To bi or not to bi (2)

That was the name of an earlier post I did on the Vagina Monologues being banned in China. Now I’m using it in reference to a funny article by a foreign correspondence lamenting his poor Mandarin.

As my erudite predecessor the classical scholar John Gittings put it: Chinese is rich in vocabulary but phonetically impoverished.” To distinguish between identical phonemes, Mandarin uses tones – four of them. And as a foreigner who struggles to hit the right note even in karaoke, it is the tones that get me every time.

Although locals make allowances for foreigners, a mistaken tone can be humiliating and expensive. I could never be a broker: depending on the tone, “mai” can mean “buy” or “sell”. A tiny slip and billions could be lost.

Face, too, can be lost. In one of my first lessons, I was studying colours, and to practise my new vocabulary I asked my teacher what was the colour of her pen (one of the only other words I knew at the time). She blushed crimson, laughed, and quickly moved on to the next page of the textbook. The reason, I found out later, was that I had slipped from the third tone to the first – which had turned “pen” into a sensitive anatomical term.

At least I am not alone. Even the best foreign speakers of Mandarin sometimes get their rising tones mixed up with their undulating tones. “If I were emperor of China, my first act would be to abolish the second tone,” said Ed Lanfranco, correspondent for UPI and one of the best linguists among the foreign journalist community of Beijing. “I just can’t pick the second tone.”

By comparison, learning the characters is easy. This merely involves constant repetition rather than musical talent (which I suspect is something you have to be born with in order to master tones).

“Read the whole thing.” It’s the only article I’ve ever seen that has the phrase “cow’s vagina” in its headline.

The Discussion: 5 Comments

Oh yes, I also hate the second tone. I never pronounce it correctly. Alltough they were very patient with me my Chinese friends eventually gave up.

February 16, 2006 @ 8:18 am | Comment

2B or not 2B indeed.
I always get a pause from the waitress when I order the ‘er bi’ dinners for two at my favourtie Mandarin restaurant. This never happens when I order the 2A or 2C.

February 16, 2006 @ 9:00 pm | Comment

Never mind, I used to know a guy who moved into an area with a different dialect. Every night for a week he would tell his friends that he was going to the local arcade, unfortunately the word that he was using meant ‘prostitute’ in that area.

February 17, 2006 @ 2:10 am | Comment

Be grateful that Cantonese isn’t the National language with its 7 to 9 tones, depending on how one counts them. ๐Ÿ˜‰

February 17, 2006 @ 6:54 pm | Comment

Gansu Mandarin has only three tones. A Central Asian variation of this called Dungan is spoken in Kyrgyzstan by descendants of Gansu refugees fleeing after the failed Muslim rebellion in the dying days of the Qing Empire. Dungan has done away with Chinese characters altogether and is written phonetically in Cyrillic. Just goes to show that it is possible for the written Chinese language to be replaced by phonetics alone. The key here is Mandarin’s polysyllabic basis and the used of compound words and concepts.

February 18, 2006 @ 5:46 pm | Comment

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