Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Chinese have a word for it

But, in many cases, it seems they only have one word (or phrase) for it.

As I noted at the end of the Olympics here, China really only has the one sporting chant (Jia you!) - which can become tedious very rapidly.

Watching the current World Cup with Chinese commentary on the dratted CCTV5, I have noticed that the commentators' favourite phrase is da men. Men () is 'gate' (used to mean the goal) and da () is 'big' (or is it the da - - that means 'shoot [for]'? Weeble??) - so it seems to mean something like "The goal is wide open" (or maybe "Shoot!").

The only variant we hear is hao ji hui (好机会) - "Good opportunity!" - usually said to follow up a da men as a criticism of the attacking team for squandering the supposed chance.

I have occasionally found this paucity of vocabulary on the part of the Chinese commentators to be quite useful. If I'm watching a morning re-run when I really ought to be getting some work done, and there are long passages of sterile play, I can retire to my study while leaving the TV on in the living room, and listen out with half an ear for an outbreak of 'da men, da men!' to alert me to the fact that one of the teams has finally managed to move the ball into the last third of the field.

In general, though, the repetitiveness is rather grating. All sporting commentary tends to be a bit limited in range of vocabulary and extremely clichéd; but at least our 'colour' commentators back home, the former players and managers, can usually be relied upon to come up occasionally with some inventive phrase-making (I mentioned on here long ago a wonderful line by Joe Royle on the BBC some years back, likening a pair of leaden-footed Polish central defenders to the Terracotta Army). Here it's always da men, da men, bloody da men. We never get someone exhorting the striker to "pop it in the old onion bag, my son". Nor do we get unfavourable comparisons being drawn between the finishing skills of the player and those of elderly relatives of the commentator ("My grandmother could have put that away!").

No, the absence of amusing abuse is particularly disappointing. The Chinese are much given to celebrating the misfortune and ineptitude of others with a good chortle, but they don't seem to have any verbal brickbats to go along with this. (Maybe I'm just missing them, because my Chinese is so useless? Weeble??) I haven't heard anyone saying in Chinese something along the lines of "You donkey! You wouldn't get picked in the Blind School."

And we certainly don't have any of the inspired malaproppery and reckless metaphor-blending of the late, great Dan Maskell (a wonderfully fruity-voiced old codger who was for many years the BBC's "voice of tennis"). My favourite line of his - said of Jimmy Connors, I think - was: "When the chips are up against him, he pulls out all the stops."

Ah yes, that's the kind of spirit we need to see from the England football team tomorrow. I'm not sure we're going to, though. I fear there'll be precious little da men; and whatever there is (unless it's at our end!) is likely to be followed immediately by a disdainful hao ji hui.


Froog said...

And it bugs me how much we get fan gui le (犯规) - 'fouled' - all the time!

There doesn't seem to be any 'chopped', 'hacked', 'scythed', 'tripped', 'upended', 'bundled over', 'thumped'.... always just 'fouled', 'fouled', 'fouled'.

Is it that the commentators are morons, or know bugger all about the game? Is it that the station controllers restrict the use of slang or any kind of colourful or humorous language? Or is it really the case that Chinese is a very vocabulary-poor language?

Froog said...

Ha - the remarkable thing here is that Chinese people consulted on what da men means DO NOT SEEM TO KNOW! They say it could be either 'big' or 'shoot'... but probably 'shoot'. I've encountered this sort of thing many times before: there are so many homophones or near-homophones in the language that native speakers grow accustomed to not knowing for sure which of two - or more - possible words or characters they're hearing; and, most of the time, they don't let it bother them. They seem to live in a perpetual state of 'fuzzy logic' where multiple possible meanings co-exist (even when they're wildly different, or mutually incompatible!).

I'm not much good on the tones, but I think the commentators are saying it with a falling 4th tone ('big') rather than the down-and-up 3rd ('shoot'). Also, they seem to be using the phrase indifferently before, during, and after an attempt on goal - but mostly early on in a move, long before there's actually a clear chance to go for goal.... so an exhortation to shoot would seem to be inappropriate in most instances when they're using it (not that appropriateness is a high priority of Chinese commentators, I don't suppose). Moreover, I would have thought that if it was the verb, they'd add the 'completed action' particle -le during or after the act of shooting ("He took a shot!"), and they don't seem to do that: it's always just da men.

I incline to the view that the phrase must represent something like Here's a chance or Something's opening up now.

Froog said...

And whatever happened to piao liang ('beautiful')? That used to be the favoured term of praise for a good pass or a good shot, but it seems to have entirely disappeared from the Chinese commentaries on the World Cup? Is it no longer the beautiful game? I thought the quality of football had been especially good this year (apart from England).

Even Chinese fans seem to be finding the robotic repetition of "da men, da men, da men" every few seconds rather tedious. Who is this clown doing the commentary??