You say tomato, I say xīhóngshì

I’ve never mistaken my mum for a horse. And I hope I’ve never been so drunk in a field that I’ve mistaken a horse for my mum. But in Mandarin Chinese these scenarios can come up more frequently than I’d like, as I learned when I took a basic course a couple of years ago.

For a language that has nearly three times more native speakers than English and is one of the six UN languages, its first lesson, I remember, was the hardest. Every word has to be pronounced in one of four tones, go for the wrong one and you could be calling your mum a horse, or worse, cannabis. The word in this case is “ma”. Said straight like a robot, it means “mother”. Said with your voice sliding upward, it means “hemp”. Starting high, sliding low then up again, that’s “horse”. A short downward sound like a sigh means “to scold”.

Given that a lot of words in everyday Mandarin seem to have only one or two syllables, all with different tones that have different meanings, to hear it sounds like a succession of musical blasts. To speak it you’re not only calling up the right word but also the right tone, and trying to fight against the natural inflections of English, such as going up for a question, or, as is often the case with me, going down as I start to feel less and less sure of what I’m saying.

I think this dynamic way of speaking, combined with a very logical method of building sentences, is one of the reasons Chinese can sound confrontational to the foreign ear. It also makes me wonder, as I flick past the MTV China channel, how the tones work in songs, where the pitch of each syllable is surely fixed by the melody.

While I’m yet to start my language training here in Beijing, DD is doing a good job of adapting to the Mandarin of the real world. At times it requires a personality change; with his very English manner of saying sorry at the beginning, middle and end of almost every sentence, he has to fight his instinctively apologetic tones and avoid saying the word “sorry”, which in China actually means sorry and has many a waiter confused.

Inevitably, DD finds taxi drivers and born-and-bred locals the hardest to understand. I tell him that he’s in the same situation as the tourist trying to make small talk in a black cab in London or, for that matter, the poor visa applicant venturing out to Croydon, my sweet hometown, to visit the government’s immigration HQ.

I also remind DD that when I first met him I had to learn his own weird language, what he calls the “Orpington twang”. For example, when he says “Let’s get some Germaines” he means “Let’s get some beers” – beer rhyming, so poetically, with Germaine Greer. Here’s a few more:

“I need to go for a Pat”: Pat Cash, slash
“Shall I get the Gregory?”: Gregory Peck, check
“Let’s get an Andy”: Andy McNab, cab
“I’m having a Gary”: Gary Crocker, shocker
…not to be confused with
“I’m on the Gary”: Gary Glitter, shitter
“Let’s get it on the H to”: H to the Izzo, go
“He doesn’t have a Danny”: Danny La Rue, clue
“He’s having a complete Lionel”: Lionel Blair, nightmare
“I’ve got the two bobs”: two bob bits, shits
…and my favourite,
“Where’s the Fat?”: Fat Controller, remote control

While I’m up on my feminists, Hollywood stars and Thomas the Tank Engine characters, I don’t know who many of these people are. Either way it seems to be a mixture of cockney slang and its distant cousins. Even DD himself isn’t sure why “bunts” means money, how he came to call coffee the “poo pipe primer”, or when he sneaks into McDonald’s to use the loo why he needs to say “I’m going for a McShit with lies”. But he does.

Partly because Orpington is somewhat of a cultural vacuum, and partly because DD has a knack for absorbing linguistic ticks wherever he goes, he’s constantly developing his own language that’s frankly insulting to English textbooks. Five years since my first experience of the DD twang, it can still make me laugh or drive me crazy, and I pity every English learner who finds themselves chatting to him over a Germaine.

 

Copyright © 2013 followingdrdippy

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