Why Chinese has more collective nouns than English?

Recently one user kindly pointed out that the translation of our app should be more precise. Because we translated “我想喝酒(wǒ xiǎng hē jiǔ)” 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 nature Chinese sentence, its English version “I want to drink alcohol” sounds very 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 much 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. Then Chinese noticed that different media used different words of “Yang”. So we asked ourselves whether “Yang” was a sheep, a goat or a ram. Of course, no one knows.

I guess one reason is 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 no one cares what kind of “Yang” it is. It’s just a symbol. When I say “我想喝酒(wǒ xiǎng hē jiǔ)”, I only express I want to have a drink with alcohol. It is unimportant what 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 that in Chinese. For example, I am always confused that there are so many “squash” in the grocery store. They are all different things for me. Another good example is we don’t have an identical word of “dumpling” in Chinese. They are “包子(bāozi)”, “饺子(jiǎozi)”, “小笼包(xiǎolóngbāo)”, “馒头(mántou)”, “馄饨(húntun)”…

So one learning tip is when you learn Chinese, please try to understand a noun may not be the same thing that you learn from the translation. “酒(jiǔ)” is “wine” on your textbook but it could be “beer” as well.

BTW, do you have any suggestion how I translate 我想喝酒(wǒ xiǎng hē jiǔ)?

  • Kevin Connolly

    You could translate it as ” I want a drink (of alcohol) “. Absolutely love the app btw, I’m on lesson 26.

    • HelloChinese

      Glad to hear that! ^_^

  • Marc-Étienne Y. Perreault

    Isn’t it: 葡萄酒? I know 酒 can designate any alcohol but why say 酒 for wine when there is a specific word ? I got your point that English has got to be more precise it is scientific while Chinese is economical, but still…