Saturday, June 09, 2007

Language Observations

Although I hate to admit it because it makes me feel like I should know more than I do, I've been studying Mandarin for slightly more than a year and a half now. I've absolutely loved every second of it, and really hope I can continue my studies for a long time. One thing I've learned after living abroad in two different contexts is how it really is impossible to understand a culture without understanding the language of the people, and impossible to understand a language without understanding the culture of the people. I've really been able to see how interrelated these two are. Living here in China, with at least some understanding of the language, I feel so much more a part of the culture and people than I did in Hong Kong, where I embarrassingly learned less than 30 words in Cantonese.

In addition to all of the other rewards of learning a new language and using it on a daily basis, part of the the fun of learning a new language is all the colorful and cultural items you come across.

For example, food is a huge part of Chinese culture. Everything about society revolves around food. As such, it even leaks into slang vocabulary for insults. It seems that every insult in Chinese involves food in some way*. To call someone stupid, you don't just call them stupid, you call them a 'stupid egg'. (笨蛋). Someone who eats a lot, or is just not very smart is called a rice bucket (饭桶). Another one meaning 'newbie' or just 'stupid' is a 'vegetable bird' (菜鸟). To get fired is to 'have your squid fried' (炒鱿鱼). To tell someone that they're your good friend, you can tell them 'You're my dog meat' (你是我的狗肉).

Personally, my favorite idiom I've learned is used to describe when someone stands you up on a date. You can tell them they 'released your pigeons'. Not only does this bring up the most absurd mental picture, it also sounds really funny to say. (Nǐ fāng wǒde gēzǐ! / 你放我的鸽子!) A close second place however is an idiom for sexual harrassment. If you feel a guy has stepped over the line, you can yell 'You ate my tofu!' (你吃我的豆腐!)

Every Chinese character is made up of one or more parts, called radicals. Some of the radicals help give clues about how to pronounce the word, while others may give clues about the meaning. For example, the character meaning good (好) contains two parts. The part on the left means woman (女), and the part on the right means child (子). A woman and a child together is considered good, so you can see how the radicals can sometimes give the meaning to a character. This is all background to say that I can't remember which character it is right now, but my Chinese teacher showed me how the character for marriage consists of two parts. One of the radicals is the one meaning woman, which I mentioned above. The other radical means to become dizzy. So... Woman + Dizzy = Marriage.

On another note, A woman who is too vain is called a 'stinking beauty' (臭美). If two people are on a date and someone tags along and becomes a third wheel, he's considered a 'light bulb' (灯泡). To have 'Hong Kong feet' (香港腳 ) is to have smelly feet. (Unless you actually live in Hong Kong, then you say someone has 'Singapore feet'). Of course, everyone's favorite is when someone asks you how you're doing and you want to say you're just doing okay or so-so, you can say 'Horse, horse, tiger, tiger' (马马虎虎).

It's also considered cute to call your girlfriend a pig in a loving tone of voice. I can't imagine the culture shock a Chinese man would be in for if he didn't learn not to do this with his first girlfriend upon coming to America.

While we're on the subject, as a person possessing a fair amount of Jewish blood running through his veins, I would be remiss if I failed to point out a certain 'coincidence' of the Chinese language. The word in Mandarin for pig is spelled in Pinyin (the system for writing Chinese words with roman letters) as zhu, and is pronounced phonetically as jü, which sounds exactly the same as the word Jew. Coincidence? I think not.

*This idea was originally noted by ChinesePod.com.

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