The Strangest Chinese Character

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Oct 12, 2016 01:39
I’ve been correcting Chinese entries on Lang-8 off and on for a couple years, and I’ve noticed that, for non-native speakers of Chinese, the most difficult character to use is “了.” Very few Chinese learners here have a perfect command of this character.

Chinese, unlike many alphabetic languages, doesn’t have verb tenses. “了” can be used to indicate past and perfect tenses. However, there are many irregularities. The Chinese language is easier than many other languages in terms of tenses, but I guess that almost all the difficulty has fallen on the usage of words such as “了” and “过.”

From a linguistic point of view, Chinese is categorized as an analytical language, which means grammar isn’t strict, and thus the tenses can sometimes only be parsed within a specific context. The character "了" comes naturally to my fingers while I’m writing, but non-native speakers need grammatical rules to guide them. Therefore, I’ve referred to many resources in order to equip myself with thorough linguistic knowledge about the usage of “了,” but I still find it hard to explain. Whenever a paper tries to sort it out by giving a list of example sentences, I can always find an exception. None of the papers convinced me, so I gave up trying to explain it to non-native speakers here.

It’s interesting that “了” was rarely used in ancient Chinese, and purportedly this character didn’t carry out the aforementioned grammatical functions until a few hundred years ago, which is also an example of Mandarin drifting away from the extreme of analytical language and taking on some characteristics of synthetic languages.

The character isn’t easy to use for Chinese people either, because it sounds rather colloquial, and so in formal writing we avoid it as much as possible. One of the simplest ways of telling whether a native Chinese speaker’s writing level is high or not is that in rather formal writing involving ARGUMENTATION such as government reports, newspaper columns, and papers, people try to work around using “了” while keeping the grammar straight, which can be very tricky, and can only be achieved after an enormous amount of reading and writing.

As an aside, are there any distinctive features that can show a native English speaker’s writing is advanced?

(Revised)
最奇怪的汉字

我在lang-8上断断续续修改了几年的文章,注意到对于很多非中文母语者,最难使用的汉字是"了"字。很少有中文学习者能够完全掌握这个字的用法。

和很多其他字母文字不一样,中文词汇没有时态变化。“了”字一般作为助词来修饰“完成时”和“过去式。”但是,有很多例外。在时态方面,中文比很多其他语言要容易学习,但是私以为,也许汉语这部分的难度上全部落在了“了”和“过”字上面。

从语言学的角度来说,中文属于分析语。也就是说,语法不严格,所以很多时候,时态要通过语境来辨别。我在写中文的时候,“了”字自然跃于纸上,但是对于非母语者而言,要想掌握这个字的用法,最好还是通过学习规则。所以,我参考了很多的资料,想要掌握一些关于“了”字的语法知识,来帮助他们。但很可惜,我发现很多时候无法解释。一些论文总结出一些语法现象和规则,给出一些例句,但我总能找到例外。没有一篇文章能够说服我,所以我也放弃了这个想法。

有意思的是,在古代汉语中,“了”字很少用。据说,到近几百年来,在现代汉语中,“了”字才承担起上述的语法功能。这也是一个例子,说明汉语有从分析语的极端脱离的趋势,显现出综合语的一些语法特征。

对于中国人而言,“了”字也不容易学,因为在写正式文体的时候,我们会尽量避免使用这个字,因为听起来非常口语化。区别中国人写作水平最容易的方式之一就是,在非常正式的议论文文体中(如政府公文、专栏文章和论文),看作者是否能够在保持语法正确的情形下,能否尽量避免使用“了”字。这一点很难做到,必须通过海量的阅读和写作才能达到。