Thursday 20 January 2005

My postillion has been struck by lightning

Chinese food at a street marketAnd another thing while I'm on the subject of the Chinese language: it's impossible to speak. Well, obviously it's not impossible, 1.3 billion people are currently proving me hopelessly wrong, but you can't just flick through the language section of a guide book and just pick up some useful phrases like you can with European languages*. You don't know that to start with though, so it's easy to convince yourself that Chinese is like all the other languages you've attempted on holiday. Flicking through the the pinyin gives you nothing to contradict your initial belief; spicy chicken is simply gong bao ji din. That looks pretty straightforward, how difficult can it be to order? You spent a week in Sardinia without any Italian language and got by just saying prego and molto bene, Mandarin looks a cinch.

Foxed copy of the Lonely Planet in hand then, you march into a restaurant, hold up four fingers in case the waitress has difficulty counting the number of people standing directly in front of her wearing enormous brightly coloured down jackets, and are shown to your table. The waitress stands expectantly by you, pen and pad poised to take your order. Tea, you think, tea would be nice, and a check of the food and drink section at the back of the guide book reveals that tea is simply cha. With confident smile, you beam at the waitress, "Cha" you say. You are pleased, like a proud parent at a school sports day, you've let your linguistic offspring out into the free world to measure its ability against everyone else.

There is a pause, then, slow as sunrise, utter incomprehension spreads across the face of your friendly server in place of the frantic scribbling and indulgent smile at your funny accent you were expecting.

"Cha?" she says. You nod and repeat, with only slightly less confidence, "Cha". Then you nod some more, emphasising how sure you are of what you've said. Nod, I am an experienced world traveller, nod, unafraid of foreign languages, nod, I require refreshment through tea, nod, "Cha!".

"Cha?" she says again, still uncomprehending. And no matter how many times you repeat "cha" to her, she cannnot understand you. Eventually, exasperated, you point at a teapot on a nearby table, and suddenly she's all smiles again, laughing and nodding and repeating "cha" to herself, seemingly in exactly the same way you were just saying it. Soon tea turns up at your table and you start to wonder how you're going to order the mixed sichuan hotpot with cow intestine, fish heads and snake you wanted.

I knew beforehand that the spoken Chinese dialects were tonal, but I had expected that if I walked into a restaurant and said cha with incorrect tone, context alone would make the meaning clear. Yet it seems that most Chinese, except perhaps those who can speak a foreign language, cannot make the link between words that seem like homophones to us. The concrete example I read in the Rough Guide listed ma, which, dependant on intonation, can have one of several unconnected meanings including mother, horse or hemp. For all I know then, we could have been walking into restaurants and, instead of asking for tea, vehemently and repeatedly insisting on paint or demijohn or hubris with all the attendant confusion such actions would cause in any other language.

Me shaking hands with a localI'm no linguist, but I'd guess this is because homophones in languages that use the Roman alphabet tend also to be homographs (or near homographs), helping us to distinguish between spoken versions of eg, to, too, and two, partly based on context and partly because the written representation helps us see that we must select from multiple meanings to correctly parse sentences. Whereas when the language is written using logograms neither meaning nor written representation allows for a simple conceptual connection between the various intonations of cha. Consequently the waitress has no way of making the mental leap between what she's hearing you saying - "waistband" - and the homophone that makes more sense given the context - "tea".

Fortunately it turns out you can eat extremely well in China by pointing at whatever it is you'd like to eat. Just don't go into empty restaurants without English menus unless you're prepared to take a tour of the kitchen with the chef.

* Phrase books always strike me as remarkably dumb beyond a certain point. Whilst it's useful to know how to say 4 people or toilets pretty much everywhere you go, anything more advanced than Do you have a room for the night? is just asking for trouble. One phrase book I found before I went to China had a section on conversational gambits such as Tell me about irrigation techniques in your area. or How do you prepare your food? Whilst undoubtedly great for small talk with any rural smallholders or sichuan chefs you might bump into, without advanced Cantonese there would have been no way of interpreting the answer. Far better to adopt the approach I used with several taxi drivers whereby both people babble happily in their native tongue with much gesticulation and neither person really cares if they're understood or not.

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