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I'm not a linguist but a language enthusiast and I read lots of stuff about all languages mostly on the internet in blogs but also in accessible books and sometimes attempt to read some things not aimed at a general audience.

I'm sure I've read either grammatical analyses, opinions of linguists, or opinions of Chinese native speakers, that Chinese words can mostly be used as any part of speech.

So despite Chinese dictionaries (at least bilingual ones aimed at foreigners) usually listing a part of speech for each entry, can it be that they way Chinese words function depends to a greater degree on how they are used in a sentence than any property they inherently posses (word class)?

Is this a fairly accepted view amongst linguists or a known but unaccepted view (like Hebrew being a European language or Proto World etc) or is it a view held only by some native speakers of Chinese who lack enough linguistic knowledge to realize it's not right?

(I realize Chinese covers many languages but this should cover them broadly)

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Chinese has very little morphology, so words don't change to indicate a different part of speech. This means that many words can be of uncertain lexical class membership when on their own. But the same is true of many words in English as well (called zero-derivation). For Chinese (again, like English) syntax can be the only thing that indicates the lexical class items belong to. But when used in a particular location in a clause the membership is fixed, so lexical classes are present and are strict. There are some languages that seem not to have true lexical classes such as Samoan, where the one sentence can be interpreted differently depending on whether words are treated as nouns or verbs (so word order doesn't determine lexical class membership).

I hope that makes sense!

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You wrote about the claim 'that Chinese words can mostly be used as any part of speech.' While the claim is untrue, I can see why people fall for it.

The relationship between lexical word class and how they appear as parts of speech is much more opaque than in English. There is nothing close to a one-to-one correspondence between the two, but it would be a mistake to say that there is no correspondence - that would be akin to saying that x and y are unrelated in circles.

In traditional Chinese grammar, the Chinese sentence is made up of six main components:

Zhuyu: Subject 
Weiyu: Predicate
Binyu: Object
Dingyu: Adjectival
Zhuangyu: Adverbial
Buyu: Complement

In English, nouns only belong in the Subject and Object positions, adjectives only belong in adjectival positions, and adverbs only belong in adverbial positions. Verb phrases belong only in predicate positions. Prepositional phrases are more flexible though, and can be objective, adverbial or adjectival.

Yet this is not the case in Chinese. Let's look at where the major lexical categories fit:

Adjectives can go into subject, predicate, object, adverbial and adjectival positions.
Nouns can go to subject and object positions.
Verbs can go to subject, predicate and object positions.
Adverbs can go to adverbial positions.

By the way, clauses and verb phrases can also go to subject and object positions without complementisers.

Here are some examples of constructions that would not be allowed in English:

-Adjectives in adverbial positions (e.g. * *He left sudden* in English but 他突然走了 -he sudden leave-asp. - in Chinese)
-Verbs in subject positions (e.g. * *Swim is fun* in English but 游泳很好玩 - swim very fun - in Chinese)

Note that this does not mean everything works. For example, adjectives can go to predicate positions, but adverbs cannot! You can say

張三的死很突然 (Zhangsan-possessive death very sudden)

Yet you cannot say

*張三的死很忽然 (Zhangsan-possessive death very suddenly)

As a side note, in Classical Chinese, adjectives and nouns can act as transitive verbs, indicating another flexibiltiy in position, but not in Modern Chinese:

Classical: 漁人甚異之 (fisherman very strange it) - the fisherman found it very strange
Vernacular: *漁人很奇異它 (fisherman very strange it)
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I have heard the claim that Chinese "has no grammar" but this would be news to the text-book writers and teachers who struggled to help me learn Mandarin. Certainly the distinction between verbs and adjectives is perhaps, not as sharply defined as in English. Chinese grammar, formally, seems to have more word classes than English. And categories themselves are surprising; my teacher in China assured me that words like "above" and "below" are nouns. The set of words they classify as prepositions are more limited than in English. (Perhaps not all Chinese theories of syntax follow this path - there seems to be many theories.

  • I had read that prepositions acted more like verbs (or was it the other way around?). Anyway, it's just that the classes act differently. – Mitch Oct 3 '11 at 13:36
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    Can you give examples/citations on how the distinction between verbs and adjectives is sharply/not-as-sharply defined for the two languages? And that Chinese grammar has more word classes than English? Also evidence that "above"/"below" are nouns in Chinese? – Alexis Wellwood Oct 3 '11 at 13:44
  • I think the "no grammar" is a different claim based on lack of inflection and ignoring syntax, that's not a claim made by linguists of course. The verb/adjective similarity is pretty common and also exists in Mandarin's unrelated neighbours Japanese and Korean. As does the fact that some English prepositions map to C/J/K nouns. Note though that teaching materials and dictionaries often go by more traditional notions of grammar than what linguists currently work on even in English. Chinese definitely has different syntactic word classes than English for sure. – hippietrail Oct 3 '11 at 17:50
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    Chao Yuen Ren, author of "A Grammar of Spoken Chinese" (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1968) maps 15 words classes of Chinese to eight of English. [quoted in "Reading and Writing Chinese" by William McNaughton.] The most obvious class of word evident in Chinese but not English are the particles such as 了 (le), 过 (guo), and 吗 (ma). This is dangerous waters to step into because the definition of something so, seemingly, simple as "a word" is contested in Chinese. – Tom Oct 9 '11 at 4:54
  • The reduced distinction between verbs and adjectives partly related to the absence of "be" before (what are clearly English) adjectives. Evidence of above/below being nouns - I have none other my Chinese teacher's insistence. I mentally coped by just accepting that Chinese prepositions have a narrower scope than English ones and perhaps nouns have a wider class. (In other words, I was not comfortable treating words like above/below as nouns.) If I can accept that English words cannot be exactly translated into Chinese words then this is easily extended to definitions of word classes. – Tom Oct 9 '11 at 5:04

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