Tag Archives: language

Accented Chinese Characters

How does one convey accent in written Chinese? Is it even possible to do that in Chinese?

Over at LL (I promise I do read other sites) there’s a discussion going about ‘Trainspotting‘* voices in Chinese. Would it be possible to write Trainspotting – with its multiple accents, voices, idiolects – in Chinese? The original post mentions Lao She and that he ‘used to complain that it was impossible for him to write many of his favorite Pekingese expressions in Chinese characters’. Some commenters have given examples, but they all seem to be *lexical* items unique to certain areas or dialects and not ways to actually express phonetic characteristics of dialects.

I noticed that my wife likes to *type* Sichuanese with her friends. What’s most interesting is that they use characters expressly for their phonetic value and ignore their semantic value. A character with a  phonetic value (in Mandarin) similar to Sichuanese  is used, regardless of its semantic value, to express Sichuanese. That is a rather unwieldy sentence, but rather than parse it (or me rewrite it), it’s probably easier to look at some examples.

Character            Pron. in Mandarin                 target meaning

切                                qie                                               去

老                                lao                                               了

黑                                hei                                                很

逗是                           dzou si                                         就是

(也                             ye                                                耶)

(三                              sa/a                                            啊 special to CD)

Examples: 我要切耍                 我要去‘耍’ 玩

走老                                                       走了

There’s many more examples, and that’s not even mentioning the lexical differences, e.g. 杂个,浪个,莫 etc etc.

I find it interesting that my wife’s generation (early 30s) seem to think of Chinese characters as intrinsically Mandarin. That is, the characters’ REAL pronunciation is standard Mandarin, and Sichuanese has no writing system.

Returning to the original question: Sichuanese speakers (probably below a certain age) would understand what 我切老 means, but would someone from Shandong or Suzhou or anywhere else?

Lost or Stolen? What’s the difference?

Well, it has always felt a bit like blaming the victim, but whenver something is stolen one uses the word 丢 diu, ‘lost’. I read something by an eccentric who wishes the comment to remain anonymous * that has helped me understand the phrasing and one aspect of life in general here in the developing world:

It’s tacitly assumed that if you care about your stuff, then you’ll do whatever it takes to hang onto it. If it gets stolen, then it’s your fault for not taking proper care, and if you report the theft, you will be considered a fool.

I think I’ll leave it at that lest this turns into a long, meandering tract of rubbish with disconnected chunks of Whorf, iconicity, and relativism.

*probably until he sells the rights to his memoir

Crisis pun?

Everybody knows that Danger + Opportunity ≠ Crisis.

So it struck me as interesting when I saw this headline on CCTV2’s 第一时间:*

危机还是商机?

Weiji haishi shangji?

Crisis or Business opportunity?

As detailed in the above pinyin.info link, many have wrongly assumed that Crisis weiji is a compound of the words for danger and opportunity, but that’s a false etymology. However, in this headline it is quite clearly being contrasted  – semantically as well as phonologically – with shangji which IS comprised of the character for business and opportunity. What’s going on here? Is it possible that the writers at CCTV also think that the 机 ji in weiji means opportunity?

Unfortunately, I don’t know. I do know that the headline turns up 1.69 MILLION hits on Baidu and 2.3 MILLION hits on Google. And, besides being used as ‘machine’ in words like 机器 jiqi ‘machine’ and 手机 shouji ‘mobile phone’, the character 机 ji is used most often in modern Mandarin to mean ‘opportunity’. Interesting.

*第一时间 is the news roundup show with beautiful (byoot iful) announcers, but this may have come from the part where the bald guy summarises some stories from local newspapers then recites a poem about them. Don’t remember.