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Why does Chinese have more collective nouns than English?

One of our users recently pointed out that the translation of certain sentences in our app could be more precise. The example pointed to was: “我想喝酒(wǒ xiǎng hē jiǔ)” which had been translated into “I want to drink wine”.

She is right these two sentences are not 100% same. Although “我想喝酒(wǒ xiǎng hē jiǔ)” is a very common and natural Chinese sentence, its English version “I want to drink alcohol” sounds a bit weird.

This brings me a question: Why there are more collective nouns in Chinese than that in English? Actually English also has collective nouns such as “cat”, “dog”. For example people will probably say “I have a dog” instead of “I have a Shih Tzu”. But if you take a close look, Chinese has many more: “牛(niú)”, “羊(yáng)”, “鼠(shǔ)”, “酒(jiǔ)”, “笔(bǐ)”…

Early this year, western media had a report that 2015 was the year of “Yang” in China. Chinese people noticed that different media sources used different meanings of “Yang”, which are related, but not quite the same. We asked ourselves whether “Yang” was a sheep, a goat or a ram. Of course, no one knows.

I guess one reason is that Chinese is an economical language. For all those collective nouns there are more specific secondary words. “Sheep” is “绵羊(miányáng)”, “goat” is “山羊(shānyáng)” and “ram” is “岩羊(yányáng)”. But most of the time no one cares what kind of “Yang” it is, it’s just a symbol.

Returning to our first example, when I say “我想喝酒(wǒ xiǎng hē jiǔ)”, I’m only expressing that I want to have a drink with alcohol. It is unimportant what exact kind of drink I want, so we try to deduct any redundant information. Meanwhile English has a reputation for being scientific, which needs to be precise.

Of course that’s just a guess. There are also collective nouns used more often in English than they are in Chinese. For example, I am always confused that there are so many vegetables that you can call “squash” in the grocery store. For me they are all distinctly different things for me.

Another good example is we don’t have an identical word for “dumpling” in Chinese. We are more precise, saying “包子(bāozi)”, “饺子(jiǎozi)”, “小笼包(xiǎolóngbāo)”, “馒头(mántou)”, “馄饨(húntun)” etc.

So, here is a tip for when you are learning Chinese, remember that a noun may have different or alternative meanings from what you learn in your textbooks. “酒(jiǔ)” is often translated as “wine” but it could mean “beer” as well!

Do you have any suggestions how I could translate 我想喝酒(wǒ xiǎng hē jiǔ)? Tell me about it in the comments!

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Vera Zhang

After graduating from East China Normal University in 2005, Vera Zhang (张晓丽) started her career in teaching Chinese as a second language. Her first teaching job was teaching high school Chinese in Philippines and realized how much she loved this job. In 2007, she came back Shanghai and spent 7 years in ChinesePod. During that, she also went to America to learn language learning knowledge and curriculum editing by teaching in a high school. Now she works in a start-up company and has developed a new Chinese learning app-HelloChinese. She hopes she can share her knowledge in Chinese and make Chinese learning easy and fun.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. That’s not what collective noun means. In English a collecitve noun is one that expresses a plural meaning without a plural form. Coffee. Tea. Fish. Meat. These are all collective nouns.

    What you are talking about is lexical space. It doesn’t have any deep meaning. Of course it is going to be very different between two language that didn’t have much contact until maybe the 18th or 19th century and which don’t have areal contact at all.

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