Unexpectedly Pregnant

14 Jun 2006

The other day in one of my classes the professor was talking about innocent phrases having unintended meanings for non-native speakers of Chinese. His example was 有了, which on the surface seems to just mean “to have something now that one didn’t have before” (to put it verbosely) but in everyday usage actually means “to be [newly] pregnant.”

It’s a fairly common phrase, so it’s easy for the unwary learner to either inadvertently declare pregnancy or to be confused by someone else’s pregnancy announcement. (“Huh? What do you have?”)

I was thinking this was a circumstance peculiar to Chinese, but the same day my professor talked about 有了 in class I got a new comment on my Chinese blog. I had written about my plans to post English-Chinese translations of “non-mainstream Western culture” there (the first one is up!). One of my Chinese readers left a supportive comment in English that reminded me that the issue also goes the other way as well. The comment read: “I’m expecting.”

[Sidenote: I don’t have any personal experience in this, but it seems to me that in English, the expression “I’m late” serves the same function as 我有了. Is there some kind of natural law that the “breaking the news to the father” line must be vague and ripe for misunderstanding??]

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. regarding your sidenote, i’m sure you’ll
    find out first hand some day, john. 8)

  2. Hmm, maybe this is a phrase I need to learn. Yesterday a workmate asked me what kinds of sweets I liked, and I said I liked sour-tasting candy. She told me that people like sour tastes during pregnancy! “Impossible” I said. But then again, it has been more than a month…

  3. Sort of interesting.
    Connotations are commonly carried in people’s dialouges.
    I’m not sure if connotation is an appropriate word.

  4. bun in the oven Says: June 14, 2006 at 3:08 pm

    I’m sure the difference I’m going to describe would seem less stark if I knew a larger number of euphemisms in different languages for being pregnant but it is interesting how “I’m late” implies pregnancy through lack, i.e. one is pregnant because there has been no menstruation for longer than expected, versus 有了 which obviously points to some alien succubus presence without mentioning the alien. Of course in English there is “with child” which is the un-euphemised version of 有了, but just saying something along the lines of “I’m with” wouldn’t work but would rather lead to a whole new world of misunderstanding.

  5. bun,

    “Alien succubus presence”?? Are there demon alien abduction/seductions going on?

  6. Read the title, half expected yuo to post that you’d knocked your missus up.

  7. Are there demon alien abduction/seductions going on?

    So they’ve managed to keep you in the dark too!

  8. Normally, during Chinese conversation, if a person says 我有了. Period. That mean she is pregnant. However, if a person says 我有了 followed by an object, then it means the speaker has possessed something that he/she did not have before. eg. 我有了这个/那个了.

  9. If a woman is on her way to work, and says “I’m late”, it would be clear from the situation that she is not talking about baking buns. Likewise, can’t a person say “我有了” if the meaning is clear from context? Or do native speakers deliberately avoid uttering this phrase in non-pregnancy-related contexts?

  10. Of course. A girl can say “我有了” freely in any proper context. For example, someone is passing out something to each person present and gestures to a certain female for an affirmation and this female would not hesitate to reply “我有了” to indicate she’s already had her share and thank you but you do not need to have me in your concern. She will not be misunderstood. In fact, the “I’m-pregnant” “我有了” is most often “uttered” (Todd’s word) in a quiet, shy, secretive, deliberate, or trying-to-contain kind of connotation. If one does not wish to be announcing the pregnancy with a contained emotion, one would, instead, just shout “我怀孕啦!”

    “我有了” is not the only expression for “I’m pregnant.” There are other phrases to declare pregnancy, like 有喜了、怀孕了、肚子大了、身子沉了、身子笨了、倒霉了(meaning both “am in period” and “am late”)、要作妈妈了、你要当爸了、…

  11. Anotherr phrase is “我怀上了.”

  12. Thanks Gin. By the way, I only wrote “uttered” because I’m used to linguists (particularly in the field of pragmatics) referring to speech acts as “utterances”. I didn’t mean to imply anything about the speaker’s tone of voice.

  13. money and Todd,

    Yes, normally context makes the meaning of the phrase clear in either English or Chinese. My point was that the phrases can be confusing to non-native speakers who are less sensitive to contextual clues.

  14. How mysterious…I can’t see the comment “I’m expecting” on your Chinese blog!

  15. Todd,

    Yeah, I didn’t publish it, since I wrote about it here and I didn’t want to embarrass the author…

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