Sunday, February 10, 2008

A rat by any other name....

An American friend of mine (one of the handful of foreigners I know who can speak really good Chinese - plenty have a respectable functional level, but high-level competence is extremely rare) is insisting on wishing people a "Happy Year of the Mouse" during this Chinese New Year holiday - because, as he fairly points out, there are just so many negative connotations attaching to the poor old rat that, to the Western way of thinking, talking about the 'Year of the Rat' just doesn't sound like a cause for celebration. I fear he's fighting a losing battle on that one.

He informs me that the Chinese word shu is used for both 'mouse' and 'rat'. I hadn't previously known that, but it doesn't come as any surprise. My Chinese dictionary doesn't have a word for 'gerbil' at all; and while it does suggest a variation of shu for 'hamster' (cang shu) in the English-Chinese section, the word does not appear in the Chinese-English section. Shu can apparently mean any kind of rodent; but it most commonly represents the rat. I recall joking a few years ago, on a visit to the Beijing Zoo, that the Chinese for 'giraffe' would "probably be something like 'long neck mule'" - then discovering that this was correct (chang jing lu). And I have already mentioned, in a comment a while back, that I found it depressing to learn that in the Chinese translation of the 'Winnie The Pooh' books Tigger becomes simply lao hu, 'Tiger'.

The extreme lexical poverty of Chinese is one of the things that limits the attraction of the language for me and diminishes my desire to try to learn it. The nature of the writing system makes new word formation extremely difficult and borrowings from other languages nearly impossible. In English - in most other languages - it's possible to simply invent novel words and have them readily understood through their context, their sound, their spelling, or their structural similarity to existing words. This happens to some extent in colloquial Chinese, but very, very rarely are these innovations formalised into the written language by the creation of new characters. For the most part, the Chinese are pretty much limited to using existing words in new ways, or forging new two- and three-character combinations to make distinctive words.

My main language is Latin, which also has a fairly tiny vocabulary (though it could borrow freely from other languages, mainly Greek; and it did make a lot of use of prefixes to create compound variations on its core vocabulary). However, this comparative lexical poverty seemed to impose a discipline that actually stimulated the literary potential of the language. I would like to think that Chinese could be similarly compact and allusive, but I rarely get much sense that contemporary Chinese achieves that (either in literature or everyday speech). Latin's intricate grammar was probably an advantage in this: the fact that it's an inflected language (i.e., the grammatical function of a noun or adjective - and the number, person, and tense of a verb - is indicated by changes in the word-ending) gives you tremendous freedom to play with the word order for variety and shades of emphasis, while ensuring that the sentence structure and meaning are almost always crystal clear and unambiguous. Chinese grammar is so rudimentary (no articles, no tenses, no gender pronouns [at least in the spoken language], few modals, many words serving interchangeably as noun, adjective, or verb) that it has to rely very heavily on set patterns and stock expressions to establish meaning and context: it is, to the Western sensibility, stiff, clunky, and laboriously clich├ęd - and still, much of the time, horribly ambiguous (or, at any rate, unspecific).

I do sometimes worry about how these limitations of the language may limit the thought processes and the imagination of Chinese speakers. The Chinese seem to be very poor at thinking in categories, drawing distinctions between things; and their philosophical tradition is notoriously weak on formal logic. One of the most glaring - though often hilarious - consequences of this paucity of vocabulary is that there is frequently no distinction between technical and vernacular terms. The most egregious example of the (for a Westerner, highly 'inappropriate') use of a colloquial, crude word in an incongruously formal context is featured in this picture below (I am assured this is not a one-off aberration, but quite a common bilingual sign in China's hospitals).


Mothman said...

Love that hospital sign. Thanks for the best snigger of the year so far, Froog :-)

I am only a poor ignorant scientist so thanks for relieving me of the delusion that the term 'inflection' does not refer solely to substantive suffixation (ie 'cases' for nouns). I shall have to tell my Slavonicist colleagues when they refer to Bulgarian as the 'only non-inflected Slavonic language' (and thank Christ for that) that they are probably talking fluent cock.

Only question being, therefore, what is the correct term for a language such as English which is totally (or almost totally in the case of English, with its residual Anglo-Saxon genitive) devoid of cases? Do you know?

Do you remember that sign we saw on an outhouse in Jamaica that said "Do not shit here - you will burn in hell. After this your bottom will suffer"?

Froog said...

Ah, yes, many good signs of that nature in Jamaica. I even bought a book of them.

"Please not to piss here" was another - less colourful - favourite. Painted on a tree trunk, if I recall correctly. Maybe it was directed at dogs.

I've never been very well up on grammar terms - not sure if 'inflected' does apply to the verb endings as well as the nouns and the adjectives. I suppose the absence of such useful suffixes is called 'non-inflected', although there may well be other terms as well.

fg said...

A friend of mine saw that sign last year (or read the same at another hospital). Can they really have made the same mistake at more than one hospital?! Maybe it has been passed as the 'official' signage and has been rolled out across the land!

Froog said...

I think the problem is probably that they only have one word for that part of the anatomy in Chinese, and so are not alert to the possibility that not all translations of it are appropriate for formal situations. And the dictionaries they produce over here rarely say anything about the appropriate register or context for using vocabulary.

On the other hand, I was once expected to 'make self-criticism' by one of my madder University employers here for allegedly using the word 'damn' in class (I don't think I did, but that's neither here nor there). The Dean of English seemed to think that it literally meant "Go to hell!", and was one of the strongest swear words imaginable. English dictionaries in this country - don't get me started!

fg said...

I remember being very surprised that my mother used to sometimes object to me using the word damn. I guess its a generation thing?

Froog said...

I think the battle to keep 'damn' in the class of hugely naughty words was definitively lost when Clark Gable got away with saying it in 'Gone With The Wind' - both flouting and making fun of the anachronistic Hays' Code prohibition of the word (already obviously anachronistic and silly, even in ultra-conservative America, even as long ago as 1940).

Our parents' generation tried to keep young children away from 'damn' and 'bloody' for as long as possible, I think, not because of their antique religious connotations but because they were seen as the thin end of the wedge, a 'pathway swear word' that might lead to worse obscenities. These days, I would expect enlightened parents to encourage the use of these incredibly mild expletives by their offspring, as a useful means of letting off steam, and perhaps a way of restraining them from saying 'fuck' instead.

Froog said...

I am told this notice is in Beijing's Sino-Japanese Friendship (great oxymorons of our time!) Hospital, which is supposedly one of the more upscale and foreigner-friendly institutions here. Several people have reported seeing it elsewhere as well. I'm afraid it is probably quite a widespread mis-translation.

Anonymous said...

This article is one of the most staggering examples of attributing the worst qualities to something one does not understand. Your opinions might have more ground to stand on if you actually knew some Chinese.

Chinese cannot be compact and allusive? Look at any translation from Chinese poetry into English, or compare any translation between Chinese and English and you'll find that the Chinese one is always more concise, precisely because they don't need to dilute the meaning with irrelevant little grammatical words that are necessary in English. - 370,000 words. Most Chinese-English dictionaries are horrible, though. - The Oxford English Dictionary has 301,100 words.

Why aren't you studying Dutch? It's got 430,000 words.

In any major language, there are more words than you could possibly learn. The definition of a word itself is debatable, since Dutch and Chinese both have greater compounding capability than English. Learning a language is better used for the purpose of understanding a people and culture and communicating with them on their terms rather than arrogantly dismissing them.

By the way, the "yindao" used in the Chinese picture is definitely an euphimism, just mistranslated. They've got a much cruder term, often used for people like you - shabi.

Froog said...


Please note the following.

1) There is a polite request at the top of the comment form for commenters to use a screen name. If you ignore that, you are likely to get 'harmonised'. I let this comment stand only because I think it is reasonably well-written and contains some interesting information.

2) Don't suppose that you can insult people - me, especially - even obliquely, and not get 'harmonised'. I let you get away with it this time to show you how tolerant I can be. If you ever try it again, your comments will be deleted.

Having got that out of the way, could I ask where you engage with anything that I've actually said in the post? I do, in fact, acknowledge the possibility - the hope - that Chinese is capable of being "compact and allusive", and I have said many times on the blog (though not, I think, in this post) that I do like a lot of classical Chinese poetry. But I get the impression that most contemporary Chinese writing is very drab (and yes, I'm only reading it in translation; but the same view is confirmed by many friends of mine who can read it in the original).

My understanding is that the largest Chinese dictionaries contain a majority of words/characters that occur only in classical Chinese.

The OED, if you count derivative forms and compound words, has more than twice as many words as you suggest. What's more, it does allow certain obsolete words to drop out in each new edition (and it doesn't, for the most part, include any Old or Middle English), whereas the Hanyu Da Cidian is attempting to provide a comprehensive survey of the entire history of the Chinese language.

On almost any sensible comparison you see - whether for total words from all historical periods, non-archaic words only, or words which can fairly be said to be in common use today - I usually see the Chinese vocabulary as being assessed as no more than 30% and perhaps not much more than 10% as large as that of English.

My main points here were not about the overall size of the vocabulary, but about the under-development of Chinese grammar and the difficulty of new word formation. Chinese does struggle with scientific and technical language, with law and philosophy, and with the taxonomy of species because it is much harder for it to forge new words.

You can't write Jabberwocky (or Winnie the Pooh) in Chinese. Game over.