I frequently encounter charming expressions that are worthy of cataloguing. Last week, one of the girls in the office wanted me to check a marketing .ppt for her, and in it she wanted to make reference to 'word of mouth' advertising. But she couldn't recall the expression exactly, so we got 'mouth to mouth'.
But then she had second thoughts about her spelling and we ended up with 'mouse to mouse'. I spent some happy moments imagining the context of mouse to mouse advertising.
And then there was the warm expression of friendship and gratitude I received recently: "Take care of yourself and thanks always for what you've beening doing." Hey, no problem. Really.
And there are the signs containing fractured English which I sometimes enjoy sending to friends. With some of these, it is easy to understand how the error was made. Like the sign at the Shanghai airport that directs 'inconvenient passengers' to a particular place.
Some of the errors are simple spelling mistakes, like the staff-room door in a hotel that said 'STUFF ONLY' instead of 'STAFF ONLY. And some expressions are just due to an unfamiliarity with the niceties of language, like the barf bag on the airplane that said, "Use this to keep your vomit."
And sometimes Chinglish can be almost incomprehensible, where it just isn't possilble to know what the intent was. Like the sign that tells you to 'Close the door omnivorously'.
Often, this happens where someone with a dictionary finds a meaning represented by many different words and has no way of knowing which words are in common usage for that meaning. Like the shop named 'Unsightly and Peculiar', or the 'Very Suspicious' supermarket. I imagine the first shop wanted to refer to odd or unusual things you don't see very often. I can't imagine what the 'suspicious' was.
And if 'complimentary' means 'free', then 'uncomplimentary' must mean you have to pay.
There is a very curious difference between English and Chinese that always causes confusion and makes for some humorous exchanges. In English, we often ask questions in a negative vein such as, "You aren't going shopping, are you?", when we expect a negative answer like "No, I'm not going."
But Chinese don't do this. If you ask a positive question like, "Are you going shopping"?, they will answer 'yes' or 'no'. But when you ask in the negative, they will respond in a way that means, "I agree with what you said." or "I don't agree with what you said."
So, my friend Ya Nan came home tonight and said she hadn't had dinner. So I said, "Are you hungry?" "No". "No?". "Yes". I still don't know if she was hungry.
Once in Canada when I changed apartments I asked the building manager, "They didn't turn off the electricity, did they?" And he answered, "Yes." Well, yes what? I didn't know what question he was answering. I asked several different ways and was more confused every time. I finally gave up.
Well, that's not really true. But what is true is that there seems to be no word in Chinese for 'funny'. I've asked a hundred friends and received more than 100 answers (all different), none of which reflect the correct sentiment. Most often, people use a word that means 'interesting', so if they think something is really funny they will tell me it was very interesting. And there are apparently many words that might mean 'amusing', but they vary so much by specific situation and are often unsuitable.
Chinese names are unusual in a way, in that there are common family names like Chen, Wang, Lee, etc., - equivalent to the Smith, Jones and Brown. And, while these words do have dictionary meanings when used in language, their use in names is generally done without regard to the underlying meaning.
Chinese given names are the same; any word or two can be used as someone's name, but with regard to the language usage meaning. And, where these meanings are considered, they are often done sort of in abstract. For example, I have a friend whose name is Huang Chun Xiang; the family name Huang means the color yellow, and her given names mean Fragrant Spring - pretty enough name, but we don't usually think about the meaning when we address someone. Good thing too, because I have another friend whose name means 'not crazy'. But normally it's just a sound that is stripped of its meaning when used this way.
We don't have this problem in English since names are not dictionary words and usually have no assigned meaning.
Most Chinese people in the cities, at least the younger generations, adopt English names in addition to the Chinese ones, but they tend to adopt the same freedom when choosing Chinese names, and we can get some really interesting surprises.
For example, I have a friend whose English name is Snowsong. And when I was recently looking for a new apartment I met a real estate girl whose name was Catfly. Yes I'm serious, and no I didn't ask.
So we have: Runner, Shadow, Windy, Yoyo, Kinki, Panda, Summer, Pretty, Echo, Browning, Camera, Manson, Dragon, Tiger, King, Weir, Wham, and many that I've forgotten.
I sometimes tell my friends that the selection of names in English cannot be done in the same way as with Chinese, and that dictionary words cannot normally be used as names, but nobody seems to care much. They may have chosen the name because of a similarity in sound with their Chinese name, or for any other reason.
One thing I've learned is that some of these chosen names really suit people while other names absolutely do not. I can't explain that, but it is really true. I have a favorite friend whose name is Gina and I couldn't think of a more perfect name for her. I have another whose chosen name is Mickey (I think she chose it because she likes Mickey Mouse) and once again the name just seems so perfect for her. I have another who made up a name - Shanny - and for her it seems perfect too.
I have another pretty Shanghainese friend whose English name is Cynthia, and the only more suitable name I could imagine for her would be 'High Maintenance'. No, not THAT Cynthia.
On the other hand, I have a good friend who is so pretty and attractive and sexy and friendly and stuff, and her English name is Ella. That's worse than Mildred, for god's sake. It just doesn't fit her, so I never use it.
I have a friend who calls herself Silver, and that name doesn't suit her so I told her aluminum or zinc would be more appropriate. Chinese girls have no sense of humor.
I have tried to think of appropriate names for some of my friends and students - at their request, in case you're nosy enough to ask - and many times I can't find one. Some of my friends try a succession of names, and they all seem bad; just so out of character somehow.
All this made me think of the names of some of my friends and family in Canada. For example, "Frank" is a perfect name for my brother-in-law Frank. Everybody knows he was born for that name, and many people know first-hand what it means to have been Franked.
And I think that 'Sasha' is a perfect name for my son, Sasha. I can't imagine him called 'John' or 'Rex'. And 'Murray' is a perfect name for my nephew, Murray; I mean, I can't imagine him called 'dipstick' or 'sharkbait'. Well, maybe that's not true .....
Learning to speak Chinese is difficult for foreigners, for several reasons, lack of intelligence not least among them. Another is all the regional dialects - which never seem to give locals too much of a problem, but are incomprehensible to me.
One difficulty is that Chinese is an ideographic language, so that we cannot look at a word and 'see' how to pronounce it; we must memorize the sound for each ideogram, each character, each word. Another problem is that Chinese is a tonal language, and the tones are important because they change the meanings of the words. We use tones in English as well, but only for emphasis, so this requires adustment.
And in fact, it is like learning two languages. It isn't so difficult in practice to memorise the sounds for words in a sentence, but then one must also learn the tones for each word. And, in practice, it seems easy enough to remember one or the other, but not both.
The Chinese are accustomed to the existence of all their various dialects, which, compared to Standard Mandarin, are essentially a mispronunciation of words. They can live with that, and can often understand from the context, because the tones are still the same. So the WORD may be pronounced a bit differently, but the TONE is consistent, and that's what they listen for.
We aren't accustomed to that in other languages, so we ignore the tone and focus on pronouncing the word correctly. Unfortunately, that's exactly the wrong thing to do. For example, 龙, the word for dragon, has the same pronunciation as 笼, which means 'chicken coop', except that the tone is slightly different. So when you focus on correct pronunciation but miss the tone, a Chinese person doesn't hear a badly-pronounced 'dragon'; he hears a perfectly-pronounced 'chicken coop'.
It's difficult for us to remember that these slight variations can change the meanings of words beyond our ability to reincarnate ourselves. For example, 牛, the word for 'cow', is pronounced only slightly differently than 妞, the word for 'girl'. Can you see where I'm going?
You're at a dinner party where someone introduces you to a high government official, and you decide to impress yourself indelibly into his memory by complimenting his taste in women. Unfortunately, you've just told him his girl friend looks like either a cow or a pus-filled pimple.