language


03

Nov 2005

blog中文翻译

I recently received a new submission for the CBL called blog中文翻译 (“blog Chinese translation”). It doesn’t qualify to be listed on the CBL, as it’s almost entirely in Chinese, but it’s a good idea nonetheless. The author starts an entry with a link to an online English article, then translates it.

It could be very useful to Chinese readers as well as to advanced students of Chinese. The topics all seem to be geeky tech topics. I haven’t yet taken the time to judge the quality of the translation.

There are some terms in the translations which I would not be at all sure how to verify. For example, in one article the author translates “semantic web” as “语义网.” 语义 is indeed the Chinese linguistic term for “semantic” or “semantics,” and clearly means “web,” but is that the official translation for “semantic web?” In this case, it is. However there have to be plenty of cases where a convenient translation standard doesn’t exist.

I don’t envy the Chinese translator his task…


11

Oct 2005

Dubbing transsexuals

Danwei.org did a post on the “transsexual blogfest” almost two years ago. Why, then, does it still feel like transsexuals are all the rage here in China?

Last week I caught Korean transsexual superstar Harisu in China on TV doing some kind of Chinese gameshow. They just kept showering her with comments the whole time, going on and on about how pretty, sexy, and feminine she is. I wanted to hear her voice. I was curious what it would sound like. Unfortunately, they were doing this simultaneous interpretation thing, and Harisu’s voice was dubbed over in a female Chinese voice for the broadcast. (Harisu’s voice was just barely audible in the background, too soft to hear clearly.)

Then on Saturday a Western documentary on transsexuals was aired on Chinese TV. It was dubbed in Chinese, and a good source of vocabulary. The words 变性人 (transsexual) and 生殖器 (reproductive organs) got drilled into familiarity.

What I found most interesting were the voices used to dub the transsexuals featured in the documentary. In every case, the “transmen” were dubbed by women affecting a deep voice, and the “transwomen” were dubbed by men affecting high, feminine voices. One of the transwomen looked like a completely normal woman, and one of the transmen looked very masculine — you would never have pegged him for someone who had had a sex change. And yet they still got stuck with these voices in the Chinese dub. I couldn’t hear how their real voices sounded, so I don’t know how well the dubbing reflected the original voices.

I wouldn’t have expected the transsexuals in the documentary to be dubbed that way because Harisu was dubbed in a female voice, and the Chinese media in general seems very accepting/supportive of transsexuals. To me, using the feminine voice to dub Harisu sent a subtle “she is completely feminine” message, while the voices used in the documentary sent a subtle “they can never be the gender they’re trying so hard to be” message.

I’m always surprised by how many Chinese guys admit that they find Harisu beautiful/hot on these TV shows. I think homophobia would prevent the majority of American men from making any such public admission.

So, transsexuals in China… still hot!


22

Sep 2005

Weight Loss Pun

Why are the ads placed on the back of the front seats in Shanghai taxis almost always for breast enlargement or weight loss? I am puzzled.

I recently saw one ad that I liked for a weight loss treatment, though. It used a pun:

> spa瘦身魔法让“想瘦”变成“享受”!

Obviously the pun doesn’t translate, but the literal meaning is:

> Spa figure-slimming magic turns “desire to slim down” into “enjoyment“!

The wordplay is based on the word 享受 which is a verb meaning “enjoy.” Like many Chinese verbs, it can be used as a noun as well. The word means “thin.” Adjectives in Chinese can take on what Westerners consider verb-like qualities (see Wikipedia on Chinese adjectives if you’re a grammar nerd), so combining the verb (“would like to”) with (“thin” or possibly “become thinner”), you can get 想瘦, which means “desiring to become thinner” and has the exact same pronunciation as 享受 (“enjoy” or possibly “enjoyment”).

Sorry, puns aren’t nearly as charming when they’re explained.


02

Sep 2005

My Textbook on Dialects

As I understand it, the universtity, in conjunction with the Party, assigns approved textbooks to all courses. Students must buy these books. Then, when it comes to actually teaching the course, the professors choose how much those official textbook choices are used and how much other materials the professors personally select are used. The book I was so busy studying for a while, Modern Chinese (现代汉语, 上海教育出版社), is one of the ones chosen by the Party. That can make for interesting reading sometimes.

Here’s my slapdash translation of a paragraph on dialects in China (pp. 8-9):

> In order to adapt to the needs of socialist construction and promote the function of language in society, we must actively support the common language of China’s ethnic groups — we must rapidly popularize Mandarin Chinese. “Mandarin serves the people as a whole, whereas dialects serve only the people of a particular region. The spread of Mandarin does not mean the deliberate extinction of [other] dialects. Rather, it entails a gradual reduction in scope of the [other] dialects’ usage, in keeping with the objective requirements for the advancement of society. [Other] dialects can — and inevitably will — coexist with Mandarin in the long run. However, Mandarin’s scope of usage must be continually expanded, and Mandarin must be used as much as possible for public occasions and written materials. We must correct the narrow-minded views of those who do not accept Mandarin, are not willing to listen to Mandarin, or do not even allow their children to speak Mandarin. We must correct published materials — literature in particular — in which the misuse of [other] dialects appears.” We should correctly recognize the relevance of dialects as a form of communication within an ethnic minority while consciously promoting the development of the common language, reducing the influence of [other] dialects, and not only actively using Mandarin oneself, but also doing one’s best to spread the use of Mandarin.

The quote within the passage comes from a 1955 article in the People’s Daily entitled “For the Advancement of Language Reform, Promote Mandarin and Strive for the Standardization of the Chinese Language.”

So basically, the government doesn’t want to squash the other dialects, it just wants to reduce their role to insignificance while Mandarin dominates all. Apparently that doesn’t count as squashing them.

I have the feeling that the typical Shanghainese person would just laugh at a passage like this. Every now and then I hear that Shanghainese is in danger, but it seems pretty healthy to me.

One interesting issue raised by translating this passage had to do with the Chinese words 普通话 (Mandarin) and 方言 (dialect). In normal Chinese usage, Mandarin is pretty much never referred to as a dialect, even though by linguistic definition it could fairly be called a “standard dialect.” Yes, dialects can be standard or nonstandard, but they’re still dialects — variations of a larger linguistic group (of course, whether or not the different dialects/topolects of Chinese are actually separate languages altogether is a whole different can of worms). Yet in this passage, “dialects” were continually referred to, and the implication was “not Mandarin” and “inferior.” This linguistic bullying may not seem very strange, but keep in mind that the above passage came from a university’s core linguistics text! Ah, but it’s a Party-approved book… not so surprising after all.


Related: “Dialects” in China


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).
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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.



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