Of Language and CultureWritten 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.