Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard and other fulltext goodies

Unlike Kerim, I am just begining the study of Chinese. This is my first semester of Mandarin and let me tell you something, if you think publishing, teaching, and doing committee work is hard, you should try publishing, teaching, doing committee work, and learning a language that involves memorizing tens of thousands of distinct characters. Actually I don’t think the language itself is that difficulty (yet) — it’s really the writing system that is kicking my ass. But then again we’ve mostly been doing the sounds of the language and noun phrases and have yet to hit such sophisticated linguistic concept as, you know, transitive verbs.

Anyhoo, like many neophyte Chinese speakers I recently came across David Moser’s essay “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard”:http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html. No surprises if you’ve learned a lot of other languages. But what was a surprise — and delight — was that Moser’s essay and the “entire festschrift that it’s from”:http://www.pinyin.info/readings/Schriftfestschrift.html are available online. It just so happens that a good number of the other monographs in the series are also available. They are all part of Victor Mair’s “Sinoplatonic Papers”:http://www.sino-platonic.org/index.html series which is making the transition to open access online publication. They all look wonderful and are a perfect example of the sort of playful occasional papers that perfect for open access: a labor of love that bursts with scholarly energy. Or so I imagine — I haven’t had a chance to read all 172!


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

4 thoughts on “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard and other fulltext goodies

  1. As the person who does all of the conversions to PDF, I’m open to suggestions for which Sino-Platonic Papers to reissue sooner rather than later. Relatively recent issues, however, won’t be released in PDF form until the stock of printed copies is sold out. Look for free editions of “Chinese Romanization Systems: IPA Transliteration” (SPP no. 52) and “Backhill/Peking/Beijing” (SPP no. 19) within the next month or so.

  2. Moser is completely right about why chinese is difficult. I’ve cursed all of his points myself at some time or other.

    But he doesn’t mention why chinese is easy: no cases, no numbers, no genders (other than natural), no moods. In fact all words are indeclinable, much unlike the “easy” French.

    The difficulty with Chinese is vocabulary, no transparency from european languages, no way to guess the pronounciation or spelling of a word, while the difficulty with French and many other european languages is grammar.

    I’d guess that speaking idomatically correct French is at least as difficult as speaking idiomatically correct Chinese (given you know the vocab).

    Now, reading is a completely different matter, not to mention writing, unless you are using a computer (a lot has happened on that front in the 15 years since the paper was published).

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