Street Seller with fresh melons
Originally uploaded by IvanWalsh.com
In Chinese, many concepts that we tend to have a single monolithic root word for in Western languages are expressed through more or less random compounds.
For instance, watermelon is ?? x? gu? “western gu?”, cucumber is ?? huáng gu? “yellow gu?”, pumpkin is ?? nán gu? “southern gu?”, papaya is ?? mù gu? “tree gu?”, wax gourd is ?? d?ng gu? “winter gu?”, sweet potato is ?? dì gu? “ground gu?”, and cantaloupe melon is ?? xi?ng gu? “perfume gu?”.
In the same way, wheat is ?? xi?o mài “little mài”, barley is ?? dà mài “big mài”, oats is ?? yàn mài “swallow mài”, rye is ?? h?i mài “black mài”, and quinoa is ?? lí mài “pigweed mài”.
I find it interesting to compare this with a constructed language such as Esperanto which has been created in order to be easy to learn, yet such compounds are generally shunned. For instance, wheat is “tritiko”, barley is “hordeo”, oats is “aveno”, rye is “sekalo”, and quinoa is “kvinoo”.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I personally find the Chinese compounds much easier to memorise than Esperanto’s root words. There’s also the advantage that even if you don’t know a specific compound, so long as you know the last part of it, you can make a qualified guess – a compound ending in ? mài is probably some kind of cereal.
I do appreciate that the choice of the first part of the compound places the language is a specific cultural context – English speakers would of course prefer to call watermelons “water gu?” rather than “western gu?”, which is rather meaningless here – but surely the compounds could be based on a wide variety of languages to alleviate this problem.
Of course Chinese is not in general easier than Esperanto. Apart from the fact that many other areas of learning Chinese are very hard, the compound building isn’t always perfect. For instance, Denmark is called ?? d?n mài “red mài” in Chinese – the characters have clearly been chosen due to their pronunciation rather than their meaning, but a learner might get terribly confused trying to figure out what this red cereal is and why it’s got a queen.
However, I think Esperanto would have been easier to learn if wheat, barley, oats, rye and quinoa had been called “majeto”, “majego”, “hirundmajo”, “nigromajo” and “amarantmajo” instead of the current unanalysable root words.