Sample from Chapter 2. Spoken Chinese

Two-Morpheme Words

As we have seen, some Chinese words consist of single morphemes, but the majority, two -thirds of them, consist of two morphemes. Two-morpheme words are constructed variously by repeating the same or similar morpheme, by attaching a bound morpheme as a suffix or prefix to a free morpheme, or by joining two free morphemes. Let us take up each kind in turn.

Reduplications are formed by merely repeating the same morpheme, as in renren ('person person' = 'everyone'), haohao ('good good' = 'very good', emphasis), and zouzou ('walk walk' = 'walk a little'). Many Chinese kinship terms have reduplicated morphemes, as in mama, baba, gege, meimei ('mother', 'father', 'elder brother', 'younger sister'). They resemble "baby words" in English and other languages, such as papa, mama, dindin, tata.

Some Chinese words have the form "morpheme + prefix or suffix." The prefix di-, for example, turns cardinal numerals into ordinal numerals, as in yi, di-yi; er, di-er ('one', first'; 'two', 'second'). This useful prefix has been adopted into Japanese and Korean. The suffix -zi is attached to many nouns that name concrete objects, as in bi-zi, dao-zi, shi-zi, mao-zi ('nose', 'knife', 'lion', 'hat'). The suffix -r is the only Chinese morpheme that is less than a syllable long. Attached optionally to many nouns and a few verbs it adds a familiar, diminutive, and sometimes pejorative flavor, as in mar, guanr, wanr ('little horse', 'petty official', 'to play'). It is like -y in English horsey, doggy, dolly.

In borrowing Chinese morphemes and words, Koreans and Japanese sometimes include the suffixes, as in maozi, shizi ('hat', 'lion'), which are in Korean moja, saja and in Japanese booshi, shishi. The Chinese suffix -r, which appeared after the Koreans and the Japanese borrowed most Chinese words, are not included in Japanese and Korean words, so that the Chinese mar ('horsey') and guanr ('petty official') are in Korean ma, kuan and in Japanese ba, kan.

Two or more free morphemes can be joined to form a compound word, as in English plain-clothes-man. Chinese compound words parallel Chinese sentences in syntactic construction. For example, a compound can have a subject + verb construction, as in Di zhen ('[The] earth quake[s]'), which becomes the noun dizhen ('earthquake'), and Tou teng ('[My] head ache[s]'), which becomes the noun touteng ('headache'). Table 2-3 shows the syntactic relations of these and other compound words. The syntactic method of compounding is simple and straightforward in Chinese, because Chinese sentences tend not to contain the equivalents of the English inflections and function words, shown in square brackets [ ].

Table 2-3. Syntactic Relations of Compound Words

Syntactic Relation Compound Word Meaning
subject + verb dizhen earth + quake = earthquake
adjective + noun daren big + person = adult
verb + object sharen kill + person = homicide

Many Chinese compound words are formed by joining two synonyms, as in meili ('beautiful + exquisite' = 'beautiful'), daolu ('way + road' = 'road'). The practice of joining two synonyms into a word crept into Chinese-based pidgin English, in words such as look-see. In some other compound words, two antonyms are joined, as in daxiao ('large + small' = 'size') and duoshao ('much + few' = 'quantity'). In still other compound words, two morphemes with contrasting meanings are joined, as in weiji ('danger + opportunity' = 'crisis'). This particular compound word contains a lot of wisdom and is often cited in the West as well.

Instead of joining two or more morphemes into a word, one or more morphemes can be eliminated from a multi-morpheme idiom to create a word, as in jingji ('control + save' = 'economy') from the Chinese classical idiom jingshi jimin ('control the world to save the people'). This word was first used by Japanese and has since been adopted by Chinese and Koreans. When a few morphemes are eliminated from a phrase, the meaning of the resulting word can be puzzling: dongxi ('east, west' = 'thing') comes from "things produced in the four directions (east, west, south, and north) or various areas."

Some two-morpheme words have amusing origins. Take the word maodun ('lance + shield' = 'contradiction'). A merchant was selling lances and shields, saying, "This is the ultimate lance; it can pierce any shield. And this is the ultimate shield; it can stop any lance." A man asked him, "Can your lance pierce your shield, or can your shield stop your lance?"

In many examples cited here and elsewhere, the meanings of the component morphemes contribute to the meaning of the compound word. But not so in some compound words: (luo)huasheng ('to drop, flower, live/raw' means 'peanut'), mashang ('horse, above' means 'at once', and the playful word mamahuhu ('horse, horse, tiger, tiger' means 'of no importance').

Many of the reasonable and a few of the unreasonable Chinese words cited in this sectione.g., dizhen ('earthquake'), maozi ('hat'), weiji ('crisis'), maodun ('contradiction'), luohuasheng ('peanut')are used in Japanese and Korean with the same meaning, written in the same characters, but with somewhat changed sounds. For example, Chinese maodun is mosun in Korean and mujun in Japanese.

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