Language Thursdays: The Holy FractionsWritten by Julen Madariaga on March 25th, 2010
This is a new feature in my blog. It is a follow up of the initial Language and Culture posts last year, and I commit from now on to continue the series every Thursday that I feel like it. The idea is to post about those language curiosities that I encounter in my study of mandarin and I jot down directly on my study desk.
Professionals like you find in the Language log like to mark the difference between a linguist and a polyglot, and I completely agree with them. While I am a fan of linguistics, particularly those of the descriptive kind, I have never studied the discipline seriously and I couldn’t tell a preposition from a palmiped. I am just a curious language learner, and I’ll stick to what I know.
This thought has discouraged me for a while from writing about language, considering the rich selection of linguist blogs already available. But then I thought, there is a certain level right between anthropology and linguistics, a space wide open to the speculation of non specialists, where living in language immersion is as important as formal training.
I am referring to the observation of how Language and Culture interact with each other, and how a certain character and a view of the World gets imprinted into the language, form the fossils of the remote past to the process ongoing even today. This is the point of the Language and Culture Series, which consists more of questions than of answers. Here is an example:
The Holy Fractions
The observation today has to do with the common use of number fractions or percentages in the Chinese language, going much further than what I have seen in any other culture. It is surprising for a language so rich in flowery adjectives that the speakers should prefer to describe things in hard numbers. Especially when applied to fields like love that have up to now resisted the advance of mathematics.
I observed this first when my friend Fu described a couple as loving their daughter only 20%. “That is terrible”, I jumped, “she is 20% loved”. But it wasn’t funny. In fact, she was pretty serious, she had done her homework well and she was adamant: 20% is the love the girl got. And that is just the most accurate way she found to describe it.
Since then I have observed the same phenomenon in many circumstances, probably the most well known are these:
- The CCP’s assessment of Mao after his death, the one that says he was 70% right and 30% wrong. Heroic? Disgraceful? No, just 7/10.
- The well known formula to order your steak in China: 30%, 50% or 70% cooked. No rare or bleu, but numbers.
- The use in Taobao of (very unrealistic) percentages to indicate the state of an article, such as “99.9% new”, or even “99.99% new”.
The main question I have here: does this come from the legacy of Maoist education? Is this a residue of the “scientific” outlook of the Marxist theories, or is it rather an ancient trait that existed long before in the Chinese culture? Any reader of 古文 has seen instances of poet Li Bai describing himself as 75% drunk, or 37% sinking in the lake under the moon?
Let me know if you know of any other example. And why do the Chinese like to see the World in fractions?
Note: I translate all in percentages, but the original expressions are various, including the usual 分 or 成 for 10th fractions.