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
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
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
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"
"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.