Monday, October 22, 2007

Oh What a Nice Little Devil Your Child Is!

The Chinese language is confusing. Like any language very different from one's native tongue, a person who has never studied Chinese might be tempted to say Chinese words "all sound the same." But to a native English speaker there is a glimmer of truth in that--Chinese has only 400 different sounds (monosyllables). By comparison, English has 8,000, a full twenty times as many. That means a whole lot of Chinese words have the same sounds, but they are distinguished by the four tones in Chinese (high and level, rising, falling and rising, and sharply falling). This is pretty interesting for the linguist or dedicated learner but a small nightmare for the absolute beginner trying to learn Chinese pronunciation. How important are tones? A few examples of words with the same sounds that are differentiated only by tone (the marks above the letters show the tone):

小姐 xiǎojie - miss/young woman/prostitute (in northern China)
小节 xiǎojié - (in music) one measure
小结 xiǎojié - summary

打算 dǎsuàn - plan/to plan
大蒜 dàsuàn - garlic

上海 Shànghǎi - Shanghai (the city)
伤害 shānghài - to injure

公里 gōnglǐ - kilometer
巩俐 gǒnglì - Gong Li (the actress)

眼睛 yǎnjīng - eyes
眼镜 yǎnjìng - eyeglasses
燕京 yànjīng - Yanjing (city name)

贵子 guìzi - precious (such as a child)
鬼子 guǐzi - devil (such as a child)

要是 yàoshì - if
钥匙 yàoshi - (door) key

杯子 bēizi - (drinking) glass
被子 bèizi - quilt
辈子 bèizi - a whole lifetime

病人 bìngrén - patient
兵人 bīngrén - soldier

You'll notice that this is not a problem in written Chinese because the characters for these words are completely different (though getting the thousands of different characters mixed up is another story). To my surprise I haven't seen too many funny or embarrassing misunderstandings, although being simply misunderstood is par for the course. Once a student asked me if the food her and her classmates had just gone through the trouble of cooking for me and Andrew was delicious and I said "no," to her surprise and her classmates' amusement. When she said xiāng (delicious) I heard xiǎng (would like) and thought she was asking if I wanted any more. I read a story about a foreigner asking for a banana (xiāngjiāo) cake in a supermarket and getting a bizarre look because he had accidentally asked for a rubber (xiàngjiāo) cake.

But one of the better stories I can remember about confusing tones came not from China but from a friend named Jenny in Thailand, where the language is also tonal. Whenever she referred to Thai boxing, known as muay thai, it would get a great reaction from the class. It's not always easy keeping the students' interest so she would refer to muay thai as often as possible in class, only to learn later that the way she was pronouncing it she was not talking about Thai boxing at all, but rather Thai pubic hair.

Any other stories/easily confused Chinese words out there?


Matthew said...

I do recall being told not to mispronounce wangba 网吧。 I do believe the wrong tones would be quite offensive. It certainly wouldn't be a good thing to ask, "王八在哪儿?"

Dan said...

That's a good one, especially since the tones are pretty similar (for anyone who didn't get that 网吧 wǎngba is the word for "internet cafe" and 王八 wángbā is an insult along the lines of "bastard").

Anonymous said...

I would confuse "xiang" for "want" as well. Why didn't they ask: "haochi bu haochi?" (like in my Chinese tutorial:-)