Since China is now the second-largest economy on the planet, any book offering insight into its language, history and culture is welcome. "Dreaming in Chinese" is an easy way to be introduced to the Middle Kingdom.
Written by Deborah Fallows, it is a memoir of her three years in China when her writer husband, James.
Fallows, who has a PhD in linguistics, decided to learn China's most common language, Mandarin, and found it more difficult than other languages. "Since Mandarin has an inventory of only about 400 syllables, about a tenth of English, the language is simply flooded with homonyms _ words that sound alike but have different meanings ... Tones are a way to get a lot more mileage out of each syllable. If you slap a rising tone onto a syllable, it has one meaning; if you pronounce that same syllable with a falling tone, it means something else."
Chinese is a visual language, and seeing the language change over centuries, you see the way the culture changed. The chart "The evolutions of characters from twelfth-century BC Oracle Bone script to current-day simplified script" shows when you look at horse, you see the original character _ which looks like a horse with four legs. In modern characters, the horse has just one leg. When Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, he took a whack at simplifying the language by trimming the strokes in the characters. They also added Pinyin, a phonetic alphabet that spells out the sounds of Chinese characters using Western letters.
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"Dreaming in Chinese" is more than dry language lessons. She embeds insights from her stay. "The Chinese are very superstitious about their language. They consider the number 4 unlucky, like the number, 13, is in the West. I can't tell you why 13 is unlucky, but every Chinese can tell you that 4 is unlucky because the word for the number 'four' is si (which) sounds like the word for 'die.'"
Misunderstandings between cultures can go as deep as simple courtesy. "My Chinese friends say they notice that Westerners use lots of pleases (quing) and thank yous (xiexie) when speaking Chinese. And actually, they say, we use way too many of them for Chinese taste ... The Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here."
For beginners, "Dreaming in Chinese" is an easy entry into an ancient land.
"Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language" by Deborah Fallows; Walker & Company, NY (208 pages, $22)