Denseman on the Rattis

Formerly known as the Widmann Blog


Is Chinese easier than Esperanto?

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.

3 thoughts on “Is Chinese easier than Esperanto?

  • Pingback: Is Chinese easier than Esperanto? | Mutu Liva

  • Hi, Thomas,

    I’m afraid your expostulation about the applicability (transferability?) of the Chinese method of organising the network of concept nodes lacks the very central point of that Chinese belongs to the tone languages (as does Vietnamese). This particular prosodial peculiarity enables those languages to do without using so many syllables when building any “monolithic roots,” which are mostly of disyllabic composition. In Chinese, for example, the four tonal qualities of the sound may result in the number of conceptual notions fourfold. For disyllabic words it comes up to four times four (4*4=16), leaving out the transposition.

    The nontonal (nontoned, monotonic?) languages, such as most Indo-European ones, are not so good at that. And that nontonality of theirs I think urges their speakers to behave multifariously in naming the world around them.

    It does sound pretty gnomic, doesn’t it?
    Anyway, thank you for your post that comes from the inquisitive mind.



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