Grammar and MorphologyMain article: Chinese grammar See also: Chinese classifiers
Chinese is often described as a "monosyllabic" language. However, this is only partially correct. It is largely accurate when describing Classical Chinese and Middle Chinese; in Classical Chinese, for example, perhaps 90% of words correspond to a single syllable and a single character. In the modern varieties, it is still usually the case that a morpheme (unit of meaning) is a single syllable; contrast English, with plenty of multi-syllable morphemes, both bound and free, such as "seven", "elephant", "para-" and "-able". Some of the conservative southern varieties of modern Chinese still have largely monosyllabic words, especially among the more basic vocabulary.
In modern Mandarin, however, most nouns, adjectives and verbs are largely disyllabic. A significant cause of this is phonological attrition. Sound change over time has steadily reduced the number of possible syllables. In modern Mandarin, there are now only about 1,200 possible syllables, including tonal distinctions, compared with about 5,000 in Vietnamese (still largely monosyllabic) and over 8,000 in English.
This phonological collapse has led to a corresponding increase in the number of homophones. As an example, the small Langenscheidt Pocket Chinese Dictionary lists six common words pronounced shí (tone 2): 十 "ten"; 实 "real, actual"; 识 "know (a person), recognize"; 石 "stone"; 时 "time"; 食 "food". According to William Baxter's transcription, these were all pronounced differently in Early Middle Chinese: /dʑip/, /ʑit/, /ɕik/, /dʑjek/, /dʑī/, /ʑik/ respectively. In modern spoken Mandarin, however, tremendous ambiguity would result if all of these words could be used as-is, and so most of them have been replaced (in speech, if not in writing) with a longer, less-ambiguous compound. Only the first one, 十 "ten", normally appears as such when spoken; the rest are normally replaced with, respectively, 实际 shíjì (lit. "actual-connection"); 认识 rènshi (lit. "recognize-know"); 石头 shítou (lit. "stone-head"); 时间 shíjiān (lit. "time-interval"); 食物 shíwù (lit. "food-thing"). In each case, the homophone was disambiguated by adding another morpheme, typically either a synonym or a generic word of some sort (for example, "head", "thing"), whose purpose is simply to indicate which of the possible meanings of the other, homophonic syllable should be selected.
However, when one of the above words forms part of a compound, the disambiguating syllable is generally dropped and the resulting word is still disyllabic. For example, 石 shí alone, not 石头 shítou, appears in compounds meaning "stone-", for example, 石膏 shígāo "plaster" (lit. "stone cream"), 石灰 shíhuī "lime" (lit. "stone dust"), 石窟 shíkū "grotto" (lit. "stone cave"), 石英 shíyīng "quartz" (lit. "stone flower"), 石油 shíyóu "petroleum" (lit. "stone oil").
Most modern varieties of Chinese have the tendency to form new words through disyllabic, trisyllabic and tetra-character compounds. In some cases, monosyllabic words have become disyllabic without compounding, as in 窟窿 kulong from 孔 kong; this is especially common in Jin.
Chinese morphology is strictly bound to a set number of syllables with a fairly rigid construction which are the morphemes, the smallest blocks of the language. While many of these single-syllable morphemes (字, zì) can stand alone as individual words, they more often than not form multi-syllabic compounds, known as cí (词／詞), which more closely resembles the traditional Western notion of a word. A Chinese cí (“word”) can consist of more than one character-morpheme, usually two, but there can be three or more.
- Yun 雲—"cloud" (traditional)
- Yun 云—"cloud" (simplified)
- Han-bao-bao/Hanbao 漢堡包／漢堡—"hamburger" (traditional)
- Han-bao-bao/Hanbao 汉堡包／汉堡—"hamburger" (simplified)
- Wo 我—"I, me"
- Ren 人—"people"
- Di-qiu 地球—"earth"
- Shan-dian 閃電—"lightning" (traditional)
- Shan-dian 闪电—"lightning" (simplifed)
- Meng 夢—"dream" (traditional)
- Meng 梦—"dream" (simplified)
All varieties of modern Chinese are analytic languages, in that they depend on syntax (word order and sentence structure) rather than morphology—i.e., changes in form of a word—to indicate the word's function in a sentence. In other words, Chinese has very few grammatical inflections—it possesses no tenses, no voices, no numbers (singular, plural; though there are plural markers, for example for personal pronouns), and only a few articles (i.e., equivalents to "the, a, an" in English). There is, however, a gender difference in the written language (他 as "he" and 她 as "she"), but it should be noted that this is a relatively new introduction to the Chinese language in the twentieth century, and both characters are pronounced in exactly the same way.
They make heavy use of grammatical particles to indicate aspect and mood. In Mandarin Chinese, this involves the use of particles like le 了 (perfective), hai 还／還 (still), yijing 已经／已經 (already), and so on.
Chinese features a subject–verb–object word order, and like many other languages in East Asia, makes frequent use of the topic–comment construction to form sentences. Chinese also has an extensive system of classifiers and measure words, another trait shared with neighbouring languages like Japanese and Korean.
Other notable grammatical features common to all the spoken varieties of Chinese include the use of serial verb construction, pronoun dropping and the related subject dropping.
Although the grammars of the spoken varieties share many traits, they do possess differences.
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