I think it was on Monday that a student in the year below me was asking me about Chinese. He had practiced a Mandarin greeting with me, and then I offered to teach him something. I was quite rushed for time so I got out my trusty sticky pad and began to write the Chinese numbers (I only managed to get to number six because we needed to leave our classroom). I scribbled down the characters, pinyin, and then an extension of the pinyin I had created to simplify the pronunciation (since it isn’t always that straightforward to read pinyin).
Unless you already know the Chinese numbers, I’m assuming that this is your first time seeing the first six. I will introduce you to the rest of the numbers in the same inventive format 哈哈 [Roman number, Chinese character for the number, pinyin, my simplification of pronunciation for certain characters]:
1一 yi (yee)
2二 er (urh) (*the sound Pirates make*)
4四 si (suh)
5五 wu (woo)
6六 liu (leoh)
7七 qi (chee)
9九 jiu (jeoh/jyo)
10十 shi (shuh)
11十一 shi yi
I usually ignore ‘zero’ when I learn numbers, but in Chinese it is read as ‘ling’ and the character is零.
To count up in the tens you must put the number in front of ‘ten’. For example ‘twenty’ is ‘two’ followed by ‘ten’ 二十. Which number is七十? Also, numbers below 100 but over their domain of ten (不知道怎么说啊!) would make use of the previous rule, and then add another number to the end of the structure (懂不懂?). So the number ‘64’ would be written as六十四.
To further add to my disdain about numbers (with Chinese, English or any language), I recently learnt that the number ‘one’ in Chinese has two different readings. This is typically seen when talking about dates. For example, in an article the date ‘12th May’ may be presented in Roman numbers as ‘5.12’. My instinct would be to read this as 五十二 (wu shi er) which literally means 5,10,2.
However there are several reasons for why this is wrong…
- Although as I explained before about digits above 10, like ‘12’ we must construct the number with a 10 and a 2. But in this case we do not follow this structure and we simply read the numbers as they are seen; ‘one’ and ‘two’. This is likely to happen so that numbers can be read with ease. For example, the event of the 11th September Twin Tower collapse is referred to as 911 (nine eleven) in English, and in the same way the Chinese would shorten their numbers for brevity.
- Following on from the previous point, we would then expect the date ‘12th May’ to be read as 五一二 ‘wu yi er’ (I’m inserting the Chinese numbers as an illustrative example, but in actual fact Roman numbers are commonly found in formal Chinese writing). This is correct in the sense that the appropriate characters are being used, however the pinyin would be wrong because in this case the number one would not be read as ‘yi’. Instead of reading the character for the number ‘one’ as ‘yi’(which is 一), we would read it as ‘yao’. This is a special version of the number ‘one’ that is used in texts like newspaper articles for the same reason previously mentioned of maintaining brevity.
- Another example of where this alternate reading of ‘one’ is used is in Chinese emergency numbers; such as 110 for Police, and 119 for the Fire Brigade (do you know the pinyin for the numbers?). I came to confront ‘yao’ the other day whilst reading an article in my Mandarin lesson, now you have too.
I hope that this has not disheartened you, but I thought it was best to introduce you to the fact that the Chinese numbers are not as simple as they appear and that you should be prepared to experience deviations in the rules you had originally been taught since Chinese is such a vast language. Following on from what I have introduced you to today I could teach you about how to write higher figure numbers like 100 or 1000, but I don’t think I can muster the courage (refer to the first sentence of this post if you need clarification as to why that is).
Allow me to also briefly explain the picture I drew at the start of the post. It’s a Chinese children’s poem. If you scroll back up you should be able to recognize the numbers, but there are some other words included as well. The poem can be translated as ‘One two three for five six seven, where are my friends? In Beijing, in Shanghai, my friends are here’. Not worthy of the canon, but it sounds cute when sang in tune.
I will leave you with a supplementary link I found earlier where you can listen to the pronunciation of the numbers. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primarylanguages/mandarin/numbers/ It seems as though it is part of an initiative by the BBC to encourage learning languages with primary school students, the pages are actually quite cute (I’m somewhat surprised).
If you teach someone how to count in another language一二三 good luck 世界。
从欣妍 – From Xinyan.