language


18

Aug 2005

Science (something) Sect

I hate celebrity gossip. I think it’s the stupidest thing. Why should we care about that stuff?? What bugs me the most is when I realize I am actually somewhat following it. I don’t want to, I don’t mean to… how does it happen?? I find it even more ludicrous that Chinese people sometimes also follow the celebrity gossip of Hollywood stars. Yeah, I shouldn’t be surprised, in this age of international media… but still. It’s ridiculous.

Last night I accidentally got involved in a celebrity gossip chat with my girlfriend. Argh! (Disclaimer: neither of us really knows what we’re talking about here, so if we’re wrong… ummm… so what??)

> Me: So you wanna watch a DVD tonight?

> Her: What DVD were you thinking?

> Me: How about Mr. and Mrs. Smith?

> Her: (wrinkles her nose)

> Me: Oh yeah, you saw that already… You didn’t like it, right?

> Her: Right. I just can’t believe he would do that to his girlfriend. I feel so sorry for her…

> Me: Huh?

> Her: You know, how he left her for that other woman…

> Me: (realizing what she’s talking about) Oh! You mean…

> Her: Yeah! Peter!

> Me: Haha… Not “Peter”… It’s “Pitt!” Brad Pitt!

> Her: Right… he left that one girl for the woman in this movie.

> Me: Oh, right. He left his wife Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie.

> Her: Right. Because of this movie!

> Me: So you don’t like it because you don’t like him.

> Her: Right.

> Me: OK, I guess that decides that…

> Her: Which one would you choose if you were Brad Pitt?

> Me: (suddenly sensing very dangerous ground) Ummm…

> Her: I think I would choose Angelina Jolie. She’s younger and sexier.

> Me: (relieved) Yeah, me too.

> Her: Men always go for the younger woman. Like Tom Cruise.

> Me: Yeah.

> Her: I think they’re kind of a cute couple.

> Me: What?? Why don’t you hate Tom Cruise? He did the same thing that Brad Pitt did. He was married to Nicole Kidman, and then he did a movie with Penelope Cruz and divorced his wife. And he didn’t even stay with Penelope Cruz long!

> Her: Oh, really?

> Me: Yeah! And plus he’s crazy!

> Her: He is?

> Me: Yeah, you haven’t heard?

> Her: I heard that he and his girlfriend are having some troubles. One reason is that it’s Tom Cruise’s third wedding and he wants to keep it small and simple, but his girlfriend would like her wedding to be a big affair.

> Me: Hmmm.

> Her: The other is that her family is Catholic, and one time when Tom Cruise was talking to her father, he got in a big argument with him over religion. It almost came to blows! You know, because Tom Cruise is in that one religion… science something sect… [科学-什么-派]

> Me: Oh yeah… [“Scientology”]. (I had no idea what that was in Chinese)

> Her: So Tom Cruise is really crazy?

> Me: So it seems. There are all sorts of clips documenting it on the internet. Wanna see?

> Her: OK.


Celebrity Names in Chinese (absolutely worthless — don’t learn these!):

– Brad Pitt: 布莱德·彼特/皮特 (His last name in Chinese sounds like a transliteration of the English name “Peter,” so he gets called “Peter” a lot by the Chinese.)
– Tom Cruise: 汤姆·克鲁斯
– Angelina Jolie: 安吉利娜·茱丽 (Characters vary somewhat. Why didn’t they just use 周丽 for her last name??)
– Jennifer Aniston: 珍妮佛·安妮斯顿
– Katie Holmes: 凯蒂·霍尔姆斯 (This one was slightly harder to find.)

Scientology” in Chinese (could potentially result in some interesting conversations and/or jokes!): 科学论派 (literally: “science theory sect”)


02

Aug 2005

The name "Baidu"

I recently read a Yahoo News article titled “Baidu.com Ready for Stock Market Debut.” I read the story only partly interested until I got to the part about how the name “Baidu” (百度) was chosen. Literally, it means “100 degrees,” so I figured the logic behind the name was akin to the logic behind the name “Yahoo 360.” You know, something about connections… about connecting you to the information you’re looking for. I was quite wrong.

I found an interview with the founder of Baidu, 李彦宏. I’ll give a rough translation of the part that interested me:

> Interviewer: What does the name “Baidu” mean?

> 李彦宏: The name “Baidu” is actually related to searching. Back in the second half of ’99 before the National Day festivities I was thinking about making something — about making a Chinese search engine — and I needed a name for it. I set a few conditions for myself: The first was that the domain name should be short. The second was that it had a definite connection with searching. The third was that it couldn’t be too obvious. It couldn’t have a word like “search” or “seek” in the name; it should be a bit subtler. The fourth was that Chinese people could understand it. It needn’t be an English word that Americans would understand; rather, being a Chinese language search engine, it should be understandable to Chinese people. It was actually taken from a poem by Xin Qiji (辛弃疾): “众里寻她千百度” [something like “searching for her desperately in the crowd” (?)].

I’m not good at translating, and I’m especially unqualified to translate Chinese poetry. But I believe in this usage 度 is simply used to express a degree of intensity. Together with 百, it expresses a high degree of intensity. I, rightly or wrongly, translated it above as “desperately.” I’m not sure how close I am.

For more context, here is the original poem it came from:

> 青玉案

> 东风夜放花千树,更吹落、星如雨。
> 宝马雕车香满路。
> 凤箫声动,玉壶光转,一夜鱼龙舞。

> 蛾儿雪柳黄金缕,笑语盈盈暗香去。
> 众里寻他千百度
> 蓦然回首,那人却在,灯火阑珊处。

I can understand most of the poem without much difficulty, but again, I’m no translator, so I don’t want to touch it. I can confirm what Yahoo says, though. It “refers to a man ardently searching for his lover in a festival crowd.” If someone else wants to offer a translation, that would be nice. (Here’s a spoiler, though: in the last line, he finds her.)

Another interesting part of the article was this line: “Baidu.com’s advertising notes that Chinese has 38 ways to say ‘I.'” Huh? 38?! I wanted to factcheck this, so I did some searches. A lot of searches. Using Baidu as well as Google. I couldn’t find that claim anywhere. All I found was a Peking University BBS thread on the word “I” in various Chinese dialects.

Then I turned to Wenlin, my dictionary program. To my surprise, it listed 35! Not all of them are commonly used (or commonly used to mean “I”), but I guess that’s a start. In case you’re wondering, they are:

> ∾pr. 我 wǒ; 小 xiǎo; 咱们[-們] zánmen; 某 mǒu; 个人[個-] gèrén; 咱 zán; 余[餘] yú; 俺 ǎn; 弟 dì; 孤 gū; 区区[區區] qūqū; 侬[儂] nóng; 窃[竊] qiè; 朕 zhèn ∾n. 人家 rénjia; 兄弟 xiōngdi; 本人 běnrén; 老子 lǎozi; 臣 chén; 鄙人 bǐrén; 不才 bùcái; 不佞 bùnìng; 贱妾[賤-] jiànqiè; 某人 mǒurén; 妾 qiè; 洒家[灑-] sǎjiā; 晚生 wǎnshēng; 下官 xiàguān; 小的 xiǎode; 小可 xiǎokě; 小婿 xiǎoxù; 愚 yú; 愚兄 yúxiōng; 在下 zàixià; 治下 zhìxià

Whew! How many words does the English language have for “I”? Probably more than we might think at first.

I don’t know why I find Baidu so interesting, but I do. I’ve been working on my tags lately, so if you want to see what I’ve written about Baidu in the past, you can check out the Baidu tag.


15

Jul 2005

The Hanzi Bird

As I’m still in the USA doing fun stuff with my girlfriend like Sarasota Beach, canoeing, Disney World, Busch Gardens, and Sea World, I haven’t been surfing the web much or keeping up with blogs.

Micah gave me a welcome heads up to a comment by Matt of No-Sword on the great blog Muninn which involved the use of hanzi for this pictographic purpose:

凸(-.-)凸

Good stuff.


13

Jun 2005

Animal Names from Animal Names

Not long ago at work I was part of a team working on an educational cartoon about sea creatures. The term 鲸鱼 was used in the script. Someone pointed out that the correct term for the mammal is actually , since a whale is, in fact, not a fish at all (the 鱼 character in means “fish”). I found this quite interesting. In English we don’t need to worry about the actual name of a whale; its name doesn’t carry that information. Still, you hear some of the same kind of nomenclature lecturing from the zoologist crowd when people say “panda bear” or “koala bear.”

I think probably every language has funny words for animals that are based on other animals. In English we have guinea pig, groundhog, hedgehog, prairie dog, jellyfish, and sea lion. I don’t think those are going to change. The ones targeted for “revision” seem to be the ones that are actually potentially misleading due to great similarity.

If you’re a foreigner just learning the Chinese language, however, there are a lot of animal names that could be misleading. Some of the ones that come to mind:

鳄鱼 (lit. “alligator fish”) — alligator or crocodile
熊猫 (lit. “bear cat”) — panda
龙猫 (lit. “dragon cat”) — chinchilla
河马 (lit. “river horse”) — hippopotamus
长颈鹿 (lit. “long neck deer”) — giraffe (hey, some deer do have long necks!)
荷兰猪 (lit. “Dutch pig”) — guinea pig
海豚/海猪 (lit. “sea pig”) — dolphin
豪猪/箭猪 (lit. “badass/arrow pig”) — porcupine
壁虎 (lit. “wall tiger”) — gecko
田鸡 (lit. “field chicken”) — (edible) frog

I’m sure there are more, but I’m not a Chinese animal name encyclopedia.

Maybe I’ve left out a lot, but it seems to me that Chinese does a lot more “borrowing” of animal names to create new animal names than English does. Could it be related to Chinese characters? (A large number of animals have their own characters, but at some point that practice becomes impractical.) It seems that a much greater proportion of animal names in English are loanwords.

I’m not really trying to prove anything here… Just throwing out a few thoughts. Also, I think it’s names like the Chinese examples above that make learning a new language interesting, so it’s a fun thing to share.


09

Jun 2005

Inscrutable Characters

Last week Tian at Hanzi Smatter had a really cool post on the “Book From The Sky,” an art exhibit consisting of a book printed from hand-carved wood blocks. What makes the book so special is that the thousands of characters in the book were all created by the artist, Xu Bing, using existing character elements — a sort of “faux Chinese.”

xubing_tianshu01

xubing_tianshu02

This sort of reminds me of a game I used to play with my tutor back when I first started studying Chinese at UF. I would “make up” a Chinese character based on existing elements I knew and write it out, and my tutor would tell me what character it was. The idea was to “stump” my tutor by coming up with a nonexistent character. The simpler the character, the more glory. It was very hard for me to stump my tutor as a first year Chinese student (although I had had two years’ study of Japanese). I was amazed at how many characters I could “invent” that already existed. Xu Bing has done it thousands of times and made it into a book. None of his characters appear to be very simple, however.

Visually, the characters remind me of the characters of China’s Western Xia civilization (西夏文字). They, too, look like Chinese characters, but are, on average, much more complex.

Here’s a corny picture of me posing with some 西夏文字:

Xia Characters

The name of the script in English is apparently Tangut.

I tried to find a good book on Tangut script in Yinchuan, but I couldn’t find one. I did learn in the museum, though, that the Tangut script was created by a king of the short-lived civilization. They were also extremely complex — possibly needlessly so. For example, why does the character meaning “one” need to be 5 strokes (in Chinese it’s simply “一”)? You may say, “sure, it’s 5 strokes for ‘one,’ but the script makes up for that in other ways.” But no, I don’t think it does. According to the information at the museum, all the Tangut characters were at least as complex as their Mandarin equivalents, most being more complex.

Not all civilizations value simplicity and efficient orthography, I guess. And not all civilizations survive. (By this logic, the Koreans will be our overlords one day.)


26

May 2005

Diagramming Fun

Did you ever have to diagram in gradeschool? Remember how that worked? Here’s an example:

They mixed the dough quickly, put it into the oven, and waited.

source: http://www.nambuch.or.kr/eng/diagrams/basicdiagrams26-30.htm#Sentence29

It’s intended to help the mind better grasp parts of speech and how they relate to each other in a sentence. I don’t think it really helps much, though. It seems more like demented grammarians forcing their “fun” on innocent children.

Here’s a quote from Gertrude Stein: “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.” According to her biography on Wikipedia, she was a “conservative fascist.” Makes sense. Still, some people really do like diagramming, taking on such challenges as the Pledge of Allegiance and the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States.

The point is this: the Chinese diagram sentences too! Perhaps it is a universal trend uniting the world’s grammarians. Here’s an example of Chinese diagramming (three different phrases):

Although these are only phrases, the same principles apply to entire sentences. It’s a less visually transparent system, based on hierarchical phrase categorization. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to diagram sentences using this method (called 层次分析法) on my big test next Friday. Fortunately I find it pretty easy.

P.S. I think The bottom Chinese diagram has a mistake in it. I don’t think the bottom two divisions should include ��.

P.P.S. I think maybe this is my most boring post EVAR! What do you think?


22

May 2005

Episode 3 in China

Star Wars: Episode III

Last night I went to see Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (AKA 星球大战前转3) with some friends. We went to the 9:40pm showing at Hongqiao Century Universal Theatre (虹桥世纪电影城) and paid 60rmb (about US$7.50) per ticket.

For the day after the much-anticipated movie just opened and a Saturday night, the turnout wasn’t spectacular. The theater was only about half full. There were a handful of foreigners in attendance.

I have no way of judging whether or not the other viewers had been following the Star Wars movies at all, except for the woman behind me. She was making obnoxious comments the entire time. Whenever Yoda came out she kept remarking how cute he was. When Anakin was talking to Palpatine early in the movie and Palpatine mentions the Sith, the woman had an earth-shattering epiphany: “He’s the Sith!”

I enjoyed the movie. The way I saw it, the movie had to do three things:

  1. Wow us with special effects
  2. Connect the new trilogy with the old one
  3. Tell a good self-contained story

I’d say it did quite well on #1 and #2, but was definitely lacking in #3. For one thing, there were some lame lines. For me, what took the cake was how Darth Vader taking his first steps in his new costume looked like it came right out of an old Frankenstein movie, and then, just a little later, his cry of “NOOOOOOOO!” at what the emperor told him was so clich�� it was embarrassing. Still, overall the movie was quite entertaining.

I didn’t let the Chinese subtitles distract me too much. I wasn’t worried about them being wrong this time, I was just interested in seeing how certain lines or words were translated. I did happen to notice that “Sith” in Chinese is 西斯 (which I could have gotten just from the full name of the movie in Chinese), and “Jedi” is 绝地. They’re pretty much just systematic transliterations. The one for “Jedi” doesn’t bother me so much as the one for “Sith.” “Sith” somehow sounds evil in English… like “seethe” or “hiss” or “writhe” or “death.” “X��s��” doesn’t really sound like anything–except maybe the legendary Chinese beauty 西施–and it doesn’t sound evil.

If you’re interested on how the new Star Wars movie is received in China, don’t miss Joel Martinsen’s report on Danwei.org: First Reactions to “Sith.” If you’re interested in Star Wars in general or Lucas’s inspirations in particular, don’t miss this revealing in-depth analysis: How did George Lucas create Star Wars?


19

May 2005

What Not to Say in China

Ah, Angry Chinese Blogger… another one of those blogs I would read more often had I the time. He’s come up with a really funny post this time called What Not to Say in China. Anyone who has any idea what an “English Corner” in China is like will like this one. He provides great examples of how not to answer the typical English Corner questions. A quick sample:

Do you know about Chinese history?

– No, but it shouldn’t take me long to pick it up.
– No, but I would like you to tell me EVERYTHING.
– No, can you summarize it for me?
– No, but it doesn’t sound very important.
– I know the bits that your government didn��t tell you.
– I know what happened in 1949 and 1989.

Go read the rest. (If you’ve got comments, they’re best left on ACB’s blog.)

Via Peking Duck.


17

May 2005

Laowai Time Warp

The day after posting a link to the great laowai debate, I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker. It was the kind of thing I would probably not have paid much attention to were the matter not already on my mind.

My co-worker is in her late twenties and comes from Sichuan. She has been living in Shanghai for the past five years or so.

I was having a conversation with my co-worker about foreigner teachers. When she got to the word “foreigner” she got as far as “laow-” and then switched to “waiguoren.” I smiled at this and let her continue.

After the conversation was over, I couldn’t let it go. I had to ask her: “Why didn’t you just say ‘laowai?'”

Clearly, she was embarrassed. I anticipated this, but I had to ask anyway. She replied, “I was afraid you would be offended.”

“Why would I be offended?” I asked. “Isn’t it a neutral term?”

“Yes, it is definitely neutral. But I’m aware that some waiguoren don’t like to be called laowai.” [Note: zhwj reports similar exchanges.]

This got me thinking. And I wasn’t taking anything for granted. Call me cynical, but I never completely trust one native speaker’s view of her language, and I thought this case was particularly suspect. Why was it suspect? Well, Chinese can be especially sensitive to how they are viewed by outsiders. If “laowai” does, indeed, carry negative connotations, some Chinese people would be worried that foreigners would consider them racist for using it. In short: Chinese people might lie about the connotations of the word laowai in order to avoid being viewed as racist by foreigners.

It seems to me, however, that most evidence indicates that laowai is a neutral term. Todd has recently done an internet study on it, and came to this conclusion as well. This was also the original premise behind Tom Vamvanij’s post that started the debate. Why all the conflicting anecdotes then?

I posit that the word is in something of a state of transition. As zhwj has pointed out with a Chinese dictionary definition (via the Peking Duck post), the word used to have a more negative connotation than it does now:

> Breaking out the dictionary: 《应用汉语词典》(2000年), published by the venerable Commercial Press, says: “老外…(2)称外国人(现在外国人自己也称自己为“老外”,所以已经不含轻蔑意,而是一种诙谐的用法了)

> The parts I’ve emphasized imply (1) in the past the term had a
disdainful flavor to it, although it doesn’t now, and (2) it’s more
jocular or familiar now.

Why would this negative connotation change to neutral? Probably the biggest catalyst would be real-life contact with foreigners. Naturally, you would expect Shanghai and Beijing to lead the pack in such an evolution, as those cities’ foreign populations are quite large. By the same token, we would expect small Chinese towns with little or no exposure to foreigners to cling longer to the “negative version” of the term laowai.

If we are currently in such a stage of transition, it would explain a lot. It would explain why Hank, living in a small rural town, might find the word extremely offensive, while I, in Shanghai, find it totally innocuous. And it would explain the conflicting “real life reports” of different foreigners’ experience with the word.

Understanding of certain words often varies from individual to individual; I think it’s unsurprising for a lexical discrepancy to arise in a country as large and diverse as China, especially with the widening gap between the “rich east” and “poor west.” This might be just the perfect set of conditions to nurture a sort of verbal time warp effect to which the term laowai could fall victim.

Despite my suspicions regarding native speaker explanations, I still maintain that laowai is a neutral term. If it doesn’t feel neutral in your part of China, it may just be a matter of time. Encourage the locals to watch more TV.


Related blog entries:

Todd writes about seven Chinese words for foreigner.
Tom Vamvanij asserts that “laowai” has no positive connotation.
Richard throws a link up and gets lots of comments.
Todd asks his Chinese readers (in Chinese).
Adam thinks “laowai” has lost its negative connotations.

Kinda Related: 老外的秘密 (in Chinese; scroll down)


15

May 2005

Recording of my Chinese

It was Brendan‘s idea, and then Prince Roy actually did it. He recorded his Chinese and then put it online for everyone to hear. He got a lot of (well-deserved) praise and some possibly very helpful criticism. I said I wasn’t interested in doing that.

Until now!

Check out my recording. [Note: if you left click and play it directly through your browser, you may need to replay it at least once to get it to play right.] Comments and criticism are welcome. I’m working hard on improving my pronunciation. Sorry this MP3 is so short.

P.S. I should be studying right now.


14

May 2005

Pinyin Quicktag

I recently stumbled upon a Movable Type hack which creates WordPress-style “quicktags” in the MT blog edit screen. The hack can be modded as well, so I added a pinyin button to automatically wrap selected text with the appropriate span tag and all the necessary attributes (see my entry on Pinyin Tooltips). Then I added some extra CSS to make it look better (and act more like a button).
(more…)


11

May 2005

eBay and Wordplay

eBay currently has an ad playing on the flatscreen displays of the Shanghai subway system. It shows a series of short Chinese phrases, each followed by a brief illustrative video clip. The phrases are:

拍球 (dribbling a basketball)
拍瓜 (smashing a cucumber — a typical way to make some cucumber dishes)
拍脸 (daubing shaving cream onto a man’s face)
拍粉 (powdering a girl’s face)
拍被子 (beating the dust out of a quilt)

These images are followed by the phrase “不管你怎么拍… eBay” (“no matter how you … eBay”). I think that’s most of the commercial. I might have missed a little of it, though.

I’m pretty sure the word 拍卖 is never uttered in the commercial. 拍卖 is the obvious 拍 reference — 拍卖 means “auction.” eBay is referring to its various ways to auction items, I suppose.

I find the choice of 拍 objects pretty interesting because none of them are the most common examples. The really common ones would be 拍照 (take a photo) and 拍手 (clap). Of the usages chosen for the commercial, I think I’ve only ever encountered the first: 拍球 (not to be confused with 排球). I think I usually hear used most commonly for the last one.

I also thought it was cool that I could gain a better understanding of the scope of the verb 拍 just by watching a commercial. For me, that sort of understanding is usually gained by discussion with a teacher or tutor.


Why is eBay China advertising on Shanghai’s subways? Well, because it’s engaged in full-on war with Alibaba‘s online auction service Taobao, of course. More info:


Standing up to a Giant (Forbes)
Alibaba, EBay Square off (China Daily)
Jack Ma: Chairman and CEO, Alibaba.com (Asia Inc)
EBay’s Bid To Regain Its Glow (E-Commerce Times)

(Sorry, not trying to be Danwei.org–don’t expect much more of this kind of “news reporting” stuff in the future.)


05

May 2005

Multisyllabic Hanzi?

Students of Japanese are quite used to characters (漢字) nearly always having multiple pronunciations, ranging from one syllable to five or more. (Example: in Japanese, depending on the context, the character 侍 can be pronounced as or as さむらい.)

That’s one of the areas in which switching from studying Japanese to studying Chinese came as a relief: in Chinese you can be sure each hanzi (Chinese character) has a monosyllabic reading, and 90% of characters have only one reading.

In my studies, I recently discovered that this has not always been the case. My Chinese textbook gives me three examples that were around until 1977, when a character reform had them eradicated.

– 瓩 qiānwǎ (kilowatt); now standardized as 千瓦
– 浬 hǎilǐ (nautical mile); now standardized as 海里
– 呎 yīngchǐ (foot); now standardized as 英尺

Besides their very existence, I found several things about these characters interesting. First, they’re all for units of measure. Maybe at one point people liked the idea of a single character for each unit of measure? Second, it was an interesting evolutionary turn the language was taking. From a student’s perspective, I’m not sure I like it, but it’s interesting. You can clearly see which part in each character represents which syllable. Lastly, it was the government that quashed this fairly recent orthographic innovation in favor of standardization.

Note: You won’t find this info in Wenlin. I got it from 现代汉语 (上海教育出版社, 2004).


2011 Update: The venerable scholar Victor Mair writes about this subject on Language Log: Polysyllabic characters in Chinese writing.


29

Apr 2005

Bollywood Pickup Lines

At my girflriend’s urging I recently purchased my very first Bollywood movie. I only spent 7rmb on it, but watching it was a three-hour time investment. It was with much trepidation that I started viewing Veer-Zaara.

I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Pakistan was not portrayed nearly as negatively by Indian producer-director Yash Chopra as I had expected, and there were fewer song/dance scenes than I imagined. The story, while not what one would call “realistic,” was not as predictable as I had expected, either. Overall, it was a very enjoyable experience. (Did I mention Bollywood actresses are really hot?)

The part I found funniest were some of the lines in a song called “Do Pal.” The song starts with a line which goes:

> Just for two moments, the caravans of our dreams made a stop
And then you went your way and I went mine.

Caravans of our dreams? Interesting lyrics. I was put on high cheese alert. My vigilance was richly rewarded. I found the following lines of the song especially amusing when I realized that they could be used as pickup lines! Here they are, copied directly from the subtitles, in English and Chinese:

> Was that really you or was it a luminous sunbeam?
那到底是你还是耀眼的太阳鸟?

> Was that you or was that the monsoon of my dreams?
那到底是你还是梦中的季风?

> Was that you or was that a cloud of happiness?
那到底是你还是一片幸福的云?

> Was that you or was that just a fragrant wind?
那是你还是一阵香风?

> Was that you or were those songs resounding in the atmosphere?
那是你还是在空中回荡的歌声?

> Was that you or was there magic in the air?
那是你还是在空中得魔力?

Sinosplice readers, you have a homework assignment. Get out there and use these pickup lines! Then report back by leaving a comment.

Epilogue:
The astute observer might ask, “what is a post about Bollywood doing on a China-themed blog?” Ah, but I saw a pirated Chinese copy of this Bollywood movie, and even supplied some Chinese translations. How clever of me!

Related Links: Veer-Zaara IMDB profile, political effect of Veer-Zaara, alternate translation of the lyrics from which the pickup lined were extracted (it’s called “Do Pal,” fifth song down)


12

Apr 2005

Respectful Characters

Back in the year 2000 when I first started going to Catholic mass in China, I discovered some interesting interplay between the Church and the Chinese language. I’ll mention just one such example here.

Traditionally, God’s name has been capitalized in English, even in pronoun form. Hence you will find, “for He is our salvation,” “Follow Him,” “Do His will,” etc. The pronoun capitalization is intended to show respect.

An obvious problem appears when one attempts to continue this tradition in Chinese translations of the Bible. Chinese does not lend itself to the “capitalization” of just any character (though there may be an exception or two). I found the Chinese solution to be quite interesting.

To understand the solution, however, you need to first understand a few things about Chinese pronouns. The basic pronouns are (I), (you), (he), (she), and (it). You’ll notice that the characters 你 (you) and 他 (he) have the same radical on the left side: 亻. This radical is derived from the character and means “person.” Notice, too, that it is swapped out for a to convert “he” (他) to “she” (她). Although it’s not done on the Mainland so much, the Taiwanese also sometimes like to make a female version of “you” (你) in the same way: .

While the pronoun “you” (你/妳) is directly related to 尔 etymologically, “he/she” (他/她) is not directly linked to 也. Nevertheless, what the above usages seem to establish is that “you” and “he” each have a “core element” (尔 and 也, respectively) which, when combined with the appropriate radical, produce a gender-specific pronoun. (Interestingly, the use of 亻 — derived from 人, which means “person” — for the male element seems to be the reverse of the West’s former use of the word “Man” or “mankind” to mean “humans” or “humankind.” 人 is normally a very inclusive term, used even in the words for “alien” (外星人) and “robot” (机器人), where the English terms “person” or “human” would not apply. Perhaps the Chinese 人, at its core, means something more like “humanoid.”)

What the Chinese have done is make use of these “core pronoun elements” and . Rather than using either a “male” or “female” radical, an entirely different one is chosen (which seems to be in better keeping with a genderless understanding of God). The radical chosen was 礻.

礻 is derived from the character , which is generally understood to depict an altar. Karlgren states that 示 “occurs as a signific in characters bearing on religion, rites, etc.” (Wenlin). It seems the perfect choice. The pronoun characters you will see in the Chinese Bible when referring to God, therefore, are and .

[Note: 祢 is already claimed as a surname pronounced Mí rather than Nǐ, but the Church seems to ignore this discrepancy. It’s also interesting that the Church rejected the use of for God, which is the standard polite form of 你. I guess “polite” isn’t good enough. To me, at least, 祢 seems to simultaneously convey reverance (by radical) as well as intimacy (by pronunciation), but I have no idea how the Chinese feel about it.]

I also wondered what had been done with the pronoun “I.” True, God doesn’t speak in first person much in the Bible, but it does happen. Exodus is a good example. The issuing of the Ten Commandments contains a liberal sprinkling of God pronouns “I” and “me”. Just one example:

> I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. (Ex 20:2-3)

So I checked this verse in an online Chinese Bible. No luck. It’s just 我. [Not sure if there could be Chinese Bible version issues here…] I was kinda hoping for 礻+ 我 for consistency. I suppose we don’t see this for two reasons. The main reason is that the character apparently doesn’t exist, and never has, even as a variant form. The other reason is that 我 contains no swappable element such as 亻 or 女. Like the English first person pronoun “I,” which comes capitalized right out of the package, it seems to need no dressing up.

Note: Christianity was almost certainly not the first organized religion to make use of “god pronouns” in Chinese. A Google search turns up examples of it in Buddhist literature as well. Being Christian and not Buddhist, I simply discovered their usage in the Bible first.


06

Apr 2005

Not that She

I was reading an entry on Peking Duck about a man who got a harsh lesson in police “justice.” This sentence made me pause:

> She, 39, was coerced into confessing to her murder and badly beaten in prison, the China Daily said.

[I’m going to completely ignore the point of the news story here. If you want to discuss it, you’ll be very welcome on Peking Duck.]

Did you find that sentence confusing at all? “She” ( or ) may be the man’s surname, but in English it’s more commonly the feminine third person singular pronoun. When it comes at the beginning of a sentence, it’s indistinguishable from the Chinese surname written in pinyin. Similarly, “He” ( or ) is a Chinese surname as well. “You” ( or ) can also be a Chinese name. I, We, They, Him, Her, Me, etc. are not Chinese surnames, though, so the fun ends here.

I should note that of the Chinese surnames She, He, and You, none is pronounced very similarly to its English “counterpart.” The vowel sounds especially are notably different.

Still, this seems like a great setup for wordplay of some sort. It would be a welcome change from the stale Hu/who jokes which have only recently subsided.

Anyone up for the challenge?


04

Apr 2005

One character said to the other…

I was recently introduced to a cute collection of Chinese jokes based on the small differences between similar Chinese characters. Some of them can even be appreciated without much knowledge of Chinese. I’ve translated a few of those below.

> 个 said to 人: I can’t keep up with you youngsters, and I can’t get anywhere without my cane.

> 日 said to 曰: Looks like it’s time for someone to go on a diet.

> 比 said to 北: Come on, now, you’re a couple! No more of this ridiculous divorce talk!

> 人 said to 从: You guys still haven’t undergone the separation surgery?

> 木 said to 术: Don’t think you’re so hot just because you have that beauty mark…

> 尺 said to 尽: The results are in, sis. You’re going to have twins!

> 由 said to 甲: Doesn’t practicing One-finger Zen make you really tired?

(Read the full list in the original Chinese.)



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