The English equivalent to my Chinese? I wonder how often I say things that could be understood in many other ways than what I intended. Maybe my choice of words isn’t so much the problem, but I definitely have some serious tone issues!
Mandarin is a tonal language. It only uses a fairly small set of syllables but all of them come in up to 5 different tones and -of course- countless different meanings and written characters. Since this isn’t a blog for language geeks, I won’t go into many details. But here is a perfect illustration:
I once gave this story –Chinese characters only- to my good friend and linguist extraordinaire Melody: not only could she read it all using the correct tones, she also got the meaning of the story!
Before I let you giggle about my best Chinese to English translation finds, here are a few more Chinese words that only differ in the tones:
|xióng māo||熊猫||panda||xiōng máo||胸毛||chest hair|
|shàng hǎi||上海||Shanghai||shāng hài||伤害||to injure|
|běi jīng||北京||Beijing||bèi jǐng||背景||background|
|lǎo shī||老师||teacher||lǎo shi||老是||always|
|shǒu shì||首饰||jewelry||shōu shi||收拾||to tidy up|
|yán jiū||研究||research||yān jiǔ||烟酒||tobacco and alcohol|
|zhī dào||知道||to know||zhí dào||直到||until|
|gào su||告诉||to tell||gāo sù||高速||high speed|
On a cab ride to Xining airport in 2016, the last example puzzled me for quite a while. What was the driver trying to “gaosu” (tell) me? Ah, there’s an extra fee if we take the “gaosu” road (toll road). And so, he chose the bumpy dirt roads… (If we had that discussion in English I would have told him that saving the toll will for sure take a toll on his car.)