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Language Thursdays: Sexism in Mandarin

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

canadagoose_300_tcm9139738_thumb3In this week’s language post I want to examine the gender implications in the Chinese written and spoken language, and the reactions of the Chinese women to the many discriminatory expressions in use today.

Given that most traditional cultures were extremely sexist by today’s standards, it is very common to have sexist elements embedded in today’s languages. In English, for example, there is the old peeve about what to call a female fireman. Latin languages with their gender declensions are even more problematic, to the point that some daring Spanish feminists like to write “abogad@”, to cover all the possible sexes of a lawyer.

The old Confucian tradition in China is hardly an example of gender equality, and given the intimate relation between Confucian scholars and the Chinese script over the millennia, it is only natural that the characters should carry some important bias. As we will see, the spoken language is not any better, reflecting a society where the woman had a limited role even among the common people. Click to continue »

Language Thursdays: The Holy Fractions

Thursday, 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: Click to continue »

Of Language and Culture

Saturday, 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.

The Goose is Hot

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

The mysterious ways of computer science.

Today for example, I completely panicked when I stumbled into one of the bugs of wordpress. For some reason, when you add a “click to read more” tag next to a section in bold, it goes and turns the whole blog to bold, including sidebar, titles and header. So yes, I think I have gone bold for a few hours,  but it was not intended. I hope I didn’t hurt any feelings.

The Goose Huggers

But this bolding effect is nothing compared to the vicious attack that this blog is suffering from an international band of Goose Huggers. 





I have been wondering for a while what is going on with my Goose post. It is attracting more clicking action than anything else around here, and by now it has become already the most popular of my posts. 

Click to continue »

Happy 牛 Year!

Friday, January 2nd, 2009

I got a few email greetings today with this title and I found it particularly funny and adapted to year 2009.

For those who don’t do Chinese, 牛 means “Ox” or “Cow”, and in mandarin it is pronounced “Niu”, which sounds similar to the English “New”.  So Happy 牛Year is basically what Chinese picture when they say Happy New Year. Except that, like usual, characters carry a richer load of meaning.

The reasons why this year it is particularly suitable to say Happy 牛 Year are 3fold:

1- Of course, 2009 (starting January 26) will actually be the year of the Ox, or 牛.

2- 牛 in internet slang also means “confident, daring, impressive, amazing”. Usually applied to a person, I see no reason why we shouldn’t apply it to a whole year.

3- The term 牛, as in 牛市, is gaining acceptance as a translation of bull market. 2008 was the year where Shanghai Index crashed. Wishing some 牛 in Shanghai, where even taxi drivers have their economies strapped in the stock market, is sure to get you a warm welcome.

So there you go, it is only once every 12 years that you have so many excuses to say Happy 牛 Year. Carpe diem and grab every chance. Just remember when you say 牛 to stress the ascending tone, to make sure it is clear that you are not saying simply “New”. You can check out my 3Goose lesson for a comprehensive training in rising tones.

As a sidenote, although I don’t really believe in horoscopes I have googled the Ox for a bit to find out what the stars have to say of 2009. I ended up on the website of one well known Singapore Fengshui Consultant, and was quite shocked to read his forecast for 09, which starts and finishes like this:

2009 The year of the Ox will be arriving on Jan 26th. 2009 The year of The Ox will be a very intense year. The many significant incidents that occur will be sudden and deadly.


Wishing you all the best and good luck for the year of the Ox.

So, like Mr. Han, I wish you all the best for this Bull year, and hope to see you around on Chinayouren once in a while.

Happy 牛Year !!

The Goose, the Goose, the Goose!

Friday, November 28th, 2008

Finally Friday. It’s been an exhausting week and I feel like I need a little break. Sometimes I wonder why I ever took up Crisis Watch as a hobby. Other China blogs watch cool things like Scandal, or even Shoes. But Crises are an awful thing to watch, believe me. You watch it for a few hours and numbers swim before you eyes like a Gaggle of Geese.

Fortunately, we still have the Learn Chinese post of the week to do. So here we go. Today’s tip is sponsored by Chinese uber-teacher Fu Ting.

It is called: The Goose, the Goose, the Goose!

Anyone brought up in China will be familiar with this little poem, but surprisingly few foreigners know about it. It has a very interesting story that you can read in detail here. The poet Luo Binwang wrote it about 1400 years ago, when he was only 7 years old. It goes like this:

Now, the essential thing to remember is the Rising Tone of the Goose: 鹅. You have to pronounce it stretching your neck and pulling your head back, just like a Gandle would do if he caught you messing with his Goslings.

It is very important to master the gaggling technique before we can proceed. Practice in front of the mirror or go to the Bird and Flower Market in Shanghai and find a professional Goose to coach you. Beware: a slight mispronounciation of the Rising Tone can have you saying extreme things such as: Hungry (饿), or Disgusting (恶), or just plain Crocodile (鳄).

OK, now we are ready, here are the INSTRUCTIONS. The Goose Trick can be used for the following purposes:

1- If you want to see how your Chinese friends looked at age 7.

Have them recite the Goose. This is a poem that many generations of Chinese children have learnt by heart, memorized in that childish singing way. You will be surprised with the results. I got some spectacular performance from the old flower lady down the road, she got carried away. Didn’t work so well with the bicycle repair man.

2- If you want to sound cocky and in control of the situation.

For example, when you are stuck in the Shanghai Taxi Comic Dialogue:

- Dai wo qu YuYuanLu!
- WuYuanlu?
- YuYuanLu!
- YueYangLu?
- YuyuanLu!!!
- Huh Huh huh ??
- 鹅, 鹅, 鹅!! -> Qu xiang xiang tian ge…etc.

3- When you are in the wild and you encounter an aggressive Goose, the kind that would snap at your picnic sandwich before you have the time to open your electronic Dictionary and Thesaurus.

Final tips: In case your mandarin mental age is under 7, you probably can’t figure out the quackings of a 7 year old poet. Here you have some rather creative tranlations from Baidu. I especially like the last one, by a blogger called wangwuming. It comes with rhyme and all:

Quack Quack, merrily sings the goose,
Raising its head a tune from its mouth pours.
Bule water moors the white feathers,
Its red palms ply the waves as oars.

So that’s all for today. Have a nice weekend and happy gagglings!