Tag: semantics


02

Apr 2019

This box is very afraid

I was struck by the use of the word on this package:

pa-shuai-pa-ya

It reads:

怕摔
怕压

Literally, “afraid of being dropped” and “afraid of being crushed.” I’m more used to seeing 易碎 on boxes: literally “easily broken” or “fragile.” This struck me as interesting because neither the box nor its contents actually fears anything. It doesn’t feel like an anthropomorphic usage, so it’s got to be an abstraction of the human “fear” emotion.

When I thought about it some more and talked about it with some AllSet Learning teachers, I realized it’s not just a matter of the two kinds of fear “human fear” and “abstracted fear”; there’s actually a whole range of usage with this :

  • 怕冷 (pà lěng) to be sensitive to the cold (lit. “to be afraid of cold”)
  • 怕热 (pà rè) to be sensitive to heat (lit. “to be afraid of heat”)
  • 怕辣 (pà là) to be sensitive to spiciness (lit. “to fear spicy”)
  • 怕生 (pà shēng) to be afraid of strangers (lit. “fear the unfamiliar”)
  • 怕黑 (pà hēi) to be afraid of the dark
  • 怕死 (pà sǐ) to be afraid of death
  • 怕高 (pà gāo) to be afraid of heights
  • 怕人 (pà rén) to be shy around people (usu. describing a child), to be afraid of people (usu. describing an animal)
  • 怕水 (pà shuǐ) to be afraid of water (usu. because one cannot swim)

Are they just degrees of the same emotion? Or are they totally different usages? It can be difficult to separate shades of meaning, especially for native speakers. This is what the field of semantics deals with.

To me, learning how other languages construct words and phrases in both familiar and utterly unfamiliar ways is one of the major joys of learning a language.