“But Chinese is such a simple language,” he says. “It has no grammar!” 

The problem here is not what you’re thinking if you’re a non-linguist: most non-linguists think of language as writing, and they know that written Chinese looks intimidating. But language is primarily speaking, not writing, and the person quoted here is not talking about written Chinese, which does require the very difficult task of learning hundreds (actually, thousands) of written characters. He’s talking about spoken Chinese—Mandarin in particular. But he’s still wrong, significantly wrong, because the issue is not misunderstanding what language is but misunderstanding what grammar is.

I don’t mean the usual misunderstanding, where people think that “grammar” refers to prescriptive peeves about “correct” usage. That’s a different issue. No, this error usually comes from someone who has studied Spanish or German or French or—worse yet—Latin, and thinks that grammar refers to gender, number, case, and tense as indicated by word endings, a process technically called inflection. It’s true that gender, number, case, and tense do fall under the category of grammar, and it’s true that Mandarin has little to no inflection, but it’s blatantly untrue that Mandarin has “no grammar.”

In this particular case, the person who made the original comment is a native speaker of Mandarin! So what’s going on?

Do read the article in the link. You will be reminded that native speakers of any language are often unaware of the linguistic details that they subconsciously know (the classic fish-doesn’t-recognize-water point), and that grammar can be conveyed by many mechanisms other than inflection. For instance, in English we usually convey subject vs. object by word order (at least with nouns), and tense by a combination of endings and auxiliaries (“eat” vs. “eaten” vs. “will eat”). It’s all grammar! Mandarin, like every language, has grammar, but it’s usually expressed by word order and the addition of special words.

If you’re interested in the various mechanisms for expressing grammar, check out some varied languages to get yourself out of the Indo-European rut. Spanish and German only show you a tiny slice of what exists. At one extreme you have languages like Mandarin, in which there is virtually no inflection, but at the opposite extreme you have languages like Hungarian, with 18 cases, though some claim 20! Since you asked, I looked these up, and here is one list: nominative, accusative, dative, illative, inessive, elative, allative, adesive, ablative, sublative, superessive, delative, instrumental, commutative, causal, terminative, temporal, translative, and modal. Now there’s grammar for you! (Remember Mark Twain’s wonderful essay, “The Awful German Language”? No? Well, we’ll write about it in a subsequent post, and you’ll find out how “many a new student who could ill afford loss has bought and paid for two dogs and only got one of them, because he ignorantly bought that dog in the Dative singular when he really supposed he was talking plural.” And German only has 4 cases, not 18 or 20!)

Categories: Linguistics