Māma mà má mǎ ma?

Published 2007-04-24

My mother asked me the other day, how exactly do you say “Did Mother scold the hemp horse?” Well, you say it like this:

Māma mà má mǎ ma?

The diacritics tell you which way to pitch the a sound: high and flat (ā), long and rising (á), falling-then-rising (ǎ), short and falling (à), or toneless (a).

In Hanzi (Simplified characters) you’d write it like this:


This is why it’s easier to read (and remember) Chinese words in Hanzi, not Pinyin (i.e. Romanized). The characters tell us a lot. Most of them have the sound-part 马 (mǎ) which, by itself, means “horse.“ So we know that many of these words will sound something like “mǎ.“ The other parts of these characters give clues to meaning. 妈 (“Mother”) has the radical 女, “female.” (Common one-syllable words like mā are frequently doubled; in these cases the second syllable loses its tone. This has a familiar or diminutive aspect, a little like the -ito ending in Spanish, or the -y ending in English. For example gǒu means “dog,” gǒugou means “doggy.”) 骂 and 吗 have the radical 口, “mouth,” which is associated with words for speaking, listening, and eating/drinking.

This all sounds much more complicated than it really is. For example, when we’re reading exercises (in Pinyin) with our tutor, we frequently see a sequence of words that doesn’t seem to make sense. But as soon as we read it out loud we realize what word it is. Or I’ll ask Mr. Yu to write it in Hanzi and suddenly it makes sense. For example, one of the most common Chinese words is shì, which means “to be” (and, because Chinese doesn’t have tense, plurality, gender, or aspect, also “am, was, are, will be, have been,” etc.) But lots of words are written in Pinyin as shi, and, more importantly, the shi sound is really common and kind of mumbly (it sounds kind of like “sure.”) Without any context, it’s impossible to know what shì means. But the character 是 has exactly one meaning.

This explains, in part, why Pinyin has not caught on. Most Chinese aren’t familiar with it, other than knowing how to write a few proper names. About the only way (for a foreigner or Chinese person) to read a long passage of Pinyin is to sound it out. Māma mà má mǎ ma looks like gibberish, but 妈妈骂麻马吗 makes perfect sense.