Thursday, September 15, 2011

bizarre claim

Another Manhattan Prep tweet alerted me to this article in The Economist: "Chinese: No word for -ing."

The article claims:

The internet is replete with funny Chinese signs in English, but a friend currently in Kunming, in [southwestern] China, sends in a doozy of an unusual one. He translates it as "fall fashions, selling fast." (The characters are autumn, style, hot and sell in that order.) What's unusual is the borrowing of just a single bit of English: that "-ing" ending. Chinese doesn't have a progressive aspect that closely mirrors the English "running" and such. So this seems to be nothing more than to add a little foreign glamour to a bland shoe-sale sign.

First, I find the article's title rather strange. Since "-ing" itself isn't a word-- it's a suffix-- what exactly is being claimed when we say the Chinese have no word for "-ing"? Since we English-speakers also lack a word for "-ing," in what way are we lording it over the Chinese?

Second, I disagree with the claim that "Chinese doesn't have a progressive aspect that closely mirrors the English 'running' and such." If I'm not mistaken, the Chinese can use the "中" character to indicate the present progressive. I'm making this assumption based on an extrapolation from how Chinese is used in Korean (e.g., "X [하는] 중"), and I don't think I'm far wrong. The "中" character literally means "middle" or "center," and in Korean it can mean "in the midst of" when being used in the progressive sense.

Would any Chinese-speakers care to weigh in? Is the article's claim correct? Call it a conceit, but I suspect that all languages contain some way to express the progressive tenses.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

My Chinese is quite rusty, but my memory is that zhong is generally a spatial term. I think its inclusion into Korean has abstracted it out a bit. Using zhong the way you're thinking would probably confuse people.

There is a Chinese grammatical form for saying one is doing something (zheng zai or just zai before the verb.) But if I recall correctly that structure always requires a subject.

Anyway, the sign is silly from a grammatical perspective -- Chinese grammar is plenty rich enough to convey the meaning expressed. However, the -ing appendage may add some cosmopolitan, internationalist gloss. It's not unlike the use of English in Korea and Japan.