30 Nov 2006
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m sort of married. I see it as a year-long process beginning with a legal marriage and ending with a religious and social ceremony. Between point A and point B, however, is the acquisition of a new residence. Perhaps more significant is the subsequent decoration of said residence. This has been keeping us quite busy for the past month.
In China if you buy a new apartment (OK, I know it’s not really an “apartment” if you “buy” it, but this is what I say), it comes as an empty concrete shell. No drywall, no internal wiring or plumbing, no nothing. This condition is known as 毛坯. Starting from such a husk is a lot of work, because you have to design everything (or hire a designer), and you have to hire a contractor to get all the labor done. It also brings a lot of freedom, though, because you’re literally free to do anything with your apartment, short of knocking down key structural walls or tearing out the building’s shared plumbing or wiring.
So my wife has a pretty cool vision for our new apartment. It’s sort of an adapted “Mediterranean” design. That means it incorporates arches in some places. There are many things my Chinese is not yet good enough for, and architecture is certainly pushing it.
It appears that in Chinese, an arch shape is usually referred to as a gongxing, a word that, until recently, I was unfamiliar with. When I hear a new Chinese word, lots of things happen in my mind:
1. My brain checks it against all the vocabulary I know or might have once known
2. My brain factors in the possibility of southern-accented Mandarin distorting a word I know in proper Mandarin
3. I analyze and note the tones
4. Given the context and my understanding of the meaning of the word, I try to mentally match the syllables with appropriate Chinese characters I know
In this case, checks #1 and #2 were not helpful. When I got to step #3 I focused on the fact that xing was definitely second tone, so must be 形, meaning “shape.” It just made too much sense to be wrong. Without paying much attention to the tone of the gong syllable, I moved on to step #4. I decided that what made the most sense was the character 弓, meaning “bow.” In this way I concluded that the word we were using for “arch shape” was 弓形 (tones: 1-2).
It was a reasonable guess. 弓形 is, in fact, a word. According to Wenlin, it has the (very logical) meaning of “bow-shape” and “curve.” In math it can also mean “segment of a circle.”
I got away with saying gōngxíng (tones: 1-2) for a while, and somehow remained blithely unaware that everyone around me was saying it slightly differently. My wife is not my Chinese teacher and really never has been, so she rarely corrects me. She corrects me when my mistake is so blatant that it pisses her off, or if it’s a chronic error that eventually gets under her skin. Such was the case with my “gōngxíng.”
“It’s gǒngxíng,” she told me finally. “Gǒngxíng!” (tones: 3-2).
I looked it up later. The dictionary showed me 弓形. And it showed me 拱形, meaning “arch.” An architectural term.
It’s little incidents like this which firmly cement a word in one’s memory.