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Lesson Transcript

Matt: Hey everyone, welcome back. Today Nicole and I are going to expound on something very near and dear to Cantonese hearts.
Nicole: Yes! The wonderful art of Cantonese characters. In Cantonese they are also known as 漢字 (hon3 zi6).
Matt: Now the good thing about this is that you didn’t know learning Cantonese was actually going to be an art class!
Nicole: Yes! Cantonese characters are a form of art, and such an important part of our language and culture. And when we are talking about Cantonese characters, we are referring to the Traditional Chinese characters.
Matt: And Chinese is the oldest written language in the world today. It has been continuously used for over 3000 years. What other language has that kind of a history?
Nicole: Yes there are examples of written Chinese dating from 1500-950 BC on bones and turtle shells and things.
Matt: That’s right, they’re called the "oracle bones". They were used for divination right?
Nicole: Yes, mostly they were used for getting information about hunting, warfare, the weather, and the lucky dates for ceremonies.
Matt: In fact when I was in Beijing once, my friend took me to the site of an archaeological dig where they were opening the tomb of an emperor who was alive at the same time as Jesus. And looking at some of the artifacts I could actually read what was on them.
Nicole: Yes it’s really amazing how they’ve been preserved.
Matt: That’s right, all Traditional Chinese characters are put together in a logical way and can be broken down… the more you learn them, the more you will start to see the little patterns and ‘picture’ emerging from the characters.
Nicole: Right, some of these smaller pictures within the character give a hint as to meaning and pronunciation.
Matt: Disclaimer, though… That’s not always true!
Nicole: True. But take the more simple objects, like the characters for "people", "hand", "foot", "mountain", "sun", "tree".
Matt: Amazingly, even after 3000 years, you can still kind of tell what they are, in some of the cases at least.
Nicole: Like the one for ‘mouth’. It kind of looks like a square mouth.
Matt: That’s right, or the one for “people”, that character looks like it has two legs and it’s running.
Nicole: Yes, so from those humble beginnings, the next step was to start combining the elements.
Matt: The most simple of the elements that make up a character are called radicals. That’s what you see when you’re using Cantonese dictionaries. It’s fairly organized.
Nicole: A little time consuming of a process at first, but you get used to it pretty quickly.
Matt: Right, one thing though… up until the last 50 years or so, the traditional form of characters was in wide use in Mainland China. The pictures are easier to see in these renditions. But now they are taken over by simplified ones.
Nicole: In mainland China the government went through and simplified them in the 50s and 60s.
Matt: The traditional characters are much more detailed and that's what is now used in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore etc. In fact, anywhere in the world besides Mainland China.
Nicole: Yes, and that's the character we are going to teach.
Matt: That’s right, now let me ask you, Nicole. Which ones do you like better? I think I like the traditional characters, I think they are more beautiful.
Nicole: True. But some people say they are a lot harder to remember how to write. But I would disagree. Because the tradition form is more complete in revealing the meanings, therefore should be easier to remember.
Matt: Yes, generally learners will develop a preference for one over the other.
Nicole: Or you can learn both!
Matt: Yeah, but there are around 50,000 characters!
Nicole: Yes but I promise you don’t have to learn that many. Most of those are really obscure and you don’t need to learn them. 3 or 4,000 is enough!
Matt: Wow! That still seems like a lot when compared to 26 letters in the alphabet.
Nicole: But hey think how great it would be when you can read people’s tattoos.
Matt: That’s right, and you can point out what their tattoos really means, sometimes its translation is like some of the crazy Chinglish t-shirts we see.
Nicole: Or the biggest motivator for learning Chinese characters of all: being able to order food.
Matt: That’s right, that’s most important. But then again there is always the method of looking at other people’s dishes and pointing.
Nicole: OK I can see we have to make it more enticing for everyone.
Matt: That’s right, tell us some hints to make it easy! Lie to us if you have to!!
Nicole: OK another hint about Cantonese characters is that Cantonese verbs and adjectives generally consist of one character (syllable) but nouns often consist of two, three or more characters (syllables).
Matt: Which is going to be important for you to know, because when Cantonese is written on the page, there are no spaces between characters and the characters which make up compound words are not grouped together.
Nicole: So when you are reading Cantonese, you not only have to work out what the characters mean and how to pronounce them, but also which characters belong together.
Matt: Yikes. But somehow, it’s really not as bad as it sounds… we promise. No lies.
Nicole: And come on, they must be good, after all the Japanese, Koreans and even Vietnamese used Cantonese characters at one point.
Matt: OK, so they are all nice pictures and everything, but don’t worry, you will not be forced to sound out ‘mouths’ and little running men all the time…
Nicole: Yes because we have Jyutping to help.
Matt: Jyutping is a phonetic system used to teach standard pronunciation of Cantonese; it’s the same phonetics you see for Cantonese names in newspapers and stuff… all those ng’s and z’s.
Nicole: Yes and it’s one way to enter Cantonese characters on computers too.
Matt: If you aren’t familiar with Jyutping yet, you can head to the website, Cantoneseclass101.com where we have a lot of different resources that tells you much more about this fantastic romanization system.
Nicole: Yes, Cantonese syllables are compounds of initials and finals.
Matt: Yes, unlike in European languages, initials and finals - not consonants and vowels - are the fundamental elements that make up a word in pinyin. Nearly every Cantonese syllable can be spelled with one initial followed by one final.
Nicole: Yes but a word of caution: though Jyutping uses the Roman alphabet, and some of the sounds are similar to their English counterparts, some of the letters and combinations of letters have pronunciations quite different from English.
Matt: Yes, Jyutping cannot be read exactly like English, even though it uses the Roman alphabet. Otherwise, you start saying stuff like ‘jam cha’.
Nicole: But it should be “yum cha”.
Matt: Right.
Nicole: More good news is that there are only about 600 different combinations of initials and finals in Cantonese.
Matt: Yes so there are there are a lot of similar sounds. Of course, each Cantonese character can also have 6 possible tones, so that adds to the amount of individual sounds.
Nicole: Yeah but since there are so many words that are similar sounds, you will often see Cantonese people tracing the strokes of a character into the palm of their hand when speaking, in order to clarify which word they are using.
Matt: Yeah, and I’m always totally lost when they do that. I’m like, get a pen!
Nicole: Yeah… it takes some getting used to.
Matt: Anyway, take heart, think about all the exercise your right brain will be getting!
Nicole: Yes… like aerobics for your brain.
Matt: Like the boot camp workout for your brain.
Nicole: But In a good way!
Matt: And… if you’re not the contemplative artistic zen sort… there is another way to get by…
Nicole: Either, get someone else to write your notes to your friends…
Matt: Or, my way… just use the computer to type. Just think, this 3000-year-old script can be used on your computer. Technology!
Nicole: So remember, Cantonese characters are not as hard as you might think.
Matt: And a lot of people really enjoy learning them. So come on in and learn with us here at…
Nicole: CantoneseClass101.com