The basic unit of written Chinese is the character. Chinese characters are logograms; in other words, each character represents a specific concept (or set of concepts), rather than a specific sound (or set of sounds).
The advantage of this form of writing system is that the same characters can be used in different languages — for example, Mandarin and Cantonese both use 肉 to mean "meat"; however, in Mandarin it's pronounced roughly as "row" (as in rowing a boat) whereas in Cantonese it's pronounced roughly as "yuk".
This does raise the question of which of the Chinese languages is best to choose for a person learning to read Chinese menus! I've decided to learn the Mandarin pronunciations; this is partly because I live with doop, who already speaks some Mandarin, and partly because it doesn't actually matter all that much for my goal — if I end up in a restaurant where none of the staff can understand my Mandarin, I can always order by pointing at stuff on the menu. I did, however, want to learn a pronunciation, since it helps me make the characters stick in my brain when I can read them aloud as I'm learning them, and I may as well learn some real pronunciations as opposed to some made-up ones that only I understand.
Mandarin, like other Chinese languages, is a tonal language; this means that the meaning of what you say is affected by the pitch of your voice as well as the consonants and vowels you pronounce. This is a feature not present in any language I've ever previously learned, so it's something I'm paying special attention to.
Mandarin Chinese can be written not only with Chinese characters, but also in the Latin alphabet with the addition of accents to indicate the tones. The most common latinisation is called pinyin. Pinyin is kind of the opposite of characters, in that while characters carry information on meaning but not on pronunciation, pinyin is completely phonetic — if you know the pinyin for something, you know precisely how to pronounce it. However, you can't get the meaning from the pinyin; for example, 炸 and 榨 are both "zhà" in pinyin, but the former means "deep-fried" while the latter means "juiced" or "pressed".
I'll discuss pronunciation further as I go along in my Wednesday posts, but here are some YouTube video links for the interested:
- Mandarin Chinese Pinyin Pronunciation — covers consonants and vowels separately. Useful despite some audio encoding artefacts (4 mins 53 sec).
- China-8.com Chinese Lesson: Pinyin Tones — short, straightforward introduction to Mandarin tones (1 min 15 sec).
- Chinese sample lesson 1 - tones — tones again, longer than the above, and more entertaining (5 mins 14 sec).
Another decision I needed to make was whether to learn traditional or simplified characters. Wikipedia has an overview of character simplification, but in essence, simplified characters are quicker to write — for example, the traditional character for wheat noodles is 麵, while the simplified one is 面. In the end, it turned out that I would have to learn both — a quick survey of London menus revealed that some use traditional characters, others use simplified characters, and one or two use a mixture! However, it's generally considered easier for someone who can read traditional characters to learn the simplified forms than vice versa, so I decided to learn the traditional forms first.
I've covered quite a lot of ground in this post, but this is pretty much all the background knowledge you really need to get started. I'll look at the different aspects in greater detail in future posts. As always, I appreciate questions and corrections in comments.