We’re often told that Chinese is the most difficult language in the world. Somebody really should have told us that it’s also the simplest.
As well as being humanity’s most spoken languages, Mandarin Chinese and English are the two languages with the largest vocabularies. Both languages can lay claim to some 50,000 words, but while English uses around 4000 “sound blocks” to generate those words, Chinese uses just 410. The genius of Chinese is that they have created the same number of words from a 90% simpler sound palette.
There are 3 steps to this marvel of human ingenuity:
- Create a set of single syllable sounds;
- Recycle each syllable up to 4 times with tones;
- Use the resulting syllables in pairs.
Astonishingly, this breath-takingly simple system is capable of creating 2.7 million words (410 syllables recycled 4 times = 1640 syllables x 1640 possible pairings = 2,689,600 words). That’s 54 times more words than English with just 10% of the sounds. It reminds me of DNA: all the diversity of life from just 4 different nucleobases. Compared to this ordered simplicity, English looks like an explosion in a paint factory.
Each of the 410 “sound blocks” is a word, that can also be used to make other words – by recycling with tones and combining with other blocks. Which means that from one perspective the entire spoken vocabulary of Chinese past, present and future can be printed out on one side of A4 using a total of just 1328 letters.
Why did no-one ever tell me this so that I could stand in wonder at the simplicity of Chinese rather than tremble in fear at its complexity?