Thursday, May 16, 2013

Say What?

Sometimes Jack and Marin resorted to writing down their words
using Chinese characters. That made sharing meanings easier.

By Cindy DeLong
UNL Graduate Student

Language has always amazed me. It is astounding that humans have developed such a sophisticated method of communication using spoken and written words. It's something we take for granted. When you arrive in a country that speaks another tongue, language (or lack of it) is in your face all the time. So it has been for me on this journey in China. 

I won't lie, I'm having a hard time. I must have a mental block or something. My brain just won't process the words. I can't even repeat the sounds. I've learned to say hello and thank you in Chinese. That's it and sometimes I have to think about that. It's almost embarrassing.

But, the truth is that Chinese is very different and the sounds are different. I now have sympathy instead of contempt for newcomers to America that can't say "t," "r" or some other sound.

Chinese characters written in calligraphy.
Chinese is complicated and as you know is represented by characters unlike the alphabet we are familiar with in the U.S. Right after the Cultural Revolution in 1949, the Pinyin Romanization System was developed that converted characters to letters used by Westerners. We have a representation of the Chinese words, but it's not very accurate. For example, the Emperor Qin is pronounced "Chin." The sounds are different than our English words, but even the same sounds have been spelled in a way we can't accurately interpret. 

Beyond the sounds, there's the issue of translation. Luckily Marin knows some Chinese language. Every day, she converses with Jack, our wonderful guide and escort from the Xi'an Jiaotong University Museum. They chatter back and forth about where we are going, who we are meeting, etc. Luckily too, Jack speaks great English. Still, sometimes it's difficult for him and Marin to find congruent words from English to Chinese and vice versa.

For example, I asked about the Chinese word for seamstress or tailor. Marin and Jack had quite a chat about it. They don't have a word that describes someone who sews. They finally came up with "cai feng" which translates to "cut-sew." It's a generic term, and it fits, but it's not specific. 

Even between the Chinese themselves, communication is not always so easy. The other day, Jack was chatting with a villager, and he had to pull out his Chinese dictionary (an app of course on his phone) and look up words several times. It seems normal for Marin to do that, because Chinese is not her first language. But because there are so many different dialects, and the same Chinese word can have multiple meanings (up to 100 or more) sometimes conversations require more work than English does.

In the Chinese tongue, there are four "tones." The same word can be spoken in each tone and have completely different meanings.

On the forehead of this tiger hat is the "wong" character.
Wong translates as the word "king," which illustrates the
importance of little boys, who wear tiger hats.
The words for bat and luck are the same, only a different tone. Because of that, a bat is considered good luck. The Chinese word for the number four is the same as the word for die or dead, but they are pronounced in different tones. Therefore the number four is considered bad, because it is equated with death. 

You can see that Chinese culture is full of symbolism and quite a bit of superstition.  

It's a little odd to listen to the chatter of a language you can't understand. I can't say I have become accustomed to it, but at least we have found a way to communicate. Well, Marin and Jack can communicate anyway.

Me? I just rely on Marin to "translate" or explain what's going on. Once again, Thank goodness for Marin!

Cindy DeLong is working on a master's degree in textile history with an emphasis in quilt studies at UNL. She has a bachelor of sciences in home economics (clothing and textiles) and journalism from the University of Missouri. She has worked at the New England Quilt Museum as a curatorial intern and the International Quilt Study Center & Museum as a collections intern.

1 comment:

  1. The wonderful thing is, no matter where in the world you go, regardless the language barrier, your face is the best communicator. Your eyes almost always say it all, smiles work wonders, a little nod of the head can be enough. Body language in general is much easier to learn than spoken language and can go a good way of the distance to effective communication. At least that's been my experience. Sounds like a great trip so far!