Sunday, July 08, 2007

Languages and their meaning.

I remember a few years back for the first time when I read in some newspaper article that Chinese is a tonal language with every word having 4 tones with every tone having a different meaning. I thought, 'how stupid' and how do people speak such a language. Well I still think its 'weird' but now after having been in China for more than 6 months I have been seeing and hearing only that language.

Now after having worked out my way to speak a little bit to the waiters in the restaurant and to taxi drivers I find it interesting to learn this unique language more everyday. While learning this alien language (I mean Chinese and alien because it is as distant as an alien’s language would be, no disrespect to the Chinese language and people) what I realized is that all languages are as meaningless and meaningful as every other language (including Hindi).

Where as the 4 tones for every word result into 4 meanings, to count up to 100 all u need to know is 0-10 and then you can keep adding and multiplying the numbers to reach 100. e.g 2 is er and 10 is shi, so 12 is shi er and 20 is er shi, isnt that cool.

Just quoting a few examples here for short comparisons.
Most of the people know only one thing about china and it is "nihao" meaning “hello”. But, dissecting it, 'ni hao' means 'you good'. ni = you and hao = good. Co-incidentally I can relate this to Kannada (the language of Bangalore). 'ni' in kannada also means 'you' and in Hyderabdi (the commonly used language in Hyderabad which a sister IT city of Bangalore) 'hao' means 'yes'.
After giving much deeper thought to ni hao, for the first time I thought what do 'hello' and 'namaste' (Hello in Hindi) stand for and realized there was nothing much that could be dissected and understood more about these words. Now if you think its an easy language lets see how different tones result into different meanings and all the sense is lost.

"shou" in four different tones means(the number with each word represents the tone):

shou1 - collect.
shou2 - ripe/mature.
shou3 - hand
shou4 – slim/thing
Though reading about tones cannot help understand what they mean and sound like, most probably one cannot understand them even on listening to them. This is not a one-off example! Every word has four tones and every tone has a different meaning. Words with same tone can have different meanings too.

Now to avoid taking you more through the details, here is one last example;)

English - condom.
Hindi - Nirodhak
Chinese - biyuntao

Well I never learnt languages from scratch before and so I don’t know the origin of the word 'condom' or 'nirodhak' but here it goes for condom in Chinese.

Biyuntao: bi - to avoid, yun - pregnancy, tao - case/cover. ;) Well it does makes some sense. Say thanks to me for not mentioning the tones of each of the three parts.

P.S. The last example was the lesson a Chinese learning website published today (05-July-2007,, which I refer to for learning some Chinese words occasionally.


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