Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tidbits of Chinese Language

I just came across a draft flyer by the Asia Club students of my wife’s for their upcoming screening of an award winning documentary film I Love You Mommy  In it, there is the Chinese translation of the title 我愛你媽  (Wo Ai Ni Mommy) that got me thinking. 

For those whose mother tongue is mandarin Chinese, there is something funny about this translation since it could be and often is taken to mean I love your Mommy.  The issue is that in Chinese language, the possessive pronoun in western grammar is accomplished formally by appending the determiner particle (de) to the pronoun.  Thus your school for example will be expressed as you de 學校 school.  However the determiner particle de is often omitted when the relationship with the object is a personal one.  Thus one would say my mom as 我媽媽, my house as 我家 and f#@! your mom as …

Of course, another way to rid of the ambiguity is to use punctuation marks.  One could say I love you, Mommy 我愛你, (Wo Ai Ni, Mommy) or better yet, by shuffling the words and just say Mommy, I love you ,我愛你 (Mommy, Wo Ai Ni).  Unfortunately this solution does compromise slightly the aesthetics of the flyer. 

By the way, the omission of punctuation marks in ancient Chinese literature is one of the reasons why they are so difficult to read.  As a result, there have been some never-ending debates about the proper interpretation and intents of the writings by scholars including Confucius since different placements of punctuation marks could alter the meaning completely.  Here is one of my favorite stories that most Chinese speaking people would probably have heard of since childhood.  It is about a host who tried to get rid of a guest who overextended his welcome.  The host left a note without punctuation marks for the guest that says “It is a rainy day; a weather for one more day of stay.  The heaven may want to keep you here, but I do not!”下雨天留客天天留我不留.  Our witty guest upon reading the note, took a pen and added few punctuation marks at key places.  The note then became “It is raining, The heaven wants me to stay.  Do you want me to stay here every day? Yes!” 下雨﹐天留客。天天留我不﹖留

Generally speaking, Chinese language is highly context dependent and is not as rigid in terms of sentence structure.  For example, while Chinese language is usually classified as belonging to the SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) family, it also allows for SOV and OSV constructs as well.  Further, Chinese words have only one single grammatical form with few exceptions; for example, tenses of verbs are expressed through the particles and orders. All these make it easy to have fun with the ordering of words.  Here is an example.   If you want to hint to your boyfriend that it is time to buy you new dresses, you might say 我沒衣服穿 that means “I don’t have dresses to wear” which is in SOV form.  But if you make the unfortunate mistake of sticking with the SVO, you could have reversed the order of words and say instead 我沒穿衣服I don’t have my cloth on”!

You might think while it could be embarrassing sometimes, it is no big deal to make a mistake in the ordering of words in Chinese sentences/phrases.  It is not so simple.  The long standing “One China” declaration has been a huge issue for People’s Republic of (aka Communist) China and Republic of China (aka Taiwan) as well as international powers including U.S.  For almost twenty years since 1992 Consensus, the disagreement has been boiled down to mere four characters: the latter stick to the position of 一中各表 (or  一個中國,各自表述 One China, separate interpretations.). The former insisted on however 各表一中. Is it clear to you now the disagreement?

By now, you are probably close to getting idea that one can be very creative given the flexibility in ordering of Chinese words.  Yes, that is indeed the case.  For instance, one can come up with sentences that read the same backward or forward, such as 別離還怕還離別.

More impressively, for more than a thousand years, writers have written many reversible poems 回文詩 – effectively two poems in one when read forward and backward.  Here is a famous example:
《兩相思》Missing Each Other (李禺 Yu Li of Song Dynasty) 
About husband missing his wife, when read forward.


When read backward, it becomes a poem that the wife misses her husband:


There are even more complex geometric arrangements in circular form (that you could start at multiple points) or squares that you can read horizontally, vertically and diagonally.   I will stop here though.  If you are interested in this topic, just google any search engine with 回文詩.  Have fun! Talk to you soon.

1 comment:

iFROG said...

I have come across another example recently. According to the story, the famed Chinese calligrapher Yu You-Ren 于右任 had once written jokingly when drunk 不可隨處小便 (No Urinating!). After he became sober, he cut and pasted the words back into a more dignified: 小處不可隨便 (one must take small matters seriously).