A question about the chinese language.

Mandarin, I think, because the tv shows I hear this on sometimes have that word in ads and show names, etc. Also, I’ve heard similar talk in old kung foo movies.
Anyway, I channel surf a lot and being curious I often stop for a bit and listen/watch channels in languages other that english.
So, I note that this language (mandarin?) seems to be made largely of short, one syllable sounds, distinct from each other, and in pretty long groups.
What i"m curious about is, are these sounds complete words, or they more like syllables and connected in such a way to make words?
Here are some pretty good examples, but they are spoken more slowly than I hear on tv. I assume because they are meant as learning tools.

Here ya go, news.
Good old youtube. :slight_smile:

Well, the place to start until the language experts get here is Wikipedia.

Each character is a single syllable. Similar sounding syllables are differentiated by tones, which is something you might not have picked up on. People love to argue about this, but I was taught Mandarin has four basic tones: a high steady tone, a rising tone, a tone that dips then goes up, and a falling tone. Some people count a staccato note as a fifth tone. When I say tone, think of how you raise your voice at the end of a question, or let it fall at the end of a statement. Thus, words that may sound the same to untrained ears are entirely distinguished by Chinese speakers as different words based on the tone.

So on to your question: single-syllable words can be used alone (da (falling tone) means “big”, xue (rising tone) is the verb “to study”) or in combination with other single syllable words to form more complex ideas. For example, daxue means university. Makes sense in a poetic kind of way, doesn’t it? It is fun when learning Chinese to see two characters you know well and try to guess what they mean together – it’s not always obvious. For example, let’s say you know huo (fire) and che (wagon), but for the first time you come across huoche. Fire car? Fire truck? Internal combustion engine? Turns out it means “train,” and suddenly it makes a lot of sense, although not intuitively.

I digressed a bit and obviously left a lot out, but hopefully you get the idea.

I’m having trouble understanding how this distinguishes Mandarin from any other language.


I would add that in spoken Mandarin, generally a lot of words are di-syllabicized (one syllable words become two syllables) to avoid misunderstanding. For example, one would say “go out” instead of “go” so that the listener is very clear on the meaning and the nuance. Or you will say “go go” instead of just “go.”

Using Ravenman’s example, likely say “xuexi” for “study” instead of just say “xue.” Both work and neither uncommon or odd sounding, but in spoken Chinese you get the di-syllabicizing a lot.

Each permissible syllable is represented by a character (many, in fact), which is the basic conceptual unit of the language. Thus, even if it’s a 4-syllable (and thus 4-character) word, each character has its own meaning, as well. When speaking/writing normally, you don’t normally think about breaking down every word into its constituent characters. For example, huotui (both third tone) means ham, and while the individual characters are “fire” + “leg”, the only thing on my mind when I hear the word is juicy pig meat. However, individual character meanings within a bigger word sometimes do come into play, especially with regards to poetry.

I’m sorry to be dense, but I don’t understand what any of that had to do with my comment.


Sorry if I was unclear. Your question was how this:

distinguishes Mandarin from other languages. What I was trying to explain was how each syllable is a functional unit by itself, even when it’s part of a bigger word. In English, table can’t really be broken down into “ta” and “ble”, as each syllable is meaningless on its own. There are, of course, suffixes and prefixes that can give meaning within a single word, but for the most part, random syllables don’t have any specific stand-alone quality. In Chinese, they always do, since each syllable is represented by a character, which has its own individual meaning and baggage associated with it.

Also, as a random note, the syllable sounds in Chinese are limited to what are already represented by characters. You’ll never see a syllable ending with m, z, g, or b sounds, for example. This often leads to amusing translations of Western names, such as Bei Ke Ha Mu (David Beckham).

Right, I understood all that. And what you’re saying may well for all I know be true of Mandarin. But it doesn’t seem to be what the OP is talking about, since you are referring to the meanings of the syllables and the OP (in the sentence I quoted) is only talking about the way the language sounds.

And the OP’s description is one that fits all languages. Spoken language consists in short one-syllable sounds distinct from each other in pretty long groups.


Unlike English words, where the individual syllables are often meaningless on their own (e.g. “Syll” “ab” le"), each syllabic unit of Chinese is a separate word in itself*.

I should add this applies to all Chinese languages, since they’re mostly written the same, even though they’re different in the vernacular and much of the pronunciation.

Thus in Cantonese (I don’t know enough about Mandarin to know how many of these apply, though some clearly do), some of them make sense, such as:

Ding tse = “electric vehicle” = Tram
Ding wah = “electic voice” = Telephone

Some words, however, are not connected in meaning to the syllabic words that create them.

Siu sum = “small heart” = Warning

*With a few exceptions, mainly modifiers.

Since no one seems to be answering your question, I’ll take a stab. Since the words are mainly one-syllable, or built up of one syllable, you end up with what sounds like a series of one syllable words, rather than the melded sound of multi-syllabic words from an inflected language like English.

Compare saying: Antidisestablishmentarianism

with: The dog went to the store for some eggs and a bone.

Each has the same number of syllables, but they sound very different, the latter more choppy. In some inflected languages the difference is even more pronounced because the words tend to be elided whenever they end and begin in vowels, which can be quite often in Italian and Spanish, for example.

“Th’dog wentoothuh storeforsum eggsanna bone” If you look at how people actually talk, I don’t believe there’s much difference.

But very, very rarely in Mandarin. Not sure what you mean by “inflected”, could you elaborate?

It occurs to me that OP’s impression may come not from shorter words but a greater prevalence of consonants. After talking to myself in both Mandarin and English for a bit just now, I notice that far fewer syllables in the first language seem to begin with a vowel sound. That might contribute to a “jabbery” kind of sound.

initial consonants in each syllable, I mean.

I keep missing the edit window, sorry. Just wanted to give this example:

all right, everybody enter the auditorium”,


haole, dajia jin qu tiyuguan”

I can see how Chinese sounds different from English as being a bunch of sharper syllables thrown together. For example, when I go ask the price of something at the store, the phrase “How much is this?” comes out more like “Howmachizzis?” However, in Chinese, while you can speak fast, it is harder to blend syllables together because you should preserve the tone in each syllable, making them stand out more than the blending of syllables in my example. There are ways to make pronunciation of tones easier (eg, it would be hard to pronounce a succession of words with dipping tones, so there’s a way to kind of adjust the tone a bit), but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Chinese can sound choppier than English. YMMV.

If you listen to the news bit I linked to (on youtube) you can hear exactly what I’m referring to. The english speaking people, including the Indian woman who spoke with a slight accent, sound very different from the mandarin speaking newscaster.
After reading Ravenman post (#4), I listened again to the newscast and was able to see exactly what he was saying. The Wikipedia article was also a big help.
This thread has answered my question perfectly.
Now I wonder how one could possibly understand a chinese speaker who is drunk and slurring his/her words. Although that can be true of english also. :wink:

Although the statement may be true, this is a poor example. I would translate “small heart” as “careful” or “be careful”. If one has a lesser heart, or bravado, one is more careful and less foolhardy.

Aren’t “warning” and “careful” pretty close in meaning?

I think all languages start to converge when the speaker is drunk. I’ve seen a drunk German (who doesn’t speak Chinese) and a drunk Chinese (who doesn’t speak German or English) have an enduring, heartfelt conversation over a bottle of baijiu (~Chinese vodka). Babel’s one great loophole.