Of Language and Culture

Written by Julen Madariaga on July 4th, 2009

It is common knowledge that studying a foreign language involves studying a culture. Consciously or not, that is the main reason why people enjoy it. If it weren’t for its cultural content, a language would be little more than an empty set of code-words and rules designed with an exasperatingly faulty logic. And learning languages would be just like memorizing the phone directory, useful knowledge in some situations, sure, but hardly worth years of study.

But languages are vehicles of culture, and that is why we find them fascinating. When you study a language, and especially when you study it in its natural habitat - in a country where it is the mother tongue - you are continuously absorbing the elements of that country’s culture. At the surface level, these learnings are obvious, like when your local barber tells you the story of the Old Fool and the Mountain. But there are deeper levels where the language in itself, through its structure and its semantic relations, carries a cultural load that may go unnoticed by all but the most careful students.

During my practice for the HSK exam these last months, I went through thousands of new words and hundreds of chengyus (the ubiquitous 4-character constructions/idioms that Chinese use almost like words). And when I was fed up of memorizing I would let my mind drift for a while, musing over the learnt vocabulary, and sometimes I ended up finding unexpected meanings.

Here and (perhaps) in future posts I will copy some of the notes I did while studying. Some are just funny misunderstandings, some come loaded with philosophical connotations, and some are surely just the result of my own imagination. Warning: I will indulge in some vast generalizations and home-made anthropology, please bear with me and add your righteous insults in the comments section. Here’s the first three expressions, all baidu linked for examples:

下不了台 - Xia bu liao tai

This is an expression in Chinese that literally means:   Cannot get off the stage. It is used when somebody is embarrassing you in public, particularly when somebody says things that make everyone focus their attention on you. Then he is scolding you, or praising you, or otherwise treating you  ”xia bu liao tai”.

It struck me as very Chinese in the way it is used as a negative expression, similar to the English to embarrass. But in English the negative expression is  more often the opposite, to be “upstaged”  (ie. sent to the back of the stage). Which comes to illustrate this difference between Western and Chinese individuals, the former generally enjoying some degree of public attention while the latter prefer to pass unnoticed and blend in the crowd.

英伦三岛 - YingLun San Dao

This is one of the most perplexing expressions I have come across in Chinese. It literally means “The three islands of England”, using a phonetical approximation of England (“Yinlun”)  that strikes me as pedantic, as it is not the usual name Yingguo 英国.

But the pedantic speaker (or the “Autentic Engrish Vila” advert) is, I am afraid, making a fool of himself. I might be missing something, but last time I checked England was not an island, nor were there three islands in the British Isles, however you look at it. The garbled definition on Baidupedia doesn’t help much either.

This seems to be an old expression, so my guess is someone in the times of the Qing decided thatEngland was a Kingdom of 3 islands. And no amount of  insistence nor letters from ambassador Macartney would change the minds of the mandarins.  So I believe this expression shows another particular trait of Chinese culture, and particularly of Chinese politics.   It can be summarized in the phrase  ”This is what the party says, and we don’t care what reality thinks”. A nice little example with pigeons can be found here.

北京,背景 and the tones of English

This one is a problem of pronunciation. I have observed that everytime I hear the word bèijǐng (背景), meaning “background”,  I automatically think of  běijīng (北京), meaning “Beijing”.  And even though I am perfectly aware of the tones employed by the speaker  (the 4th tone in bei is usually very obvious),  I still can’t help myself from thinking of the city of Beijing, and often pushing the misunderstanding to absurd extremes.

After many times of unconsciously making this mistake, I came to the consclusion that I was influenced by the English pronunciation: Usually when we say Beijing in English we tend to pronounce it in a way that sounds almost like a 4th tone/3rd tone,  that is “Bèijǐng”.  So inevitably my brain is hard-wired to associate this sound with the capital of China, and I am lost in conversation everytime it comes up.

And one question in case somebody knows: what tones do we normally use when speaking in a non-tonal language like English? My guess is that most of the times, in neutral, non interrogative sentences, we use a combination of the 4th and the light tone for the stressed and non-stressed syllables respectively.

And more to come

I still have lots of notes in my studybooks so if I get some good feedback I will roll them out little by little. Let me know what is your interpretation of the above.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Jul

    fascinating note on learning language! would love to see more of this, and you are quite welcome to your home made anthropology-that is what often makes first person accounts so interesting!

    now when you speak of tones, 1st tone, 4th tone etc, do you mean
    1. the 4th tone in a word (like the 4th syllable) or
    2. there are different kinds of tones, called 1st, 2nd, 4th etc, and you are reffering to the 4th on that list?

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Jul

    Hi Baruk,

    Thanks for your comment. I suppose you are not a student of Chinese, otherwise this tone question would be obvious to you. I will explain a bit below for the benefit of non chinese speakers:

    Chinese is a tonal language, which means that it uses tones to differentiate syllables that are otherwise identical in pronunciation. These “tones” are exactly that, tones in the musical sense of the word, each involving a particular pattern of high pitch - low pitch. You can find more and some audio samples in the links below.

    In mandarin there are 4 main tones plus the light one, so 5 in total. English obviously is not subject to tones and in theory you are free to use the pitch of your voice to express feelings or other connotations. We sometimes call that the “tone” of your speech, which is confusing because it is not the same as the “tones” in mandarin discussed above.

    [Reply to this comment]

    baruk Reply:

    thanks uln! i have heard the language of the ethnic group i belong to called a ‘tonal’ language, and i was wondering if it had any relation to chinese. we do not have as complex rules though. very interesting, thank you!

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Jul

    I have been looking around and I think the best explanation is, like usual, on the wikipedia article:


    Anyone has better links I can add?

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Jul
    First tone

    Yeah, that’s the fun part of learning Chinese. When you take a break from the constant memorizing and just sit and ponder over characters and expressions. You are so right about the language itself being vehicle of culture. And if you thought that it is easy to translate from one language to another, when you - as a westerner - start learning Chinese you quickly realise that isn’t so. Each word suddenly heavy with layer upon layer of cultural meaning.
    I find that I (and others, whether they admit it or not) become a slightly different person when I speak/live in different languages. Body languages change. The things I have done in other languages that I wouldn’t dream of doing in my mother tounge. Like when I, at times, frustrated by not being able to find the words to express my opinion in the foreign language, end up expressing an opinion I c a n express. Regardless if it is what I think or not.
    Fascinating is also the gap between languages - thoughts that has not yet become words or characters.
    Keep it up, we want to read more!

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Jul
    Yin Bin

    I am by no means an expert on British geography. But after checking Wikipedia, I found that the expression “英伦三岛” actually makes some sense. According to Wikipedia, “The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy and unitary state consisting of four countries: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.”. The “three islands” in the Chinese expression refers to the three constituent countries of the British mainland: England, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland is geographically separated from the British mainland and is therefore omitted in the expression.

    But I never use this expression to refer to the United Kingdom though.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Jul


    Hi Yin Bin, the Wikipedia entry is very similar to the Baidu one. Yes, I saw that the 3 refers to England, Scotland and Wales, so this expression is equal to Great Britain.

    The problem is: these 3 territories are NOT islands! Unless of course the origin of the phrase was: 三岛 as an abbreviation of 三国的岛, “island of three countries”. It sounds weird though.

    Anybodu knows the origin of this phrase? Until I am enlightened, I prefer to imagine it was the Mandarins and Lord Macartney…

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Jul
    First tone

    Well, how about this: The Islands of the British Isles are certainly more than three. But look up 三 in the dictionary and you’ll find that it also means several, many, a few. Makes sense, no?

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Jul
    Alice Poon

    My understanding of 下不了台 is that it is usually used to describe a situation where a person is embarrassed due to a presumptuous or false statement that he makes in public, which is subsequently debunked by others, but where no one is prepared to save him from his embarrassment by giving him a face-saving excuse (i.e. a set of steps for him to climb down from the stage). He is then said to be 下不了台. There is an implied notion that that person has brought the embarrassment on himself in the first place.

    [Reply to this comment]

  9. Jul

    Hi Alice,

    Thanks for your comment. It is always useful to have a native speaker to explain those connotations that sometimes the dictionaries miss.

    The principle still holds that “on the stage” is understood as an unconfortable situation in the Chinese language, while in the West depending on the context it is mostly neutral/positive.

    Of course, to do things properly one would have to analyze the actual origin of the expression 下不了台, what exactly was the 台 that it initially referred to, etc. This is not to be taken as a serious study in linguistics, but just an amateurish post with some curious observations.

    If some professional linguist reads this please don’t hesitate to comment / correct my hypothesis.

    [Reply to this comment]

  10. Jul

    This link http://k.pconline.com.cn/question/691869.html seems to suggest that the “three isles” are three islands in English Strait. The Mainlanders landed on the three isles and used to believe them to be Britain.

    But, eventually, I think you need a type of guy like Mr. Qian Zhongshu to fully resolve this kind of question, aha~~

    [Reply to this comment]

  11. Jul

    Thanks Robert for the link. I just checked it out but frankly speaking I that guy doesn’t have a clue. I stick to my Lord Macartney and the mandarins, it is more realistic.

    Re my own comment above: I actually checked on John de Francis’s famous ABC dictionary and I saw that 下不了台 has the two meanings, 1 - put someone in an awkward position / be put on the spot, and 2- be unable to back down with good grace.

    [Reply to this comment]

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