Chinese Grammar Funnies

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I saw an interesting Chinese forward called 小学生造句 (“elementary school students make sentences”). Obviously, the sentences produced are not exactly what the teacher was looking for. Here are some of the more amusing ones (some understanding of Chinese grammar may be required):

  1. 难过 [dictionary link] [grammar link]
    我家门前有条水沟很难过。
    (There’s a ditch in front of our house that’s hard to cross.)
  2. 又……又…… [grammar link]
    我的妈妈又矮又高又胖又瘦。
    (My mom is both short and tall and fat and thin.)
  3. 一边……一边…… [grammar link]
    他一边脱衣服,一边穿裤子。
    (He took off his clothes while putting on his pants.)
  4. 天真 [dictionary link]
    今天真热!
    (Today it’s really hot!)
  5. 先……再…… [grammar link]
    先生,再见!
    (Sir, goodbye!)
  6. 其中 [grammar link]
    我的其中一只左脚受伤了。
    (One of my left feet got hurt.)
  7. 况且 [dictionary link]
    一列火车经过:“况且况且况且况且况且况且况且”。
    (A train passed by: clanka clanka clanka clanka clanka clanka clanka.)

Photo by rbn_hu on Flickr.

Classroom Culture Clash

Untitled

photo by LeeTobey

A friend in Beijing recently reported an exchange with his Chinese tutor to me that went something like this (embellished by my own imagination and translated into English):

Friend: So today I’d like to talk about the air quality in Beijing.

Tutor: I really don’t want to talk about that. You foreigners come to China, and all you want to talk about is how bad the air is, or how the food is unsafe. There’s really a lot more we could talk about. China is an immense country with a long history and rich culture. We don’t even have to talk about China. There’s so much more we could talk about than just complaining about the air quality here.

Friend: I’m hiring you to help me improve my Chinese, and I want to talk about Beijing’s terrible air quality. So that’s what we’re talking about today.

Tutor:

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the greatest tutoring session. But just that little piece of dialog recounted by my friend contained quite a few layers of cultural expectations. (A thoroughly enjoyable exchange, from my perspective!)

Gang gang gang gang gang

江江, 傻傻, 杠杠, and 岗岗

Although never studying it too diligently, I’ve always suspected that the syllable “gang” plays a prominent role in Shanghainese. Then I got this forward which proves it (see image at right). Don’t spend too much time trying to make sense of the Mandarin; it’s just a silly story about 江江, 杠杠, 傻傻, and 岗岗 calling each other dumb (). And yes, it’s pretty contrived. But the Shanghainese version is hilarious.

If you can read Chinese, you might be amused by the image (focusing on the latter half). But you’ll definitely want to hear the audio I had my Shanghainese wife record:

Ganggang.mp3 (1.1 MB)

Here are text transcripts (and keep in mind that the Shanghainese “transcript” doesn’t reflect any official way of representing Shanghainese in written form; it’s mostly just approximately phonetic characters chosen to exaggerate how ridiculous the Shanghainese sounds to non-speakers):

普通话版 (Mandarin version):

江江和杠杠说,傻傻刚才说岗岗说他竟然说他傻。

杠杠和江江说,江江你傻。

傻傻说岗岗傻,岗岗说傻傻傻。

岗岗傻傻都傻。

刚才傻傻还说你江江傻,岗岗也是这么说的。

江江说岗岗傻傻说什么?

他们说我傻?他们才傻。

上海话版 (Shanghainese version):

刚刚邦刚刚刚,刚刚刚刚刚刚刚刚一刚一刚一刚。

刚刚邦刚刚刚,刚刚侬刚。

刚刚刚刚刚刚,刚刚刚刚刚刚。

刚刚刚刚豆刚。

刚刚刚刚还刚侬刚刚刚,刚刚阿斯个能刚。

刚刚刚刚刚刚刚刚啥?

伊拉刚吾刚一刚?伊拉才刚。

Note: Both the Mandarin and Shanghainese texts have been edited slightly from the original image to correct for errors and inconsistencies (and in one case, to better reflect the audio version).

Spot the Difference between these Identical Phrases

One of our star teachers at AllSet Learning recently shared this with me:

大学里有两种人不谈恋爱:一种是谁都看不上,另一种是谁都看不上。

大学里有两种人最容易被甩:一种人不知道什么叫做爱,一种人不知道什么叫做爱。

这些人都是原先喜欢一个人,后来喜欢一个人。

网友评论:壮哉我大中文!!外国人绝对看不懂~!

This is definitely a tricky one, and you’re not likely to be able to appreciate it if you’re not at least the intermediate level. So forgive me for not providing pinyin and translations for everything.

Like many jokes, this joke relies on ambiguity. Understanding the different sentences requires some understanding of semantic ambiguity, syntactic ambiguity, and lexical ambiguity.

Here’s what’s going on:

大学里有两种人不谈恋爱:一种是谁都看不上,另一种是谁都看不上。

谁都看不上 can be interpreted as either “doesn’t like anyone” or “isn’t liked by anyone.” You’re not normally going to see both meanings used in one sentence!

大学里有两种人最容易被甩:一种人不知道什么叫做爱,一种人不知道什么叫做爱。

This is a parsing issue, and revolves around the word 叫做 being a synonym for 叫: “叫做 爱” (“to be called love”) vs. “叫 做爱” (“to be called making love”). In spoken Chinese, you would definitely pause to verbally insert the “space” that I have typed above.

这些人都是原先喜欢一个人,后来喜欢一个人。

So 一个人 can be interpreted as both “a person” and “[to be] alone.”

网友评论:壮哉我大中文!!外国人绝对看不懂~!

You can’t really praise Chinese for having ambiguity; every language does. And what one human mind can encode, another can decode (native speaker or not!).

Typing Chinese in Gmail (Google’s Web IME)

I was surprised to discover a new little dropdown option in the Gmail menu bar today, with the Chinese character on it (for 拼音, pinyin). After playing with it, it became clear that it’s an in-browser input method–a way to type in Chinese characters. Most people install Chinese IMEs at the operating system level (Chinese input is supported by Windows, Mac OS, and Linux now), but now Gmail is offering a way to type pinyin without the OS-level IME. It’s all in the browser. What’s more, it’s surprisingly fast. It’s pretty much exactly like using Google Pinyin for Windows, which I used to love, but gave up when I switched to using a Mac. This is very cool.

Google IME: Chinese Input in Gmail Google IME: Chinese Input in Gmail

It’s not only for Chinese, though:

Google IME: Chinese Input in Gmail

I’m not sure why it was auto-enabled for me, but if you’d like to try it out, just open up your Gmail settings. It’s right at the top:

Google IME: Chinese Input in Gmail

More info from Google here. (Thanks, Luke, for that link!)

Chinese Type: Playing with Perspective

I just discovered this really cool “perspective effect” on Behance:

type-ziti

[Note: This is an animated GIF, so if you're not seeing animation, you're not seeing the effect.]

This is sort of similar to the Chinese/English ambigrams I’ve written about before.

Creating Characters by SVG

A new project called SVG Hanzi (SVG 漢字/SVG 汉子) allows anyone to piece together an image of a character by specifying its structure and component parts. Very cool!

From the site:

SVG Hanzi is a web service that can be used to obtain a picture of any Chinese character in SVG format.

It is only necessary to visit a link that looks like http://svghanzi.appspot.com/[Character Code].

Character Code here should consist of an Ideographic Description Character ⿰, ⿱, ⿲, ⿳, ⿴, ⿵, ⿶, ⿷, ⿸, ⿹, ⿺, ⿻ or △

(Those weird symbols above represent the main structural patterns of Chinese characters, such as ⿰ for 知, ⿺ for 道, etc. △ is used to denote structures like 品 or 鑫.)

In case it’s not clear, this tool allows you to construct a character by just sticking a string of symbols and characters into a URL, which is then output as an SVG image.

Some examples (click through to view the resulting SVG character output in a pumped-up font size):

Those are all actual characters, of course. I quickly realized that this tool can be used to contract the character creations I love so much (and used to do the hard way, in Photoshop):

Finally, since SVG Hanzi doesn’t force you to use only character components as input (and Unicode character will work), I couldn’t resist these “hacks” (I’m using screenshots just in case SVG Hanzi ever goes down and to not hit the server so hard, but in each case, the image was originally output by SVG Hanzi and then captured by screenshot):

Character Creation Character Creation Character Creation Character Creation Character Creation Character Creation

This all reminds me of the Character Description Language created for Wenlin, only simpler, and more universally accessible, since it uses a simple string of symbols to create an SVG, which all modern browsers can display.

Anyway, SVG Hanzi is a very cool tool, and I’m glad to see this. Not sure if it will ever be capable of representing really complex characters, but it’s already impressive as is!

Thanks to @magazeta for introducing me to this project.

First Look at Google Glass and Chinese

I’m pretty into geeky tech stuff, so I’m excited about Google Glass. On the new promo site, though, I noticed this strange photo:

Google Glass for Buying Vegetables in Chinese

My first thought was, “where can you buy vegetables in Chinese by the pound?” Must be in Chinatown in the U.S.

I showed this to my wife, and her immediate reaction was, “they wrote the in 豆苗 wrong.”

If you’re using Google Glass to buy vegetables in Chinese in Chinatown in the U.S., I’d imagine you’re setting yourself up for quite a language power struggle. Much better to use Google Glass to record your interactions as you learn Chinese by using it (and possibly while getting realtime help from Google Glass).

Wow, I would love for AllSet Learning to be a part of an initiative like that! We’ll see how long it takes us to get our hands on Google Glass and onto the streets of Shanghai…

The Challenge of Stimulating Curiosity (in China)

Since our baby was born in 2011, I’ve resisted the urge to flood my blog with baby topics. But as our little one learns to talk and begins to explore the world around her, I can’t help but delve into issues of first language acquisition, bilingualism, and culture. These are all topics I’ve thought about before, but never have I had such powerful motivation to really dig into them.

Photo by Maristela.O on Flickr

I recently read this in an issue of Growing Child newsletter:

Many studies performed on both animals and humans have shown that exposure in the early years to surroundings that are dull and monotonous can permanently reduce curiosity.

This results in a vicious circle of intellectual poverty where lowered curiosity resulting from inadequate stimulation leads to still less curiosity, and so on.

I’d be interested to see what the “many studies” were, exactly (leave me a message if you know!), because these two paragraphs strike me as particularly relevant to China.

When I think of my own childhood and look at my daughter’s so far, it’s not hard to apply “dull and monotonous” to a (relatively) small Shanghai apartment, the lack of a backyard, the lack of an open natural environment to explore, etc. I won’t even get into the obvious problems with the local school system.

In addition, here in China the fostering of creativity is often presented as something that needs to be accomplished within schools. In reality, children’s natural curiosity needs to be nurtured much earlier, before the “vicious circle of intellectual poverty” begins.

Is it still possible to stimulate curiosity in children while living in China? Of course! I have no doubt that it is. It just means parents here have to work a bit harder than my mom could get away with: “go outside and play.”

Sinocism for News on China

I keep an apolitical blog and generally maintain a low-information diet (the exception is tech news), so I don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to keep up with the news. I have a lot more time for work and pleasure that way, and I’m still able to stay on top of the important issues in the world.

Even so, I’ve come to recognize what a valuable resource Bill Bishop’s Sinocism is. You can sign up for the newsletter and get regular updates on all major issues facing China. I know more than one information junkie that reads every link in the newsletter, but for me, the headlines and blurbs are often enough. I click through when the articles especially interest me (and learn important new Chinese buzzwords from time to time too).

If you’re interested in China and you’re one of the few that haven’t heard of Sinoscism, definitely check it out. Bill Bishop is also on Twitter (@Niubi) and the excellent podcast Sinica.

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