Review: Chinese Measure Word Dictionary

Chinese Measure Word DictionaryChinese Measure Word Dictionary: A Chinese-English English-Chinese Usage Guide by Jiqing Fang and Michael Connelly (Boston: Cheng & Tsui, 2008)

Review by Craig Dietrich

CAFAM’s own Mike Connelly is co-author of a unique and just-published learning tool and reference guide for Chinese language learners. It has to do with “measure words.”

Measure words are found in many languages. Native speakers employ them without a second thought. When you go to get a “loaf” of bread, you never say, “Give me a bread.” You use the measure word “loaf.” Similarly with a “pair” of pants or a “grain” of sand. Now actually, the vast majority of English nouns, the ones that name individual things, don’t require measure words. You can simply say “a computer,” “a pen,” or “a horse.”

Chinese is different. Most nouns do demand measure words. Just as one example, you can’t properly refer to a street as yi lu (a street); you have to say “yi tiao lu,” where “tiao is a measure word. To say “yi lu” is to identify yourself as very much a novice speaker.

The problem for Chinese language learners has always been where to pick up all these measure words and where to look up which one to use with a given noun. Typically introductory language texts approach this haphazardly.

Along come Messers Fang and Connelly with their Chinese Measure Word Dictionary. They have written a thoroughly researched and carefully compiled reference book which breaks the subject down into three parts.

Part I lists the most commonly used measure words (more then 150 of them) and the nouns with which they associate. For example, the word “zhi” is the measure word for nostril, nose, giraffe, boat, goose, and 36 other nouns. All the Chinese words are given in simplified characters and in pinyin with tone included. The entry indicates the general noun categories that “zhi” associates with (some animals, one of a pair, boats, containers) and also adds a note discussing some finer distinctions.

Now supposing your head is just now operating in English mode and you can’t remember the Chinese measure word for “boat.” Turn to Part II of the dictionary where you will find a listing of English nouns from “abacus” to “zebra.” Each entry here gives the most common Chinese translation together with the correct measure word(s). Under “boat” you will find two entries: “yi sou chuan” and “yi zhi chuan,” again provided both in pinyin and in characters. So there are actually two measure words that can go with “boat.”

Finally, if you’re in Chinese mode you can visit Part III. It gives a list of nouns in Chinese, arranged by the pinyin alphabet. You proudly remember, for example, that “chuan” is boat, but you forgot the measure word. Go to “chuan” and there they are: “yi sou chuan” and “yi zhi chuan” in simplified characters and pinyin.

Fang and Connelly also provide excellent introductory discussions of the subject.

If you want to learn Chinese, once you get past “Ni hao” and “zaijian,” you should have this dictionary. It is “hen hao”!

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The Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine provides forums and outreach that promote cultural interchanges between the US and China.

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