Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.

Chinese Language

Chinese Language, the most important member of the Isolating group, the other chief members of which are Tibetan, Annamese, Shan (Siamese, Lao), Burmese, and all other Indo-Chinese tongues, except Cham and Khmer (Cambojan). These languages are commonly called monosyllabic, and till recently it was supposed that they consisted exclusively of monosyllables, thus representing the most primitive and least developed type of human speech. Now it is known that monosyllabism is not a primitive, but an advanced state, resulting from profound phonetic decay, of which Chinese and its congeners afford the clearest evidence. Thus the Chinese i = "doubt" was originally tadaka, a word of three syllables; and so with the whole language, which by this process of decay has been reduced to a limited number (about 1,600) of monosyllables wrongly called roots, whole groups of which necessarily resemble each other in sound, but are distinguished chiefly by their intonation. To understand this let a group of five words, such as baka, bada, bama, basa, bafa, be all worn down to bak, bad, bam, bas, baf, and finally to the single sound ba; it then becomes obvious that this ba must have five different meanings, which, in the spoken language, could not be distinguished unless uttered with five corresponding tones. Thus tone, introduced to distinguish the meaning of countless homophones, becomes an all-important feature, and it would be better to call these languages tonic than monosyllabic. They are, however, correctly enough called isolating, because each word stands apart (isolated) in the sentence, in which its relation to the other words is determined, not by inflection or change of form, of which it is incapable, but by its position, as in such English sentences as John strikes James, James strikes John. Hence, in Chinese, almost everything depends on tone and position, beyond which there is little grammar or syntax. There are other expedients for distinguishing homophones, the most important being the juxtaposition of two synonyms, one fixing the sense of the other, as if the English word road were distinguished from its homophone rode by the addition of way (road-way). Such compounds are frequent in Chinese; but the process is clumsy compared with the tonic system, which has accordingly acquired an immense development in all the isolating languages. In the standard Mandarin language, as it is called, there are five tones, which are really insufficient, and hence are largely supplemented in the numerous provincial dialects. Some have as many as twelve or fourteen, which Europeans have the greatest difficulty in mastering, and as the least mistake in a tone causes misunderstanding, Chinese is little used for international intercourse. In the free ports it has been replaced by the so-called "pigeon English," i.e. "business English," a kind of jargon or lingua franca, in which most of the words are English and the form of expression Chinese.

Chinese is written in what are called "hieroglyphics," a better name for which would be "ideographs." They are symbols not of sounds, but of ideas; hence each character represents a word, or rather a thought, and will be pronounced differently according to the vernacular of each reader. The ciphers 1, 2, etc., are ideographs equally intelligible to all Europeans, though pronounced differently by the English, French, Germans, etc. There are altogether over 43,000 of these signs, which, although not more than a tenth are in common use, form the greatest obstacle to the Chinese student and to the progress of learning in China itself. They are developed from 214 "tribunals" ("keys" or "radicals"), and are usually written in vertical columns from right to left, so that the first page of a Chinese corresponds to the last of an English book.