Context Is Everything

07 Jan 2009

I was at a dinner, listening to the conversation of some Chinese acquaintances. At one table, two young women sat side by side. In the context of their conversation, one of the women said, pointing to the other:

> 女的男的

The grammar of this sentence is so simple that any first semester student of Chinese can figure it out. But without the proper context, they’re probably going to conclude that one of the women was actually a transvestite: I’m female. She’s male. (She wasn’t a transvestite, and no one listening found her statement strange in the slightest.)

The two women were talking about their newborn children, when one of their friends asked what sexes the babies were. So and were easily understood to mean “my baby is” and “her baby is.” This is totally fine in Chinese.

(You also get lots of statements like this when people are ordering food… I’m beef noodles. You’re dumplings, right?)

Context is everything.

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John Pasden

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

Comments

  1. Something similar is often used in French in restaurants. Which reminds me of a French comic by Gotlib:

    • La tête de veau ? (The veal head?)
    • La tête de veau, c’est moi. (The veal head, that’s me.)

    (http://goscinny.free.fr/photoexpression/veau.gif)

    -Erik

  2. Amazing. I was totally unaware of this, and was baffled reading the sentence the first time. I’m going to try this out next time I order food with a Chinese person.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. I think this would be the case in English too, right? I could especially see the beef noodle example happening in a restaurant with a confused waiter.

  4. That’s confusing as all get out to read in Chinese, but the more I think about it, similar constructions are used in English. The restaurant example is particularly good — think of a bunch of friends out for dinner, and a waiter brings one dish out to the group’s table. The person who ordered the thing might pipe up and say “oh yeah, I’m the kung pao”. I think the person would be equally likely to say “I have/had/got the kung pao”, but it wouldn’t be weird to hear “I am…”

  5. Don’t we do this with food in English too?

    Who’s the hamburger?
    That’s me!

  6. It’s interesting also because if you only hear the sentence in Chinese from a female speaker , it totally makes sense, since you would assume the male “ta” is used instead of the female “ta”!

  7. hobielover Says: January 8, 2009 at 8:48 am

    “I’m male. She’s female.”

    Don’t you have this backwards? 😛 This entry is very funny, nonetheless.

  8. hobielover Says: January 8, 2009 at 8:53 am

    I forgot to say: This reminds me of a question in AP Spanish about what you’d use if your tire broke, and I looked through the answers. It was obviously not the words that obviously meant “windshield” and “steering wheel,” which left me with “perro” and “gato.” It turns out that “gato” also means “jack,” so if someone asks for that when their car breaks down, don’t assume they mean a “cat.”

  9. hobielover,

    Oops, you’re right! I fixed it.

  10. Rui,

    True! In this case, though, she was pointing to a woman.

  11. I was thinking about the way we talk about food in English, and while it’s true that we do similar things, I think there are some picky differences.

    I would definitely say “I’ve got the cheeseburger” rather than “I’m the cheeseburger,” but I recognize the latter is possible. You’re saying, “I’m the (one who put in) the cheeseburger (order).” What you definitely wouldn’t say, though, is “I’m a cheeseburger.” (Anyone disagree on this?)

    In Chinese, though you don’t have the indefinite/definite article issue, so the (surface) grammatical forms are truly the same.

  12. or in restaurant, waiteress might call ” whose liver””whose heart”, “mine” one diner probably answers.
    haha

  13. Ni Eng Lim Says: January 8, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    This is a classic case to point out what’s all wrong in Chomskyian Formal Grammar framework.

  14. Ni Eng Lim Says: January 8, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    Hi John

    However, you would be likely to hear this in a restaurant:

    “Oh cheeseburger, that’s me.”

  15. hobielover Says: January 9, 2009 at 12:17 am

    I agree with Ni Eng Lim in that, when you’re in a restaurant, you can say, “That’s me!” when they say “order 178” or “chicken quesadilla.” You wouldn’t say, “I’m a chicken quesadilla.” (I’m craving Mexican right now, sorry.)

  16. I can think of an example where “I am a cheeseburger.” works:

    I am having dinner with three friends, two of us order cheeseburgers. The waiter shows up with two cheeseburgers, but not my other friend’s meals. Since I know that someone else has also ordered a cheeseburger and the waiter is holding both of them, it would be wrong for me to say that I am the cheeseburger, but I am a cheeseburger.

    It might be more likely that someone would say: “me,” “one of those is mine,” or something to that effect, but grammatically, “I am a cheeseburger” would work.

  17. Thank you for a simple, charming and memorable lesson.

  18. I could see this same situation playing out in English too, albeit with slightly different grammar. Two new mothers correct someone who confused their babies sexes by saying, “No, the boy is me, the girl is her.”

    Of course, what they’re really saying is “(The person with) the boy is me…”, and it would probably be more common to say “I’ve got the boy” or something like that, but still. Perhaps not quite as confusing out of context as “她是男的“, but close….

  19. I’ve spoken Chinese for a long time and I’d think the proper and clear way to express what you said should be

    我的是女的,她的是男的。

    Do people not speak like that in China any more? LOL

  20. I agree with dodo. The proper way of saying this is ‘Mine is female. Hers is male.’ I think this is more of a case of people not using accurate grammar when talking. You will never see that sentence put in writing.
    Personally, I dont omit the ‘的’ when I talk, but I know some people tend to do so.

  21. I’ve never heard this pattern used in Qingdao or Beijing. Could you tell me where you’ve heard this pattern?

    I’ve noticed some differences in grammar between places. For example, I don’t think I ever heard 了没有 pattern used in Qingdao, but hear it often in Beijing.

  22. “This is a classic case to point out what’s all wrong in Chomskyian Formal Grammar framework.”

    How so?

  23. Hrmm.. I’m not wonderful with Chinese but I think that unless you actually say: 我的娃娃是男的 then 我是男的 would be normal… at least from what I understand of the spoken language as compared to the grammatically correct use of the language..

    I can’t really think of many people, if any at all, who actually speak within the full grammatical rules of English.. it just wastes time and energy.

  24. James Wang Says: January 11, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    There is usually a tendency for us to analyze a language’s grammatical structure based on another language we know. However, in this particular case, there does not exist a parallel between English and Chinese.

    You probably already know that Chinese sentences can have both a subject and a topic. Some sentences only have one, not the other. And there are others that have none. Topic is used very often in Chinese. In contrast, we almost always have a subject in English sentence. And to have a topic, we have to start the sentence with “About…” or “Regarding…”.

    In “我是女的,她是男的。”, the “I” and “She” are the topics, not the subjects. The subjects (their new borns) have been omitted.

    BTW, the omission of subject in Chinese happens way more often than in English. For example, in “上海话 听不懂.请讲普通话好吗?” (I don’t understand Shanghainese, could you speak Mandarin please?), “Shanghai” is the topic and the subject “I” has been omitted.

  25. Never heard anything like this before…or maybe I just haven’t been paying attention to others’ conversations. Think I’ll start keeping my ears open a bit more.

  26. cole,

    Ha, yeah, I guess that would work. OK, I stand corrected.

  27. dodo and Sarah,

    It’s not about what’s “grammatically correct,” it’s about how people actually use language to communicate. The example in this blog post is a real sentence that occurred naturally between native speakers in Shanghai.

    You’re bringing up the classic prescriptive vs. descriptive debate. Most linguists are descriptivists.

  28. James Wang,

    Thanks for the concise explanation. I think your analysis is right on target.

  29. This would seem very funny if translated as what you did. But then it’s how the language works. James Wang has a good point.

  30. I learned most of my Chinese from conversations at the start so I heard and then used this one all the time. My wife likes to take the p*ss though.

    A waiter will check an order in a restaurant or something and I’ll say “Wo Shi Kafei, Ta shi Hongcha”, for example … then afterwards, my wife will say … what, you ARE coffee are you?

    Always nailing me with the cheap shots 🙂

  31. hobielover Says: January 12, 2009 at 6:22 am

    Sarah: I’m fine with omitting the “的,” but only when there’s a close relationship, and not with inanimate objects.

    There’s a problem, though, when it comes to pets. I don’t think everyone thinks of pets the way Americans do. Hobie is like family, but I’d still call him “我的猫,” without leaving out the “的.” Would it be confusing if I were to call Hobie “我猫”?

  32. John, would the speaker use a change in rhythm or intonation to differentiate between the two meanings? For example, putting a pause after 我 and 她 to indicate that it is the topic and not the subject?

    James Wang, thank you for explaining everything with such clarity.

  33. […] and something that goes into the design of every lesson at ChinesePod.  I’ve posted just one more relevant example recently on my personal blog. This entry was posted in ChinesePod, Learning and tagged context, […]

  34. Well all I could say is I’ve never heard anyone talk like that. That would not make sense to me. Could it be the 的 is so light it’s not audible? shurg

    I would believe someone say this: 上海话听不懂.请讲普通话好吗? It doesn’t take much here to figure out that “Shanghai” is not the subject.

    But not 我是女的,她是男的。

    That’s overly confusing to any Chinese speaker native or not.

  35. SMART! I never thought of this hehe

  36. We do use lots of truncated shorthand in English as well. For example, doctors in hospitals used to refer to “the liver in Bed Six” until hospitals started prohibiting such expressions on the ground that they were disrespectful and dehumanizing.

  37. […] do not communicate exclusively on a semantic level  anyway. As John points out in this excellent example, they use context too.  We go to great pains to embed realistic context and language as it […]

  38. […] Context makes it natural. No traditional language course will prepare you to say to the waiter, “She’s the broiled scallops; I’m the tuna.”  (Baeed on an example Ken cites from John Pasden.) […]

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