Looks like I’ve been more than a little remiss with my blogging over the last month or so. I’ve got a very bad habit of starting blogs and then not updating them.
My problem is that I only like blogging when I feel like I have something to say, when really I should just be doing plenty of little updates. In all honesty, I haven’t been up to very much in the last month or so that has been particularly exciting (besides a couple of friends visiting in July)… but then, this is supposed to be a blog about living in Shanghai, not doing exciting things here. But anyway, I’ll try to be a bit more proactive.
Just a quick one today then – a little Chinese tongue twister that my Chinese teacher told me the other day, and I think it sums up one of the major difficulties for native speakers of Romance (or any other non-tonal) languages to learn Mandarin: tones.
There are 4 tones in Mandarin (5 if you include the ‘neutral’ tone), and as explained in a previous post, using the wrong tone for even one word can alter the meaning of a sentence completely. A good example of this is mǎi (买) and mài (卖). The characters are also very similar at first glance, with 卖 having just two (rather subtle) extra strokes over 买. While the words sound extremely familiar to a non-Mandarin speaker, the first one means “to buy”, and the second one means “to sell”.
Not all tonal variations express opposites, though – the example I gave in a previous post was for the syllable tang:
For example, “tāng” (first tone – 汤) means “soup”. But “táng” (second tone – 糖) means “sugar”. Then “tǎng” (third tone – 躺) means “lie down”. And then “tàng” (fourth tone – 烫) means “hot”.
Having heard a friend who has been studying Chinese for 2 months read Chinese a few days ago, I was amazed at how little he expressed his tones – he speaks very monotonously, almost as if the tones weren’t there at all. Unsurprisingly, he finds that people find it very difficult understanding him when he speaks Mandarin.
Anyway, here’s the tongue twister:
The literal translation is “Mother is riding a horse. The horse is slow, mother scolds the horse.”
As you can see, the English version is not confusing at all. But to a non-native Chinese speaker, it just sounds like “mamaqima,mamanmamamama”.