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Why is Chinese so efficient? Good morning East Asia

by Dwight Rodgers

Although German is not one of the languages I can speak, and I'm probably repeating urban legend, I once heard that the German word for "Tank" early in the 1900s was something like "Schützengrabenvernichtungsautomobil", perhaps meaning "automobile that shoots and moves in trenches". The time required to yell this phrase upon seeing a tank, was, of course, presented as the primary reason for Germany losing the war.

This makes me wonder whether the meteoric rise in the Chinese and Taiwanese economies during the 1990s while Japan remained, for the most part, stagnant, was, in fact, not due to low labor cost or difference in starting point, but rather due to the simple fact that "Good morning" takes 9 times longer to say in Japanese.

Let's take a look:

"Ohayoo gozaimasu" (お早う御座います), 9 syllables in Japanese,
versus "zǎo" (早), 1 syllable in Chinese.

Why is this?

The most interesting thing, if you don't already know Japanese and Chinese, but are able to see the Japanese and Chinese characters above in your web browser (if you can't, try "Start Menu -> Control Panel -> Regional and Language Settings -> Languages and check the box for "Install Files for East Asian Languages" hit Apply and probably reboot), is that both sentences actually contain the same character "早".

早, which was borrowed by Japanese from Chinese long ago, means "fast" or "early", and is the cornerstone of the morning greeting in both languages. In Chinese, it's pronounced "zao", and is a typical morning greeting all by itself. In Japanese, it's typically pronounced "hayai" and is usually written "早い" -- the second character being the phonetic symbol for "i" and serving to indicate which of multiple possible pronunciations 早 should take in context.

So why, if both greetings are derived from the word "early", is the Japanese phrase so much longer? Let's see what the rest of the syllables are for:

Ohayoo gozaimasu (お早う御座います)

"O" (お) at the beginning of a word means something like "I'm expressing respect while speaking this word"

In Japanese, adjectives ending in "i" (い) such as "hayai" (早い) can transform to end in "o" (お). For example "hayai" (早い) can become "hayoo" (早う). This transformation expresses further respect for the phrase being spoken.

So "O ha yo o" (お早う) means "early with double respect"

What about "go za i ma su" (御座います)?

Well, "gozaru" (御座る) means something like "is" with a side-message of "and by the way, I recognize that you are superior to me". And some verbs like this ending in "ru" (る) can be transformed to end in "imasu" (います) to convey respect. (are we starting to see a pattern?) So "gozaru" (御座る) can become "gozaimasu" (御座います), meaning "is" with a side-message of "and by the way, I recognizer that you are superior, and am conveying respect".

So "good morning", in Japanese is "Ohayoo Gozaimasu" (お早う御座います), meaning "it is early" with 3 side orders of respect and a dose of humility.

Is it just "good morning" or does Chinese always require fewer syllables? Well, let's take a look:


Chinese: "qǐng" (請)

Japanese: "onegaishimasu" (お願いいたします), meaning "do a request", +2 respect, +1 humility.

"will", as in "I will prepare the documents you requested"

Chinese: "huì" (會)

Japanese: "sasete itadakimasu" (させて頂きます), meaning "I will receive the making of myself to do", +1 respect, +1 humility.

Comparative analysis of the expression and importance of humility and respect in these cultures aside, it's pretty clear that meetings in Chinese finish earlier.

About the author:

Dwight Rogers is the co-creator of the Effective Language brand of language learning products, helping people achieve fluency, not tourist-speak, with methods that are always interesting, always easy, and always effective.


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