Friday, January 15, 2010

Why is Chinese so Weird, Mannn?

Welcome back to James Call: Expert, containing cynical and dismissive, yet truthful, summaries to articles YOU need dissected by an expert!

Today's article comes again from reader DJ Pu Yi. Come on, people, aren't some of the rest of you gonna send something in? Anyways...

It's another Google vs. China article, but the good DJ isn't really asking about that; he wants to know "more about how China talks about these things and the fucked up way we translate their phrases."

I'll get to that, but first, here's the article, and a brief synopsis thereof:

The New Yorker, January 14, 2010

The main narrative surrounding the First Google-China War is one wherein the Chinese people = victims, the Chinese gov't = the villain, and Google = the hero.

But this narrative overlooks the fact that Google isn't leaving China primarily over moral concerns; hell, they've had those concerns for years. They're leaving because they've failed to penetrate the Chinese market effectively, and China just hacked Google to steal American industrial secrets (pretty common practice internationally... Israel, our Staunch Ally and Only Democracy in the Middle East, ha ha ha, has stolen plenty of secrets from us before without major fallout), which is a pretty fugly thing to do, and quite damaging to Google's brand.

So the real casting is: the Chinese people = the victims, the Chinese gov't = the villain, and Google = another, less compelling villian, or if you want to be generous, Google = disinterested assholes posing as the morally righteous.

But now on to DJ Pu Yi's REAL question!

Why is Chinese so fucking weird for us 'mericans?

Well, Mandarin/Cantonese ("Chinese"... there are other dialects as well, but those are the main two) is built on an alphabet of several tens of thousands of characters. That alone is mighty strange. And in Cantonese, the inflection of a word gives a totally different connotation to it... imagine if, in English, when you said "Cow," you meant "cow," but if you said "Cow!" you meant "milk".

But where it gets REALLY weird is when it comes to syntax, baby.

Chinese sentences put the TOPIC of the sentence first, not necessarily the SUBJECT. I.e., "I was hella mackin' on this girl in the library" would be rendered as "In the library mackin' on this girl I was". This seems pretty intuitive and Yoda-like.

But Chinese might drop the subject entirely. It's assumed you know the subject based on the context of the conversation. For instance, in the above, let's assume I was telling you about my week. The sentence might be "In the library mackin' on this girl". You would just KNOW that "I was" doing that. If we had BOTH been mackin' on this girl, we'd mentally insert the "we were".

It gets stranger, from our Western perspective. The Chinese often employ postpositions rather than prepositions. "Club at the" instead of "at the Club," etc. And how about this little twist? You can change the syntax of a sentence to give it extra gravitas. For instance, "I shat my pants" might be a colorful phrase to indicate my own surprise, but "Pants I shat my" would imply that I quite literally had a serious personal accident, as it were.

Or how about this one? In English, we can stack adjectives all we like. "This is a big, smelly, tasty hunk of cheese," for instance. In Chinese, you can stack VERBS. "With you I yell-cry," implying, I yelled at you so much, it made me cry. That's not the best example, but then, understanding complementary verbs is tricky for the Western mind!

There's so much more to get into, but those are kind of the highlights. In any event, you can see, Chinese is a much more complex language than any of our Latin-derived ones, and either we're way better than the Chinese because of it, or vice versa (if you're trying to figure out who's, here's a hint in the form of a question: which civilization has been around without being eradicated for at least 6,000 years?).


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1 comment:

Skinnyd said...

Mandarin is tonal too. There's like four different meanings of the word "Ma".