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Tough characters : Chinese
 
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  Some tough characters
   
 

The CHINESE script is demanding, and fluency requires many years of diligent study. There are reckoned to be some 40,000 characters in existence, but the number of 'words' needed to read a newspaper is roughly 3,000. Chinese characters are often called 'pictograms', but only a small number are actually pictures of things. Most characters are composed of two parts; the 'radical', which gives a general indication of the meaning (e.g. the characters for foal, stallion and piebald all contain the 'radical' - horse), and the 'phonetic' which gives an indication of the sound.

The Chinese script was standardised by the first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-209 BC), who was also responsible for the Terracotta army and the Great Wall of China. Apart from characters which  were introduced in the last 100 years to describe chemical elements, hardly any new characters have been invented in the last 2,000. Modern discoveries and inventions are rendered in existing characters, and the Latin or Greek root of an English word is often translated directly. For example, dinosaur, from deinos - terrible, sauros - lizard in Greek becomes terror dragon in Chinese (kong long).

While the Chinese script is the preserve of the serious enthusiast, spoken Chinese is much more accessible and the rewards for even a small amount of study are high. There are six main dialects, which vary greatly; but Mandarin, as the official language, is the one most Chinese are able to speak and understand. It is spoken by all Chinese people in Taiwan, Singapore and mainland China. It is now also spoken in Hong Kong.

Many people are put off by the idea of tones, and they do take a bit of getting used to. Mandarin has four, which means that any one syllable, 'ma' for example, can be pronounced in four different ways to mean four different things. Once you are familiar with the sounds of the language, however, you can appreciate the advantage of Chinese: no grammar! Well, no more than is strictly necessary. Forget genders, cases, plurals, tenses. Spoken Chinese is language stripped down to the bare essentials, and can be learned very quickly. A little goes a very long way and makes business and travel in China far more  successful and sociable.

   
 
 
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