09 - Language 1

The Language


Oh dear, oh dear, I really am not a linguist. Those readers who have had their ears bent by me on this subject can skip the first page – or the whole thing.

It proved very difficult to persuade Chinese pupils back in Plymouth to talk about their language. Part of this is their disinclination (to put it mildly) to tell anyone they are wrong.

A long time ago, Peter Lo was trying to teach me to say Sin Tang Fie Lo, meaning Merry Christmas (or approximately so) and we had difficulty with the Lo bit (well, that’s the bit he was more insistent on sorting out). In Cantonese, Lo is six and green and he might or might not be Peter Green. I think he is; I think many names are colours, e.g. Hung or Hong. Huang, Lan (red, yellow, blue). Peter said that I was not hearing the difference and I agreed, saying that I couldn’t hear the difference. Peter said we do it in English – we have two meanings for ‘sad’; unhappy and uncool, and we say them differently. He demonstrated: we say uncool as saad. He said sad and saad and we guessed which meaning he meant. He then said six and green in Cantonese, using a fellow HongKong student for proof and they showed that there was no difficulty distinguishing the two words. It was like one of those infuriating pub games where you are supposed to work out the rules to a game while playing it and at the cost of your sobriety; until someone explains you have insufficient clue what the difference is. You are still left with the feeling that the difference might be how many fingers are in contact with the nearest piece of wood and nothing to do with what is being said.

First principle: Mandarin Chinese (the people’s tongue?) has different tones: (i) high, ¯a or å,  wherever your voice is pitched (ii) rising, á, (iii) swooping down and up, ã  or ˘a, (iv) dropping sharply, à, and (v) a neutral one but that really should be number zero, since the Chinese insist there are four. The tone are used on the vowel sounds. The example I used in Plymouth and here is tang as in the Tang dynasty. (i) means soup, (ii) means sugar and sweets, a hall, and a class period (iii) means to burn or scald and (iv) to lie down, but also the time for a trip. I don’t yet know which way to pronounce the dynasty. Other than with reverence.

It is not enough for a Chinese person to say it right, you must think the ideogram, thus I have given seven (I guess) different kanji, which to our ears sound one and the same and to mine are beginning to sound like four and the same.

Context is all, but that is our (British) source for humour. This language ought to be rich in humour – and it may be, for they laugh a lot – but the humour lies not in the way you tell them, it is in the way you think them.

Which ought to be a comedian’s punchline.

This I will explore forever. Unfortunately, no Chinese yet thinks that is the slightest bit funny, just true. Perhaps they’re actually partially telepathic and Mandarin releases the mental chains to communication?

I’m having enough trouble without that.

DJS 200708


Second principle: no tenses. Verbs are modified with suffices. To go is qù (chew). Argument not established, as my local friends are still unclear whether tense is in the language or only implied.

Other Language pages are:    Language 2,    Language 3,     Looking both ways,      

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

© David Scoins 2017