Grammar Sucks Eggs

I seldom have the luxury of taking a birdseye view of the content of my courses since I’m usually drowning under it instead but when I do it strikes me as amazing that everything is conducted in Mandarin. To labour the point: we read an essay, we discuss it in Mandarin and we write an essay in Chinese which we discuss in Mandarin. I suppose given a) the location and b) the course I’m taking that shouldn’t be too astonishing but it’s quite a contrast from the UK where it often ends up being more about the translation than the content.

I’ll illustrate the bit that kind of tickles me by means of a simple translation of the back of one of my vocab books (I have no idea why I have more than one when I haven’t even organised them by class but one is “oooh that might be useful, write that in the long list” and the other is “omg that one really IS useful write it in the short list”. I have hopes that this will make sense when it comes to my exams but I have at least as many doubts). In the back of said vocab book I write down all the points of grammar we come across (discussed in Mandarin, in case you still haven’t got that point).

One of my favourites is 谓语. This is “predicate” in English but since I don’t have an English language dictionary I’ve had to Google what that means. I can’t say I’m much the wiser although I do remember knowing what it meant once. Among many other parts of speech I also have “pronoun”, “conjunction”, “antonym”, “objective”, “preposition” and my special favourites which are specific to Chinese: 补词 and 附词, for which I cannot find a translation and which would take a few sentences to explain if I knew how.

I distinctly recall my linguistics teacher in my first year at Cambridge saying Chinese grammar was easy because there is none. He then spent the best part of the next four years trying to teach us the many uses of the innocuous-looking 了, read “le” or “liao” depending on its usage indicating a change of state or as a temporal marker, and when we should use 过, read “guo” and broadly equivalent to the usage of “have”+past participle to denote past tense. I’d better stop with that before I get tied up in words.

A friend kindly forwarded to me a recent BBC article which by spooky coincidence I heard being discussed this week in my coffee/homework shop in Beijing. The article concerned a study indicating that there is a linkage between the propensity to save and linguistic structure. If you use tenses, as we profligate Anglo-Saxons are wont to do, then your level of identification with the future you makes that person sufficiently disconnected from the present you for you to feel diminished responsibility for their well-being and thus less necessity to provide for him/her. Utter tosh, thought I, and a convenient way of lumping together cultures which already are known to be higher savers than those who are not.

But when I heard the coffee shop guy talking about it I thought maybe not so stupid, even if still a little bit debatable whether the researcher began with the chicken or the egg. Rather than rehash the whole article herewith the link for you to peruse at leisure: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21518574.

I do enjoy the rationale but from where I’m currently sitting it seems that the researcher never went through one of my Chinese classes and he definitely never came across 了 or 过. On reflection maybe his chicken did come first after all.

[editor's note: this is not intended to be a serious rebuttal of an academic study, not least because the editor's linguistics professor would probably agree with the academic's analysis of the absence of tense in Chinese grammar. That was what he taught us anyway but it's a fat lot of good when it comes to 了 and 过]

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