How the Communists fucked up Chinese even more, or what I found out researching the dative case in Chinese

A question occurred to me the other day that I wouldn’t have asked had I not studied Greek: How is the dative expressed in Chinese?

It was not easy for me to find the answer. I mean, try asking the average Chinese grad student or massage girl1: “Hey, you know the dative? How do I do that in Chinese?” No, I’m not learning Chinese from DuckDuckGo, but yes, I searched for “Chinese dative” and found only a graduate research paper from Taiwan in the form of a pdf. Luckily, while at home where I have a book called “Mandarin Chinese - a functional reference grammar”2 I remembered I was trying to figure this out and looked up “Dative” in the index. There was one entry, and it said “See Indirect Object.” It dawned on me3 that that is what I should have been searching for all along, because even more so than English, and unlike Ancient Greek, which is synthetic, Chinese is an analytic language.

Anyway, the reason I wanted to know how to properly express the dative in Chinese is because I have been finding it awkward4 to express sentences where I use something to do something, or I do something for someone or something. Here is what I found.

It is messy. Just as in English, there’s no unified concept5. Different prepositions apply in different contexts. Wei is sort of like “for” and must be used when you are doing something “for” somebody, but it can’t be used if you are doing something “to” somebody. For that there is “bei”, but “bei” can only be used when what is being done to somebody is detrimental in some way.6 To express something in the passive voice that is not detrimental to the subject, well, just omit the agent and use a verb that doesn’t require one! Like if you want to say in Chinese that your book was published, just say “my book publish.”

When expressing indirect objects, there are three classes of verbs to consider. One class requires what is called a “coverb”7 in the form of the verb “gei (give) to be prepended. For another class “gei” is optional, and for yet another class “gei” is forbidden. How am I to remember which verbs belong in which class? I don’t know, but hopefully it will help to document them here.

Gei Required

di bring to
fen allocate
na, dai bring to
ji mail
jiao deliver, hand in
mai sell
diu, reng toss, throw
shu lose
xie write
zu rent to
liu keep, save
da telephone
ti kick
ban move
tui push

Gei Optional

song, zeng give
jiao teach
shang, ci bestow
jia add on
chuan pass
huan return
pei compensate, pay back
fu pay
xu promise to give
jie lend

Gei Forbidden8

gei give
gaosu tell
daying promise
huida answer
wen ask
tou steal
qingjiao ask for enlightenment
ying win
qiang rob
duo snatch
  1. Hey they both have student visas! []
  2. This is a very nice book, especially for those who eschew hieroglyphs []
  3. I wasn’t taught about the dative in my education in English, only things like direct and indirect objects. I wasn’t taught about the concept of case at all. Why I was not taught about case isn’t clear to me because it’s not like even though most nouns in English don’t change based on case case isn’t a thing. []
  4. And it’s weird because often times I might read about a way to express something in a language, but something inside my brain won’t trust this information unless I actually hear a real person say something in a real context that confirms or demonstrates it - even then subconsciously there is a verification process akin to asking “Is this person just dumbing things down for me?” []
  5. Interestingly the literal translation of the Chinese word for dative in Chinese - “yu ge” - is “give case.” For those who know Latin I suppose that’s not all that interesting. []
  6. However this appears to be changing. From my grammar text: “a markedly increased use of the passive has perhaps been one of the striking syntactic trends in the development of Modern Chinese…. There has been a great deal of translation from foreign languages into Chinese during the past half century, including a perfect flood of Marxist material, which the Soviets translated and sold far below cost and which had a profound and continuing impact upon Chinese intelligentsia. The great majority of the translators were hacks, equipped with neither any real linguistic sophistication nor even a very secure grasp of the languages involved and their stylistic niceties. They had learned another language in the most straightforward and mindless fashion: Here is a Russion verb ispoljzovan [which means ‘is used, utilized’]. What’s the chinese for that? Bei li-yong [where liyong means ‘to take advangage of someone or something for one’s own benefit’] and ever thereafter, when the Russion ispoljzovan crops up, it is doggedly translated bei li-yong, with never a thought that there might be some possibility of recasting the sentence to put it into idomatic Chinese, avoiding the passive. Such patterns become enshrined in ritually-admired literature and thence they are imitated in other literature and are read aloud; and in no time people are speaking that way, with no idea that they are participating in radical linguistic change.” []
  7. A coverb is a word that may serve as a verb, but must occur in at least some contexts where it can’t be interpreted as a verb []
  8. For these verbs, the indirect object must precede the direct object. So a literal example in English for the verb ask (wen) would be “I ask him some questions” []

Leave a Reply