Differences Between Chinese and English:
Real or Apparent?

Tense and Articles

An oft-cited peculiar characteristic of Chinese is that it has no tense system. While it is striking that there are no endings or particles like "-ed" to express a past action, there are a number of modifiers for expressing aspect. You can distinguish between ongoing actions, completed actions, completed events, and states. There are also simple constructs for distinguishing near future from future. Between the use of these and appeal to context for the main specification of past vs. present vs. future, it is possible to express all of the same nuances of temporal ordering that you can in English. But the greater dependence on context (whether this consists of words in the sentence like "last year" or "after", etc. or reference to a situation set up earlier in discourse) does seem to be a genuine difference between Chinese and English.

This same difference also shows up in another area of grammar -- that of articles. Chinese has no equivalent of determiners like "the" and "a" that occur so frequently in English. Again, however, the same meanings are expressed by a combination of other mechanisms and reliance on context. Usually context makes it clear whether you are talking about a particular thing ("the"), an example of a thing ("a"), or various other possibilities. In cases where it does not, there are special constructs like "you yi-ge" (lit. "have/is one unit") and "nei ge" (lit. "that unit") that clarify the meaning, however these are not mandatory components like the English determiners.

Context and Word Identification

Finally, greater reliance on context shows up in one other area -- that of word identification. It is a remarkable fact that Mandarin Chinese (although not Cantonese or many other dialects) possesses only about 1200 different syllables including tones (1), and the number of commonly used syllables is even smaller, and much smaller than that in English or most other languages. Each spoken syllable corresponds to a character in the written language, and each character -- of which there are many more than syllables - has a particular meaning and acts as a morpheme linguistically. About half of the characters are actually free morphemes (2) -- that is, they can occur either as a word in themselves or as a component of a larger word, usually a 2-character compound. Hence, there are two difficulties - first, given a syllable to identify which of several possible characters it corresponds to, and second, given the character to identify whether it is used independently or as part of a compound.

Clearly both of these identification processes go on at once, and there are often cues in the stress pattern of speech that provide information on which syllables are subsidiary parts of compounds -- but nonetheless the problem seems tougher than in English where the larger number of distinct syllables narrows things down more from the start. I don't know whether anyone has looked into this question more systematically...

Measure Words

Chinese, like Japanese, Korean, and a number of other unrelated languages, has a system of what are called "classifiers" by linguists, or "measure words" by language learners. They are used between numbers and count nouns, as when we say a "piece of toast" -- but there are many more of them, used in more circumstances. Vehicles, long thin objects, big heavy objects, periods of time, and people all have their own measure words, for example. What function is served by having this precision regarding the characteristics of objects in a language? Who knows. It does build some redundancy into Chinese, though, which lacks it in most other places.


Of course, also there are the tones. In Mandarin, the same `syllable' (as we conceive of it in non-tonal languages) can be pronounced with 4 different tones, each one representing in effect a different syllable. The four tones are high-level, mid-rising, low fall-and-rise, and high-falling. In Cantonese there are actually 7 tones or so, and these two cases represent about the upper and lower limits for Chinese dialects. In fact, once one gets used to them, the tones don't really feel that unusual -- you come to recognize and produce them as parts of words as easily as if they were ordinary sounds. And the use of tones in this way does not even prevent intonation in Chinese from carrying all of the information it does in English -- the intent of utterances (e.g., question vs. statement), various kinds of focus, and so on -- they are merely local variations riding on top of the intonational wave.

Characters and Language Evolution

One of the most distinctive aspects of the Chinese language is that it uses a writing system in which the units stand for morphemes or words rather than sounds. The most far-reaching effect of this in my view has been to act as a constraint on the (historical) evolution of the language. The writing systems of phonetically-written languages tend to diverge as pronunciation differences develop between subpopulations, and pronunciation differences are among the most rapid linguistic changes to occur. Consider, for example, the case of the Romance languages. Here, grammars and morphological systems are very similar, but the languages are mutually unintelligible owing to different pronunciations.

Chinese, however, has retained a great deal of cohesiveness owing to the fact that its writing system is based on meaning rather than pronunciation. Even as dialects diverged in their pronunciations over the centuries, the successive dynasties in China maintained standards for the written language spanning across them. All Chinese speakers have long been able to read and understand the same texts, and although the spoken forms gradually diverged in structure from the written style, this bond served to curtail divergence of their grammars and word-formation routes to some extent. This is one of the reasons why people speak of a "Chinese language" even though its different spoken "dialects" are mutually unintelligible.


  1. Ramsey, S.R. (1987); The Languages of China; Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
  2. Yin, Binyong, Rohsenow, J.S. (1994); Modern Chinese Characters; Sinolingua, Beijing.

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