Monday, 18 July 2011

Chinese Sayings No.5

杯盘狼藉 (bēi pán láng jí)

To find out what this idiom means, why don't you just copy the Chinese characters, go to Google, select 'Image search' and see what comes up? (This is a sneaky trick of the bilingual lexicographer or even of a language-curious non-lexicographer who wants to find out the meaning of something in a foreign language)

The 'literal' meaning of this idiom is something like "cups and plates scattered all over the place" (although the Chinese word bēi can stand for glasses too, so this is not just an unruly teaparty)

The idiomatic meaning is 'the scene after the feast', ie a sign that everybody has just had a very good evening. In an idiomatic English reading of it, you'd think of it as "what the kitchen looked like the morning after the party". But in China all carousing is done in a restaurant, so the mess would be cleared away within the hour.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Chinese is a tonal language - and therefore...

I don't think it is a good idea to assume anything about people's knowledge of language, so let me explain what 'tonal language' means and then go into how this matters when you are an English speaker learning Chinese (or a Chinese speaker learning English)

I don't think we have tonal languages in Europe at all, but they are fairly common in Asia (and I'd say the most important tonal language is Chinese). The basic difference is that in English the meaning of a word usually stays the same no matter whether you say it with a flat, level tone or with a rising question-like tone or with a falling, 'Honest Yorkshireman' sort of tone. Let's take the word 'ma' which means the same thing as 'mum' or mom' in some northern English dialects and in Irish English. Now you could say:
  • "Was that woman your ma?" (where the word would go up in tone because it's a question)
  • "My ma had a few words with her" (in which case the word would be fairly level in tone)
  • "That wasn't my da, that was my ma!" (in which case the tone would be falling because you're contrasting it)
In each of those sentences the meaning of the word 'ma' is quite stable. It means the same thing whatever way you pronounce it. But in a tonal language that difference of rising tone, flat tone, falling tone actually makes it a different word.

Now it happens that 'ma' is also a word in Chinese (did you see what I did there?) so let me give you an example:
  • If you say 'ma' with a level, flat fairly high-pitched tone in Chinese it means (surprise, surprise) 'mother'
  • If you say 'ma' with a rising tone, like a question, it can mean 'hemp' or it can be an adjective meaning 'rough, coarse'
  • If you say it with a tone that goes down and then comes back up (it sounds a little like someone being sarcastic) then it means 'horse'
You will at least be happy to know that each of the three different words above have different Chinese characters (they are, respectively, 妈, 麻 and 马). The 'Mandarin' Chinese that you will most likely be taught is basically a four-tone language (the tones of any character can be: first tone (level and fairly high pitched), second tone (rising), third tone (falling then rising), fourth tone (falling). There are also some characters that have no tone or a 'neutral' tone and these are sometimes referred to as 'fifth tone'.

So what are the practical implications of this if you are learning Chinese?

  • You have to make sure that you listen hard to your teacher and pay real attention to how they pronounce a new word. English speakers are only accustomed to listening to a string of sounds in a new word, not to the actual 'tune' of those sounds. It is very good to have a parrot-like faculty as a mimic.
  • You will live in fear - when visiting China - of making some horrible faux pas because you got the tones wrong. For example, at the mildest end of the scale, the word for 'buy' is 'mai' and the word for 'sell' is also 'mai', but with a different tone. The TV sitcom phrase 'hilarious consequences' is always at the front of your mind (PS, there isn't really much risk of faux pas but you will fear them nevertheless)
  • You will realise why old English-speaking comedians had that strange sing-song voice that they used when pretending to be Chinese. It is actually based on a correct observation of what Chinese sounds like. It goes up and down because it wouldn't make sense without the up-and-down. In fact, a lot of  English speakers' contact with China over the last two centuries has been with speakers of Cantonese (which is the main Chinese 'dialect' of South China and Hong Kong). And Cantonese has seven tones, not four!
Now can I just emphasize that none of the above is meant to put you off learning Chinese - far from it. I'd recommend Chinese learning to anyone, because it is great fun and more and more useful every year. It is just a good idea to go in with your eyes open and to go in fully-prepared for a language which is logical and ancient and learnable but just not like English.

However, I should point out that we do in fact have a couple of islets of tonal meaning in English too. Think of the word 'really' and of its various meanings. In the first exchange below it means something like 'absolutely!' and it is said with a level or falling tone. In the second sentence it means 'Is that the case?' and is said with a rising tone. The tone backs up the meaning.

A:'You must be tired after that drive.'
B:'Yeah, really.'

A: 'He said that years ago he lived in the same street as you.'
B: 'Really?'

Monday, 11 July 2011

Parsing the 'Today' programme

Strange things can happen to you when you are working all day on dictionaries. In exactly the same way that a period reading Victorian Novels can render one insensible to the quotidian language of the 'mobile vulgus' so can an excess of lexicography do funny things to your brain's word-centres.

I once spent six months working on a project in which we had to produce a full list of all the patterns and collocations of 500 common verbs. This meant we spent all day long thinking about and describing how 'spend' or 'charge' or 'offer' could fit into all its possible sentences. Go on, you have a go:

In one of its common senses, you can spend something, usually money, but this 'something' could be realised by lots of nouns and noun phrases:
  • spend £50
  • spend your inheritance
  • spend far more than you really ought to have done
  • spend all the money that you had saved up for the Christmas presents
  • spend nothing (yes, even an amount that is zero can be a kosher object for this verb)
and because this is a fairly standard English transitive verb, you are just as likely to find the noun or noun phrase preceding the verb in a passive structure:
  • by this point all the money had been spent
  • what I spent on that guitar would have kept me in roll-ups for a year
  • £80bn is being spent on bailing out the banks
The upshot of all this time spent looking hard at verbs and sentences is that you become very familiar with the whole way that natural English sentences work. It is far beyond the kind of parsing that people used to do at school, because that was usually done with made-up sentences. No, you end up listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 in the morning and you find yourself parsing the sentences as people speak. Ho-hum... fill the cafetiere... Adverbial clause indicating time frame ...boil the kettle...Object clause preceding transitive verb in passive...check the toast....verb in perfect continuous form..... It is a strange experience.

The feeling that it leaves you with is quite refreshing though. Too often 'grammar' is seen as an external force that stops you doing the wrong thing. In fact the real grammar is the hugely flexible but still constrained set of preferences and obligations that allow you to make up totally new sentences that a casual listener can absorb while making the coffee (or which a casual lexicographer can absent-mindedly parse)

Saturday, 9 July 2011

What do we mean by 'to speak a language'?

Or in other words, if you say 'I speak a little French' how little is enough for you to qualify?

We were once on a ferry going from Croatia to Venice, for the first time. Caroline and I started to gather together any Italian that we knew, in the way that one gathers together loose change when slightly short of the price of a drink.

Bella! Ciao! Illuminati! Espresso! Si! we went on like this for quite some time, pulling words we had seen on menus, heard in Mafia films, noticed in songs. It was surprising how much two never-learners of Italian had managed to squirrel away.

The lack of any grammatical knowledge was more critical. Once you have got past "una X per favor" (or is it por favor) there is not much that you can do without the glue of structure to hold things together. And then one realises that having all those nouns and occasional adjectives won't get you far without the basic (and no doubt, highly irregular) common verbs to hold it together.

I think we got together about 60-80 words eventually and plucked up the courage to order two ice-creams in 'Italian-lite'. The handsome Venetian vendor smiled and answered in perfect English.

I think I would consider 60-80 words to be a little short of 'a smattering' and well short of 'a bit'. But maybe it was enough to kick-start one's acquisition of the language. And you have to admit that when you learn your second word in a new language you have increased your vocabulary size by 50%!

Friday, 8 July 2011

Chinese sayings No 4

绵里藏针 (mián lǐ cáng zhēn) 

This idiom translates directly as 'a needle hidden in silk floss'. The zhēn at the end is the needle (it has a metal 'radical' within the character. I'll come back in a later post to the whole idea of 'radicals' in Chinese characters)

So what would the English meaning be and when would you use it? Well, the closest is 'the iron fist in the velvet glove' or, possibly 'a wolf in sheep's clothing'. It basically indicates a hard inner purpose beneath a smooth or emollient surface. It is sometimes useful to enter a chinese word or phrase into the google image search option to see what comes up (to get a feel for the character, word or phrase). There are several military images when you search for this idiom.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Terrestrial television, corded phones and dumb bombs...

Go on, what is the connection between those three things?

Think a bit....

OK - they are all names that were invented to specifically refer to the 'default' word that we used to use before a particular technical development occurred. So before 'Satellite television' came along 'Terrestrial television' was just called 'television' (because it was pretty much all terrestrial and nobody had thought this was a fact worth mentioning). And before 'cordless phones' were invented a 'corded phone' was just called a 'phone'

I'm sure there must be a technical term for this, but in it's absence I would call it the 'terrestrial television syndrome'. I would be very glad to collect other examples of the phenomenon - and even gladder to receive people's predictions for new words that will emerge in this way.

For example, if 'designer babies' become the new norm, then what do you call the other kind?

"Oh, the nose? Yes, Charlie was a ***** baby".

What term is going to fill that gap? Artisan baby? off-the-peg baby?