1. I am a Canadian-born Chinese, who grew up speaking English at school; and Chinese at home.
  2. I am a linguistics student with a reasonable command of Japanese.

When the preceding two facts about myself are learned by my interlocutors, I often get asked what the difference between the three languages are: Chinese, Japanese, and English. They will often go straight to the basic syntax, and assume that’s all there is to discuss. But if one would consult the table below, such an analysis is not so simple.

中国語(Ch) 日本語(Jp) 英語(En) Outlier
Ex. (例) Struc.
Ex. (例) Struc.
Ex. (例)
[S]VO 我愛你 [S]OV [私が]貴方を愛する SVO I love you 日(Jp)
Topic Prominence
Y (有) 這裡很暑 Y (有) ここは暑い N (無) *Here is hot;
It’s hot (in) here
我是個喜歡花的 pre-
[私は]花が好きな post-
I’m a person who likes flowers 英(En)
Verb Conj.
N (無) 是、
Y (有) である、
Y (有) be,
Y (有) 一個、二個、…
Y (有) 一つ、二つ、…
very rare
a slice of bread, two slices … 英(En)
Adj. Conj.
N (無) 青色 Y (有) 青い、青かった、青く N (無) blue, [was] blue 日(Jp)
Passive voice
N (無) 我愛他
Y (有) 愛する
Y (有) I love
I am loved
Y (有) 媽(1)、麻(2)、馬(3)、罵(4) Sort of (半) 端、橋、箸 N (無) you HATE the game!
you hate the GAME?
Y (有) 我、你、他 Sort of (半) 私、あなた、彼 Y (有) I, you, he, she 日(Jp)

The above table is by no means an exhaustive comparison, but I hope it sheds a little more light on some of the defining features of Chinese, Japanese, and English. Of the nine categories illustrated, there’s almost an even distribution of differences (essentially implying that all three are equally distinct). Let us now consider some of the more curious aspects of the three languages.

Topic Prominence ・主題突出
Unlike English, both Chinese and Japanese distinct between topics and subjects. The details of such a distinction is well beyond the scope of this post, but basically, things such as adverbial phrases and objects can be moved to the head of the sentence without becoming the subject, as illustrated in the asterisked English example “here is hot”. Instead, it requires the semantically empty pronoun to stand in: “it is hot [in] here”.
英語と違って、中国語と日本語は主語と主題を相違します。詳しくはこのブログの範囲外だけど、簡単に言えば副詞や目的語が主語に成らずに文頭に置かれます。英語の例文の通り、主題はないから、「here is hot」は合っていない。その代わりに、意味的に空虚な代名詞を入れ代わって、「it’s hot [in] here」しか言えないでしょう。

Basic Syntax ・基本的構文
Although Japanese is listed as the exception for basic SVO/SOV syntax, it could be argued that English is the exception among the given three languages. True, Japanese is the only one here that has the object of the verb precede the verb, but both Chinese and Japanese do not oblige a subject. This is aided by the previous fact that both Chinese and Japanese allow for topics (that can syntactically replace the subject), but even without a topic, both languages allow verb-object pairings to stand alone as full sentences.

Wh-clauses ・形容詞句
Simply put, clausal modifiers to noun phrases precede the noun in Chinese and Japanese, but follow the noun phrase in English, as the single- and double-underlines indicate in the above table. Incidentally, in none of the languages is this order mutable: “I am a liking-flowers person” is not considered acceptable; likewise 「私は人、彼 花が好きなの」 is not acceptable.
簡単に言えば、上記のテーブルに下線や両下線した通り、節の修飾語は日本語と中国語で名詞句の前におけますが、英語では名詞句の後におけるんだ。ちなみに、どっちの国語であっても、逆に並べません。「I am a liking-flowers person」は合ってないし、「私は人、彼 花が好きなの」は不自然。

Verb Conjugation ・動詞活用
As an “isolating language,” Chinese does not have verb conjugations, whether for tense, person, or aspect. Japanese does not conjugate for person and number the way that English does; but it does conjugate for aspect and voice in a way that English does periphrastically. Instead, Chinese relies on external tense particles or contextual cues to indicate person, number, or aspect.

Counters ・数え方
Only in the extremely rare case of uncountable-yet-quantifiable nouns, does English allow counters. Otherwise, the nouns get counted directly, owing to English nouns’ ability to pluralize. The exceptions therefore, are only in historically embedded phrases, that in some cases are already disappearing: bread is counted in loaves or slices (but never “one bread; two bread”); and coffee and water used to be measured in cups or glasses, but is increasingly becoming more countable “would you like a coffe/water?”. On the other hand, Japanese and Chinese have extremely rich sets of counters to quantify the myriad types of nouns: small mammals versus insects, versus large animals, versus machines; all different sorts of objects get intuitively classified in different ways, and get assigned their own counter. Thus, instead of “three cats”; they say something like “three animals of cat”, since “cat” isn’t countable in Japanese or Chinese.

Adjectival Inflection ・形容詞活用
In this instance, Japanese is easily the exception; neither Chinese nor English inflect for tense in their adjectives. However, unlike Chinese, English can directly modify the adjective by making it the complement of a copula. Thus, we can phrase things like “the book was blue (but perhaps no longer)”; but like for voice and aspect, Chinese uses periphrastic constructions to to indicate the preterite nature of the colour, such as 「此本書本来是藍色的」(This book is originally blue).

Chinese Passive Voice ・中国語で受身形
Chinese does not technically have a passive voice the way that Japanese and English does, but it does employ a curious construction that syntactically mimics the passive voice:

“I was hit by him”





past particle
I by he hit (PP)

As can be seen in the small break-down table, the so-called bei-construction syntactically resembles the passive construct, wherein the patient (that suffers the verb) precedes the agent (the “doer”). However, two important aspects of the bei-construction invalidate it from being properly considered a true passive voice: (1) the bei-constructions are implicitly pejorative; and (2) the bei-constructions cannot occur with abstract/emotional verbs.

Like in English and Japanese, the agent can also be dropped in the Chinese bei-construction. However, even without the agent, there is an implicit perjorative value contained within the structure. Using the bei-construction, “my book was read by millions” implies that it shouldn’t have been read at all. Moreover, as mentioned above, verbs like “love” and “admire” cannot be employed by the bei-construction.

Tone ・声調
Perhaps one of the most famously difficult aspects to master for non-native speakers, Mandarin Chinese employs four tones. While all languages contain speech contours, the difference between tonal and intonal languages is in whether specific phonemes change meaning by a higher/lower/rising/falling pitch. Thus, as in the example in the table, a falling tone (fourth) /ma/ means “scold”; while a flat low tone (third) /ma/ means “horse”. Japanese is perhaps more aptly classified as a semi-tone language; as it uses tonal aspects to mark distinctions between homophones; but these tones are similar to the way that accent is employed in English to distinct homophonous phrases (such as “red COAT” – red-coloured coat versus “RED coat” – 19th-century British soldier).

Pronoun ・代名詞
English and Chinese have a reserved set of words that are exclusively used to refer to other things. This category of referent nouns are called “pronouns”. However, it has been argued that Japanese doesn’t have “true” pronouns, because each pronoun doubles as other words with specific meanings. For example, /anata/ (“you”; “thou”) can be used functionally as a pronoun, but also as a vocative for one’s spouse – “dearest”. Similarly, /kanojo/ (“she”; “her”) also doubles as the word for “girlfriend”. But even though Japanese does not have a specific word reserved for “aforementioned female human,” it does employ words to fit that syntactic gap, and in those instances, /kanojo/ works as a pronoun.

As I’ve already mentioned, this is by no means an exhaustive analysis, but I hope my exposition has been helpful in illucidating some of the major characteristics of Chinese, Japanese, and English — and more importantly, that none of the three languages are more similar to any of the other two, but that rather, all three are quite unique.