Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Words and letters (1)

Language is an odd beast. Learning them to a decent level and teaching them to a high level grants you something on an insight into the soul of each tongue, not to mention the mechanics. Sometimes students will get exasperated about the idiosyncrasies of English, not noticing the tics of their own. When one is only wrapped up in one language it is easy to overlook some of the obvious lessons of language:
 
"The North Koreans call Jin Zhengri the General," a student explained on one day.
"Kim Jong-il," I correct saying the name of the dictator in anglicised Korean, which is quite close the original.
The student looks at me strangely so I elaborated: "You need to call him: Kim Jong-il, that's his Korean name."
The student is perplexed: "Who?"
"The name of the leader of North Korea is Kim Jong-il. What you said was his Chinese name. He has a Korean name. He is Korean," I say, almost regretting immediately being impatient.
"Jin Zhongri is the General of North Korea."
"He might be in Chinese but no-one else will understand you saying that."
 
That particular lesson of course might seem particular to Chinese - Japanese and Korean names can be pronounced in Chinese with reference to the characters that all three languages share (although the sound may differ). But this affects English too in a way. We have ways for describing foreign names and things. Placenames like Florence, Serville and Vienna differ a lot in pronunciation from how they actually are pronounced.
 
It works in reverse too. "Do you know what tofu is?" I ask, a shake of the head is the only response. I explain in English the appearance and characteristics of this obiquitous Chinese product. Often, but not always, they will gasp: "Ohhhhh, doufu."
"In English we call it tofu; that is the Japanese pronunciation." Students are often perplexed why English would take the Japanese pronunciation for a Chinese thing. We also say Zen (Japanese) and not Chan (the Chinese pronunciation of the same term). I assume this is because they've historically been more open and developed than China. When you trade, your terms are taken on board. And English has always traded not just goods but words. We generally take the foreign word and not find the need to make our own. We call pasta pasta; Chinese call it all "Yidali Mian" (Italian "noodles"). But then occasionally English will use a very general term for a lot of specific foreign terms or things, dumpling being the obvious example (I will argue with speaker here saying regarding many different Chinese foods saying: "We call them all dumplings," only to be told by the student that dumplings are jiaozi (a small parcel of stuffing wrapped in a skin of pasta) - look up dumpling on Wikipedia if you're not sure).
 
Chinese generally will make its own terms for things, leaving transliteration for foreign names and (some) places. But that means that foreign words that are transliterated are often overlooked. A student didn't believe me that Luoji (the Chinese term for logic) had come from English. Not even when I asked him to tell me the meaning of Luo and Ji did he concede. The local staff are often driven nuts by students who discovering an English word has a transliteration in Chinese use only the transliteration. Sample situation:
 
"Teacher, what is 'store'?" (this is usually asked in Chinese)
"A store is a shop." Even though they know what a shop is, many students don't accept this explanation.
"A store is a place that sells things."
"A store is like seven-eleven. It sells things."
Then the student, should they be Cantonese, will often gleefully realised: "Oh: See-door." (the meaning for see-door, the cantonese transliteration of store, is a little different, implying a small grocery store). The teacher nods but says: "Store". But then the student feeling that the word is the same, uses it rather than listening to the actual English pronunciation. This sets in motion a chain reaction leading to the explosive breakdown of the teacher in question.
 
It is easy to pick on students and think they're not that sharp. But everyone has these moments. I still have some "sticky" misunderstandings of grammar and expression in my Chinese. Often I say them again and again. And I remember that no matter how many times I corrected my Chinese-learning friends that Beijing is pronounced with a hard J, they still went back to the anglicised Beijjjjing.

 

1 comment:

Myles&Sufong said...

Interesting article Daniel...