Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Chinese Sayings No 3

不管黑猫白猫, 能捉耗子就是好猫 (Bu guan hei mao bai mao, neng zhuo haozi jiu shi hao mao)

which roughly translates as: "It doesn't matter whether it is a black cat or a white cat, as long as it can catch mice it's a good cat". It is apparently a Sichuan saying from that huge, friendly and spicy province in the heart of China (PS even if you don't speak any Chinese you should still be able to work out the Chinese word - and character - for "cat" from this saying :))

The English equivalent to this saying? I'm not sure we have one but the meaning is clear enough = "function is what matters, not form". If you can think of a closely-matching English idiom, tell me.

The phrase is widely remembered as what Deng Xiao Ping is supposed to have said at a Communist Party Secretariat meeting in 1962. He was the person credited with pushing through the economic and market reforms which have revolutionized China (if you'll pardon the pun) over the last 30 years.

You can see why he picked this particular saying.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

On the birdiness of birds

During our lexicographical training we were introduced in a practical way to some of the things that seemed very arcane knowledge during an English degree, but which turn out to be your bread-and-butter when writing a dictionary.

For example, in one session we had to consider the 'birdiness of birds'. This section borrowed some of the images and ideas from Jean Aitcheson's book 'Words in the Mind' and specifically the chapter dealing with 'bad birds and better birds'

OK, imagine that your task is to 'draw a bird'. How many times do you need to repeat this task until someone comes up with a picture of a penguin, or an ostrich, or a chicken? The whole idea of 'bird' just works so much better with a sparrow or a pigeon.
  • Has wings: - check
  • Has feathers - check
  • Can fly - check
  • would fit (although unwillingly) into a breadbin - check
how many of these questions get a positive answer for an ostrich or a penguin? You can think of the entire birdy race as a huge picture, with those goody-two-shoes sparrows right at the middle and then an expanding circle of less-than-perfection going out all the way through crows (a bit too single-coloured) then ducks (rather too fond of swimming) all the way out to the bird-in-name-only that is the penguin. OK I admit their beaks are perfectly birdy, but that's about it.

Now the thing that I would invite you to consider is -getting away from easily visualised concepts like birds - which is the tooliest tool, the jobbiest job and the emotioniest emotion?

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

“I speak seven languages, three of which are English”

That is how I start off sometimes when I'm doing a talk on dictionaries or language learning. The four foreign ones are French (OK), German (OK-ish), Chinese (coming on) and Russian (vestigial). I'll come back in a later post to what we mean by 'speak a language'

The three Englishes are:
  1. The Northern English variety that I grew up with (West Yorkshire) with absent final 't' sounds in words like 'COAT' and with a horrible mismatch of 'u' related vowels compared to 'standard English'
  2. 'standard English', or my best approximation of it, 'u' vowels excepted
  3. Teacher English - with all the simplifications and non-native structures and self-censorships that a few months in the classroom can provoke. I'm not saying it's good, but it happens.
I don't think there is anything wrong with this kind of Zelig-ness. It's natural to take your cues from your environment and to meet people half way. And if you are in danger of being completely misunderstood by your fellow English-speakers you will do a lot to avoid that embarrassment. I once spent a summer working in Rotherham and had to crank up my Northern accent to well past the end of the dial just to be adequately understood.

Even these three Englishes can be further subdivided or augmented as the occasion requires. If I visit my roots in the West of Ireland, I can feel novel inflections and sentence sound-patterns coming up unbidden. If I am visiting the US, I know I will self-censor British vocab and will add in the US English words of which I am aware.

I am also aware - but not proud - that there is an in-house dictionary cant which is not always strictly necessary and which must serve some of the same function that is served by, say, academic-speak such as 'issues around X' . I admit it is not necessary for me to say "the lexis need to push collocational disambiguation and be a bit less splitty". But sometimes if feels right.

So what about you - if you had to count up all your native languages, never mind the foreign ones, how would you dice it?

Things you notice when trying to learn Chinese, No. 1

You realise the drawbacks of the 'pinyin' readings that tells you in western letters how a Chinese character is pronounced. You have to think of the pinyin as the stabilisers on your bike that have to come off before you can really ride it.

You look at a road sign and it says:


And your eyes go straight to the words 'Beijing', not to the characters. You can't help it. That's just the way your alphabetic brain was made. If there are letters there, your letter-reared synapses will go straight for the food that they know.

But really the word is 北京 and that is where the Chinese speaker will look. The only way for me to progress (and I'd love to hear the experiences of others in my position) is to take a deep breath and drop the pinyin. It is a very strange feeling - for me - reading characters. It's nice, but I still have that sense of this not being what reading should be like. Try this sentence:


There, how did that feel for you? It should mean something like "you are reading my blog at the moment' but I can't guarantee its accuracy. The pinyin reading (with numbers for the different tones) is, I think,:

ni3 men xian4zai4 kan4 zhe wo3 de bo2 ke4

You can read a sentence in characters and understand the meaning, but not have as prominent a sense of the 'sound' of it as you do in English. You sort of know the way the characters are pronounced (that's what the pinyin taught you earlier on in the process) but it's like finding that someone has reorganised the cupboard in your kitchen. Things are not stored in the place they should be.

Fun, though.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Chinese Sayings - No 2

虎头蛇尾 (hǔ tóu shé wěi) 

This one literally means "tiger's head and snake's tail" and it is used for something with a fine start and a poor finish (anyone who has been watching Leeds United games for the last couple of years will know how this feels). I think the usual translation for this one is 'to run out of steam'

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Strimmer or Weedwhacker?

The trouble with British English and American English is that we are all really good with the differences that we know about, but are universally rubbish with the ones we don't know about. Hands up how many of you genuinely knew that the the other bunch used the 'other' name above for one of these.

And there are so many other daily objects that just don't get into the movies/cinema or that don't come up in the Brit/US differences in the picture dictionaries. Yes, we know it's trunk/boot and hood/bonnet, but how do you find out about the ones you've never heard of? I worked on a dictionary that had a list of the Brit/US differences that people had pointed out so far. It was already 1600 words and rising. And far from complete.

I'd be very interested to hear suggestions for new, unknown differences.

GTA6 - how to freak out your kids

My idea for the next development of the Grand Theft Auto franchise...

OK, GTA6 - Restorative Justice.

You still have to steal the cars and run down the bystanders but for every crime you commit the police put you through a restorative justice programme where you have to meet your victims and understand the effect that your crime has had on them.

"That Pontiac was Mr Thompson's pride and joy. He had saved up for it for years and used it to take his mother to church. Your actions made him feel violated and even now it's been repaired there is still a persistent dark stain on the carpet from Mr Kessler's gunshot wound. By the way, you'll be meeting Mr Kessler on Level 22..."

Friday, 17 June 2011

Why Semantic Engineering?

The very first job that I had in lexicography, more than 20 years ago, involved writing a 'production dictionary' - basically a Thesaurus that also told you not just the different words that you could use for a particular meaning, but also what the difference was between each of those words. This formative experience has left its mark. I can't overhear someone say 'pop round if you are near my office' without wondering why they chose that verb or that tense and not one of the hundred other ways of saying it. It's gone too far to stop now. It's my burden, curse, albatross....

Chinese Sayings - No 1

釜底游鱼 (fǔ dǐ yóu yú)

This literally means 'a fish swimming in the bottom of a cauldron' and the meaning is 'someone whose fate is sealed' (because the heat is going to be turned up soon). I suppose the closest English equivalent might be 'dead man walking' but that is a little bit too Godfather-ish


“Would you draw the bloomin curtains – you’ll be seen from Wallace’s Bog!”

I completely understand what this means, have heard it many times and have used it many times too. But the phrase ‘Wallace’s Bog’ has a special status for me, because I have never heard it or used it except to members of my direct family.

I would guess that you can easily think of a phrase that has the same status for you – something that you are very familiar with but which you only use within the family. I would say this is one of the words that make up my famiolect (TM?), that subset which is part of a language, part of a dialect but is actually an emblem of a family group and of the language that holds that group together.

Here are a few more words and phrases from my famiolect with my stab at a translation or explanation. I would love to hear yours:

  1. ·         Gowk: an apple core. Eg (when our mother had made an apple pie) “does anyone want the gowks” (one would gnaw on them in an absent-minded rather than desperate way, I hasten to add)
  2. ·         Plodging: what you did at the seaside when you rolled your trousers up and shuffled into the small breakers. Eg: “We spent the day plodging and stopping seagulls from nicking our sandwiches” (NB I know that in some parts of the country this was common parlance, but not in the part where we lived)
  3. ·         “I like to hear frogs..” a rude comment on someone else’s bombast or self-obsession. The missing second half which everyone understood was ‘..farting in the stubble’
  4. ·         Banaclat: we didn’t know that nobody else’s father in our street said this when he went off to work. Nor did we realise for many years that is was a remnant of the Gaelic that my father heard around him when he was a child.

So what words and phrases make up your famiolect? What things do you only use (with pleasure and gusto) when surrounded by your family? And do you know why those particular phrases? Was it migration? An ear for colourful language? An obsessive attachment to Gilbert and Sullivan? What built your famiolect?