Monday, November 09, 2009

Webster's Folly

A few weeks ago, the Italian got me thinking that Chinglish was the product of a lot of heady linguistic differences between the two languages it attempts to weld together. But now it seems to me that technical difficulties might have more to do with the problem, namely the cheap-o electronic dictionaries that my students (and no doubt the signsmiths) swear by.

Yesterday, my tutor was trying to explain why I should use one Chinese phrase in place of another.

"The second phrase is more, hmm," she said. "I don't know how to describe it."

She slipped her electronic dictionary from its Hello Kitty carrying case and punched in a few Chinese characters. Then she tilted the screen towards me. I almost spit up my chamomile tea.

Circumbendibus, said the dictionary. She pressed a button and a robot voice uttered the word for good measure: CIR-CUM-BEN-DI-BUS.

"What is that?" I laughed.
"Is it not correct?"
"I have no idea," I said. "I've never seen the word in my life."

What my tutor wanted to communicate was that one phrase "sounded nicer" than the other, and what we ended up with was circumbendibus. I wrote the word down in my notebook, but she caught me and crossed it out.

"No," she said. "I'm embarrassed."
So I wrote it on the palm of my hand when she wasn't looking and stole off after class to look it up in a dictionary, except none of the dictionaries I use seemed to have it.

Today, because I had fifteen minutes left over towards the end of class, I wrote up a list of the most common Chinglish mistakes, or at least the most common ones among my 350 students and the thousands of strangers I have taught pro bono on the streets of Nanchong.

1. humorous: Keith is so humorous.
How about: Keith is so funny.

2. clever: Keith is so clever.
How about: Keith is so smart.

3. you had better: You had better call me after work.
This is by far my least favorite Chinglishism. I am aware that it is Chinglish, and yet it never fails to rub me the wrong way. In the States, we tend to use "You had better" when we're making threats - "You'd better not look at my sister that way" - or scolding underlings, so even if a well-meaning friend of yours tells you that "you had better" do something innocuous, you still have to fight the impulse to smack them across the face.
How about: You should call me after work or You ought to call me after work - or better yet, You oughtta gimme a call after work.

4. play with me: If you're not busy after work, you should come play with me.
This is a direct translation from Chinese. In Mandarin, you ask people - even if they're crotchety 67-year-old pedants - whether they'd like to come play with you after work. The word "play," in this case, means "to hang out." But in English, the phrase has some unintended connotations: either that you are an oversized child, or that you are a very naughty girl, indeed.
How about: If you're not busy after work, we should hang out.

5. our China: Our China is developing rapidly.
You will often hear the Chinese refer to China as "our motherland," so perhaps this isn't so much a language issue as it is a difference in national identity. Never in a million years would I refer to the United States as "my America" - I sometimes live there, but it belongs to somebody else. Anyhow, when my students refer to "our China" in English, I can't help but imagine that they're boasting about a new IKEA dinette set.

6. campurs: I live on the old campurs, but I go to school at the new campurs.
Here I had to play around with phonetics to make my point. I proved to my students that they could produce the sounds "cam" and "piss." Then, I had them put the syllables together. "Campiss," they said. "Campus." Yes! I smacked my eraser on the podium and a plume of chalkdust clouded my ecstatic features. My students murmured the strange new word to themselves: campus, campus, campus. Then a lower, more urgent murmuring started at the back of the classroom and worked its way to the front: could it be that they had been learning the wrong pronunciations all their lives?

7. pander: The pander bear is China's national treasure.
This has baffled me since my arrival. My Chinese name is "Pan Da" and my students can pronounce that well enough. And yet their mascot is the "pander." Nobody likes a panderer. So I wrote "Pan" and "Duh" on the board. "Panda," my students chanted, "panda panda panda panda panda!" I had to cut them off like a conductor: my class was starting to sound like a Deerhoof song.

After the bell rang, a rush of students smothered me at the chalkboard, demanding to know whether what I had said was true: was campurs really campus, and pander panda, and all the rest?

It's true - I proclaimed - yea, verily, I tell thee, it is true.

My students covered the board in white, yellow, pink, and blue phonetic symbols.
"But Mr. Hu always told us to pronounce it like this."
"But in middle school we learned to say it like this."
"I've always pronounced it this way."

I was entering dicey territory. It's an uncomfortable spot to be in, a self-proclaimed literary hack like me with little to no technical training, righting the wrongs of unseen Mr. Lis and Mrs. Lus and Dr. Zhangs. But it's all true, I told them, "pander" is completely wrong and "panda" is entirely correct.

One of my students wrote the word "ship" on the board.
"How do you pronounce this?" she asked.
"Ship," I said.
"But I learned sheep!"
"Sheep is wrong. Ship is right."
She slipped her electronic dictionary from its Hello Kitty carrying case. She pressed a button.
"SHEEP," quod the robot, smugly.
I checked the screen and saw that the IPA symbols were indeed "ʃip," that the dictionary called for a ruminant mammal of the genus Ovis where a large oceangoing vessel should have been. So was this the problem, after all? Crummy low-end electronic dictionaries? I stood there wondering whether I should outlaw the blasted robots from class.

"So, Mr. Pander - Mr. Panda!" asked one student. "If my teachers are wrong and my dictionary is wrong, who can I trust?"
For lack of a more qualified authority, I shrugged and said, "Me."

But I suppose the electronic dictionary isn't such a bad invention, even if yours happens to have been programmed by a handful of drunks working the night shift at the Suzhou Guanchang Electron Stuff Limited Factory. An electronic dictionary will at least get you in the ballpark most of the time. I am reflecting, now, on the year I taught Hangman Studies in Korea. The day in question was probably a Friday, and almost certainly the last class of the day: my energy was spent and my students had seized control of the markers, the erasers, and the whiteboard. They were too hyper to play an orthodox game of hangman, so they scribbled a beard and an afro on the man at the gallows - it was me - and drew a giant vat of bubbling, steaming liquid under his feet.

"What is that?" I asked.
"Teacher, please wait," said the artist, and he slipped his electronic dictionary from its Hello Kitty carrying case. He punched in a few Korean characters and held the dictionary up for all to hear.
"SULFURIC ... ACID," said the robot voice.
"That's great," I laughed. "That's great."
I could no longer tell, at that point, whether my laughter was sincere.
The letters on the board were "F _ C K."
"Teacher, now you guess!"
"Let me think about this one," I said. "U?"


patti s said...


alison said...

(I am a recent RPCV China 07-09)

I surmised that they learned the r mistake from British English pronunciation guides where the schwa is usually followed by a slight r. So they add it after all schwa sounds, which is clearly wrong.

My husband and I took to adding r's to most words, especially loud interjections: "Holy shirt!" "Hey, Thomers [Thomas]!" "That's fabulers!"

Great blog -- the writing is better than most other China PCV blogs I've read (at least 3-4 years worth). Put me down for a book order.

Keith Petit said...

Patti S -
Done and done!

Alison -
I'm always extremely fired up when a fellow laowai has a similar experience to report. After you've spent enough time here, you start to feel like you're hallucinating the whole thing. And thanks!