A Chinese Language Primer

(c) 2010 Fabian M. Suchanek

version: 2011-01-01

 

This is a summary of the Chinese Language class that Summer Fu and Zhimin He gave at the Los Altos High School in California in Spring 2010.

By reading this essay, you accept that the author does not accept any responsibility for the completeness or correctness of this summary. If you find an error in this essay, the author would be grateful for a note to the e-mail address firstName@lastName.name

For a very nice online book on Chinese, see the Wikibook on Chinese.

Pronunciation

This summary does not deal with the Chinese script at all. Rather, it uses the Pinyin script. The Pinyin script is the most common romanization of the Chinese script. However, the Pinyin script does not correspond exactly to the pronunciation (see the Wikibook on Chinese for examples). Therefore, the present summary uses the IPA symbols in addition to Pinyin.

Consonants
Chinese has a number of sounds that do not appear in English. The following table lists them, together with their Pinyin script form.
IPA Pinyin
[j]yLike the "y" in "yes".
[k]gAn unaspirated "k", as in "skill"
[x]h Like the "ch" in German "Dach". Let the hindmost rear of your tongue touch the very back of the roof of your mouth. Push air through your mouth.
[ɻ] rMuch like the English "r", slightly in the direction of the "s" in "measure".
[ɕ]xBetween the "ch" in German "ich" [ç] and the "sh" in English "ship" [ʃ].
[ʥ]jLike the "x", but voiced. (The Wikibook on Chinese transscribes as [t]+[ɕ], but the Chinese people whom the author has met seem to pronounce [ʥ].)
[ɕ]qLike [t]+[ɕ]
[ʂ]shMuch like "sh" in "ship", [ʃ], but with the tongue curled further upwards, much like "sh" in "undershirt"
[ʤ]zhLike in "journal", with the tongue curled upwards. (The Wikibook on Chinese transscribes as [tʂ], but the Chinese people whom the author has met seem to pronounce [ʤ].)
[tʂ]chLike [t] + [ʂ]
[dz]zlike the final sound in "beds"
[ts]clike the final sound in "cats"
Vowels

There are 4 "tones" in Chinese, i.e., 4 ways to pronounce the vowels:

Tone Accent Explanation
1ma̅flat tone, "sung" with a high pitch
2rising tone, spoken like "ma?"
3măfalling and rising tone, spoken like "ma-a"
4falling tone, spoken like "ma!"
Some monosyllabic words do not have an obvious vowel. Rather, a [ə] sound is overlayed with the preceding consonant. This pronunciation is written as a trailing "i" in Pinyin and as an accented consonant in IPA. For example, "to be" is "shì" [ʂr̀].
Grammar
Pronouns
The plural pronouns in Chinese are just the singular pronouns with the suffix "-men" [mən]. The words for "he", "she" and "it" are different, but pronounced the same.
wŏI
nĭyou
ta̅he/she/it
 
wŏ-menwe
nĭ-menyou all
ta̅-menthey
Possessive Pronouns
The possessive pronoun is formed by appending "-de" [də]:
wŏ-demy
nĭ-deyour
ta̅-dehis/her
wŏ-men-deour
nĭ-men-deyour
ta̅-men-detheir
The possesive pronoun goes before the noun:
wŏ-de péng yŏu
[wŏ-də pənjiou]
My friend
Descriptive Sentences
Descriptive sentences take the simple form
Noun + (Adverb) + Adjective

The most frequent adverb is "hèn" [xə̀n] ("very"). It seems to be used so frequently that it appears to take the role of the verb "to be" in English. Examples:

Declarative Sentences
Declarative sentences take the form
Noun + (bù) + Verb + Noun

bù [bù] ("not") is used to negate the sentence. Examples:

Past tense
The past tense is formed by inserting lè [lə̀] after the verb:
chī [tʂə̅]ate
shuo̅ [ʂuo̅] lè [lə̀] spoke
zuò [dzuò] did
Example:
nĭ zuò lè shén mè?
[nĭ zuò lə̀ ʂə mə]
What did you do (=zuò)?
Future tense

The definite future tense is formed with the auxiliary verb qǜ [ɕỳ] ("go to"), followed by the main verb:

wŏ qǜ tiào wŭ
[wŏ ɕỳ tiào wŭ]
"I am going to dance"

The wishful future tense is formed with the auxiliary verb yaò [jaò] ("will / want to"), followed by the main verb:

wŏ yaò tiào wŭ
[wŏ yaò tiào wŭ]
"I will dance"
Questions

Yes-No-questions are formed by appending ma̅ [ma̅] ("isn't it") to the sentence:

nĭ hăo ma̅ ?
[ni hao ma̅]
("You good, aren't you?")
"Are you doing good?"

What-questions are formed by appending "shén mè" [ʂə mə] ("what") to the sentence:

nĭ jiào shén mè ?
[nĭ ʥào ʂə mə]
("You call what?")
"What is your name?"

Why-questions are formed by appending "wèi shén mè" [wèi ʂə mə] ("for what") to the sentence:

nĭ ga̅o xīn wèi shén mè ?
[nĭ ga̅o ɕīn wèi ʂə mə]
("You happy for what?")
"Why are you happy?"

How-Much-questions are formed by inserting "duo̅ shăo" [duo̅ ʂăo] ("much few") before the noun in question:

nĭ he duo̅ shăo jiŭ ?
[nĭ xə duo̅ ʂăo ʥiuou]
("You drink much few alcohol ?")
"How much alcohol do you drink?"
Basic Vocabulary
Verbs
shì [ʂɹ̀]be
ài [ài]love
xĭ hua̅n [ɕĭ xua̅ŋ]like
shuo̅ [ʂuo̅] speak
zuò [dzuò] do
yào [jào] want / will
yŏu [jŏu] have
tiào wŭ [tiào wŭ] dance
Nouns
péng yŏu [pənjiou] friend
rén [ɻέn] person
wén [wέn] language
zho̅ng [ʤo̅ng] middle
guó [guó] country
zho̅ng guó [ʤo̅ng guó] China ("Middle Country")
zho̅ng guó rén [ʤo̅ng guó ɻέn] Chinese person ("Middle Country person")
zho̅ng wén [ʤo̅ng wέn] Chinese language
Adjectives
péiào liàng [pıào lıàŋ]beautiful
mĕi [mε̆i]beautiful
chŏu [tʂŏu]ugly
ga̅o [ga̅o]tall
ga̅o xīn [ga̅o ɕīn]happy
ka̅i xīn [ka̅i ɕīn]joyful
Others
hèn [xə̀n] very
dàn shì [dàn ʂɹ̀] but
yĕ [jĕ] also
hé [xə́] and
hái shì [xái ʂɹ̀] or
Example:
Numbers
0 - 10
líng [líŋ ] 0
yī [ ī ] 1
àr [àr] 2
sa̅n [sa̅n] 3
sì [sə̀] 4
wŭ [wŭ] 5
 
liù [liù] 6
qī [ɕī] 7
ba̅ [ba̅] 8
jiŭ [ʥiŭ] 9
shí [ʂɹ́] 10
10 - 9999
One hundred is "băi" [băi] in Chinese. "qia̅n" [ɕiε̅n] means one thousand. Numbers are assembled according to the following pattern
A  qia̅n B  băi C  shí D
[A  ɕiε̅n B  băi C  ʂɹ́ D]
...where A is the first digit, B is the second digit, C is the third digit and D is the fourth digit of a 4-digit number. If a digit is 1, it is omitted. If a digit is 0, it is omitted as well, as is the following qia̅n, băi, or shí.

  Examples:

To talk about a certain number of things, the word "gè" [gə̀] has to be inserted between the number and the thing: Example:

Small talk
nĭ hăo [ni hao] "you good"Hello
nĭ hăo ma̅? [ni hao ma̅?] "you good?"How are you doing?
wŏ hăo [wo hao] "Me good"I'm fine.
 
wŏ jiào ... [wŏ ʥào ...] "I call ..."My name is ...
nĭ jiào shén mè ? [nĭ ʥào ʂə mə ?] "You call what?"What is your name?
 
xìe xìe [ɕìε ɕìε] "Thanks thanks"Thanks
 
zaì jiàn [dzaì ʥiὲn] "Again see"See you again
míng tia̅n jiàn [míŋ tjε̅n ʥiὲn] "Tomorrow day see"See you tomorrow
 
duì bù qĭ [duì bù ɕĭ] "I treated you wrong" I am sorry
méi gua̅n xì [méi gua̅n ɕì] "It's OK" It's OK
 
qĭng [ɕĭŋ] "Please" Please
shén mè [ʂə mə]"What" Pardon, say again
Days and Dates
Days
tia̅n [tjε̅n] means "day". This word can be combined as follows:
míng [míŋ]tomorrow
jing [ʥiŋ]tia̅n [tjε̅n]today
zuó [zuó]yesterday
 
xīng qī [ɕīŋ ɕī] means "day of the week". The days of the week are
yī [ ī ] ("day one") Monday
àr [àr] ("day two") Tuesday
sa̅n [sa̅n] ("day three") Wednesday
xīng qī [ɕīŋ ɕī] sì [sə̀] ("day four") Thursday
wŭ [wŭ] ("day five") Friday
liù [liù] ("day six") Saturday
rì [ɻ̀] ("day sun") Sunday
We ask for the day of the week by
jing tia̅n shì xīng qī jĭ ?
[ʥiŋ tjε̅n ʂə̀ ɕīŋ ɕī ʥĭ]
("Today is week-day which?")
Months and Seasons
The word yuè [yὲ] means "month". Just as days, months are numbered:
yī [ ī ] ("one month") January
àr [àr] ("two month") February
sa̅n [sa̅n] ("three month") March
sì [sə̀] ("four month") April
wŭ [wŭ] ("five month") May
liù [liù] yuè [yὲ]("six month") June
qī [ɕī] ("seven month") July
ba̅ [ba̅] ("eight month") August
jiŭ [ʥiŭ] ("nine month") September
shí [ʂɹ́] ("ten month") October
shí yī [ʂɹ́ ī ] ("eleven month") November
shí àr [ʂɹ́ àr] ("twelve month") December
The seasons are called as follows:
chu̅n [ tʂu̅a̅n ] spring
xià [ ɕià ] summer
qiu̅ [ ɕio̅u̅ ] autumn
do̅ng [ do̅ŋ ] winter
Dates
The word "nián" [nián] means "year". The word "rì" [ɻ̀] means "day". They can be combined as follows to express the date YYYY-MM-DD:
YYYY    nián    MM    yuè    DD   rì
[YYYY    nián    MM    yὲ    DD   ɻ̀]
"YYYY    year    MM    month    DD    day"

(Note that in Chinese date expressions, the larger items (year and month) precede the smaller items (days) — just as in Western time expressions, the larger items (hour and minute) precede the smaller items (seconds and milliseconds). Thereby, the order of items in Chinese date expressions conforms to the ISO 9006 standard.)

The year can either be given as a simple sequence of digits or as a 4-digit number with the words qia̅n, băi, or shí. Examples:

The following words are helpful in this context:

rì [ɻ̀] day, sun
she̅ng rì [ʂe̅ng ɻ̀] birthday
hào [hào] day, number
su̅i [su̅ε] year
nián [nián] year

These expressions can be used in the following conversations:

nĭ-de she̅ng rì shìjĭ hào ?
[nĭ-də ʂε̅ŋ ɻ̀ ʂɹ̀ ʥĭ hào]
"Your birthday is which day?"
 
wŏ-de she̅ng rì shì...
[wŏ-də ʂε̅ŋ ɻ̀ ʂɹ̀ ...]
"My birthday is ..."
 
nĭ jĭ su̅i ?
[nĭ ʥĭ su̅ε]
("You how many years?")
"How old are you?"
 
wŏ X
[wŏ X]
("I X")
"I am X years old"
Family Members
yé yé năi năi
[jé jé] [năi năi]
grandfather grandmother
\ /
bà bà ma̅ ma̅
[bà bà] [ma̅ ma̅]
father mother
\ /
\                  /
\              /
ge̅ ge̅dì dìwŏ jiĕ jiĕmèi mèi
[gə̅ gə̅][dì dì][wŏ] [ʥiĕ ʥiĕ][mèi mèi]
elderyoungerMe elderyounger
brother| sister
|
|
nán péng yoŭ—+—nŭ péng yoŭ
[nán pənjiou]|[ny̆ pənjiou]
boyfriend|girlfriend
|
lăo go̅ng—+—lăo pó
[lăo go̅ŋ][lăo puɔ́]
husbandwife
The Body
The Face
bí zi [bí zə]nose
tóu [tóu]head
liăn jiá [liε̆n ʥá]cheek
yăn jing [jiε̆n ʥiŋ]eye
yá chĭ [já tʂə'ə]tooth
tóu fà [tóu fà]head hair
ĕr duo̅ [ăr duo̅]ear
zŭi chún [zu'ε túin]lip
zŭi ba̅ [zu'ε ba̅]mouth
Colors and other Adjectives
sè [sə̀]color
he̅i [he̅i]black
hòng [hòuŋ]red
lù [lỳ]green
huăng [xuăŋ]yellow
lán [lán]blue
bái [bái]white
Examples:
dà [dà]big
xiao [ɕiao]small
cháng [tʂáŋ]long
duăn [doan]short
Bodyparts
bó zi [bó zə]chest
dù zi [dù zə]belly
shŏu [ʂŏu]hand
shŏu bì [ʂŏu bì]arm
shŏu zhì [ʂŏu zh]finger
tuĭ [tuεi]leg
jiăo [ʥiăo]foot
Needs
è chī fàn
[ə̀] [tʂə̅ fàn]
hungry eat ("eat rice")
 
kĕ he̅ shuĭ
[kə̆] [xə̅ ʂuεi]
thirsty drink ("drink water")
 
kùn shùi jiaò
[kùεn] [ʂùε ʥiaò]
sleepy sleep ("sleep a sleep")