Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Language musings

Hong Kong has 3 official languages, Cantonese, Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese) and English.  Obviously, English is my native language, but I speak Putonghua well enough to consider it my second language.  To make things more difficult/confusing, the writing system used here in Hong Kong is different to that used in Mainland China.  In the Mainland, simplified chinese characters are used, and that is what I learnt in China and at university.  Simplified characters are also used in Singapore.  In Hong Kong and Taiwan, traditional characters are used.  Some of these characters are exactly the same in both writing systems, others differ a little, and others, on first glance, appear to have no relation at all.  Simplified characters, as the name suggests, tend to have a lot less strokes as well, thus making them a lot easier to learn.

Having been here six weeks now, I am starting to pick up more traditional characters, but my Cantonese remains where it was. There are a lot of arguments on boths sides for the use of simplified versus traditional characters.  I prefer simplified, because I find them easier to learn, read, and write.  There are many arguments (with some validity) against the use of simplified characters (Wikipedia has an excellent article on the debate here) but I do feel it depends on what you learnt to start with, and what your own culture says.  I have heard Taiwanese people argue quite vociferously on the superiority of traditional Characters.  The fact remains that simplified characters are used by around a quarter of the world's population. 

(Simplified on the left, tradition on the right)

亚 = 亞
This character is "ya", meaning Asia.  There is very little difference in the character from a purely visual perspective. There is a difference in the number of strokes though, and that has an effect on the ease of writing. The visual closeness of the character also makes it easier to work out the meaning.

面 = 麵
This character is "mian", meaning flour or noodles.  This is a nice traditional character, because the simplified character is still there as the right side element (which gives us the pronunciation). I suppose the argument against simplified here is that the meaning part of the character (the left bit) has gone.  This change isn't there in all simplified characters, but it is in this one.  I would argue (because I'm clearly on the simplified side), that this only requires slightly different thinking about the language.  Chinese is somewhat reliant on context, but less so than English, so it's not that hard to work out what's supposed to be going on.

书 = 書
"Shu" means book.  If I came across this character in traditional, and had no context, I would have no idea what it was.  Even if I had context, I'm not entirely sure I would know what it was.  So here's where I start running into problems with Traditional.  I can't use what I already know to work it out as I could with the two above.  Assuming would probably be a really bad idea.

鸡 = 雞
The above simplified character is one I really like.  It means chicken, and is nice and easy to understand, because it includes the character for bird.  Not all the characters contain that bit, but most of the food birds (duck, chicken, pigeon, quail etc).  This is quite handy when you're looking at a menu with no English, because you can usually pick something out.  It's handy to know the character for meat too though, otherwise you might do what I did once, and order chicken gizzards because I saw the character for chicken and assumed all was well.  Gizzards are really chewy, FYI.

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