The various forms of Chinese differ least in grammar, more in vocabulary, and most in pronunciation. Like the other Sino-Tibetan languages, Chinese is tonal, i.e., different tones distinguish words otherwise pronounced alike. The number of tones varies in different forms of Chinese, but Mandarin has four tones: a high tone, a rising tone, a tone that combines a falling and a rising inflection, and a falling tone.
Chinese (again, like other Sino-Tibetan languages) is also strongly monosyllabic. Chinese often uses combinations of monosyllables that result in polysyllabic compounds having different meanings from their individual elements. For example, the word for "explanation," shue-ming, combines shue ("speak") with ming ("bright"). These compounds can embrace three and even four monosyllables: shuo-ch'u-lai, the word for "describe," is made up of shuo ("speak"), ch'u ("out"), and lai ("come"). This practice has greatly increased the Chinese vocabulary and also makes it much easier to grasp the meaning of spoken Chinese words.
The elements of Chinese tend to be more grammatically isolated than connected, because the language lacks inflection to indicate person, number, gender, case, tense, voice, and so forth. Suffixes may be used to denote some of these features. For example, the suffix -le is a sign of the perfect tense of the verb. Subordination and possession can be marked by the suffix -te. The position and use of a word in a sentence may determine its part of speech and its meaning.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.