantly to the governor, he reported that at the very outset the petitioner had begun by speaking of England as " the devil kingdom." The just anger of the council knew no bounds, and it was only after some minutes of wild confusion that an explanation followed, which saved the Chinaman from sharing the cell of the man for whom he was pleading. To a Chinaman such a mistake would be well-nigh impossible, for the tones form integral parts of the words, and to the ear of a native the difference between kwai in the ascending tone, and kwai in the descending tone, would be as great as between kwai and kwan.

There is only one other point in connection with the sounds of the language to which reference need now be made, and that is the system which has been adopted for spelling, as it were, the various sounds. For this purpose 36 characters which begin with the initial consonants of the language have been chosen, and 38 which end with the final sounds. In order, then, to indicate a desired sound, the writer takes a character of the first series which begins with the required initial, and a character of the second series which ends with the required final. These are placed together, and the initial of the first and the final of the second give the required sound. For instance, supposing a Chinaman were desirous of expressing that the sound of a certain character was ting, he would write the two characters _____ tang and _____ king, the first of which would give the initial t, and the second the final ing. This syllabic spelling, the initials of which are identical with the initial Sanskrit consonants, was introduced by the Buddhist missionaries the 5th and 6th centuries, and from the time of the appearance of the dictionary Yuh pien, which was published in the year 543, it has been employed in every native dictionary of the language which has since seen the light.

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