One of the most fascinating aspects of Chinese language is ambiguity.

Chinese generally go about making their points indirectly as opposed to Westerners making their points directly, explains Stewart Lee Beck, author of China Simplified: Language Gymnastics


Examples of Ambiguity

''Our Chapter 3 looks at some of those delicious ambiguities that are inherent in the Chinese language, such as mǎ shàng dào le  (马上到了). Literally it means "on the horse, arriving" or "I’ll be there soon." But in reality what it means is "I’ll be there in the near future." It could be 30 minutes away, it could be an hour away.''

''Mǎ shàng dào le, in terms of linguistics, has this connotation of wild warriors on stallions riding on a wind-swept plain in this romantic way from generations past in the Yuan Dynasty. But in terms of practical modern China, it means that your meeting is going to start a half an hour late when you hear that phrase.''

''Another interesting ambiguity is the phrase yīng gāi méi wèn tí (应该没问题), which basically means "shouldn’t be a problem." As a Westerner here, when you hear that you generally think "ok, it’s all under control." The trick is how you hear the words yīng gāi. If it’s a short, dismissive answer from somebody, you feel the confidence in their voice and you think "ok, we’re on track." But when you hear someone say with a hesitating tone īīīīīīīīng gāāāāāāméi wèn tí then you know you might be in trouble and it’s time to follow up.''


... And Directness

''What is interesting as well about the language is the directness with it. It’s a very direct language. There are no complex verb conjugations, no masculine and feminine, and there are so many elements of the language that are so direct, that makes it extremely practical.''
''When you’re speaking it, you can always find a way to say something and get around a way that you may have forgotten. As a student, and living in China, it's extremely enjoyable to have the language as an asset. It really enables you to get to know the people and communicate in a way that, with translators, you just could never do.''
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