Driving Miss Piggy (Crazy)

[This piece, or something similar, was originally posted in May, but then I withdrew it as I had decided to shop it around. A shorter version was accepted by Canada’s national newspaper — — and it ran in the print edition of August 13, 2012, and on-line as well. If you missed it, here it is again, for the record.]


The tones, the tones, bane of my existence and forger of linguistic atrocities! You probably know enough of Chinese languages – Shanghaiese, or Cantonese, or the pu tong hua (“common speech”) that we call Mandarin – to recall that they are tonal. People used to say, and some probably still do, that Chinese people speak in a “sing song” way, but now that I’ve been listening to this music for a few years, I can’t help thinking that English must sound blunt and monotonous to folks here. (Actually, the French have been muttering about that for a long time, so no surprise there, I guess.) Yes, the tones do add melody to the language, and a certain intensity, too; for the first year I lived in China, I saw arguments breaking out everywhere for what seemed like no reason. Whenever I was with students or friends who could speak English, I’d ask, Are you angry right now? Or, What are those guys fighting about? The answer was wonderment, or confusion, or just a chuckling, They’re talking about their schedule/the weather/what was for lunch in the cafeteria. I was constantly fooled by hearing rising, strident tones that, in English, generally mean consternation or incredulity or rage, whereas in Chinese languages the tone of voice is not so much for adding emotional connotation but rather for just saying what you mean.

Here is the most frequently used Mandarin example: depending on your tone of voice, one syllable – “ma” – can mean “mother” (first, flat tone), “hemp” (second, rising tone; hard to distinguish sometimes, but it’s like a questioning tone in English), “horse” (third, falling-then-rising tone), or “scold/criticize” (a verb, said in the fourth, a falling tone). Yes, and stuck on the end of a sentence, with no particular tone at all, ma indicates that a question has been asked; one of the many initial difficulties of Chinese is that, unlike most Western languages, a person’s voice doesn’t rise at the end of a question. Chinese grammar is much more straightforward than the structure of English, but hearing and knowing the meaning associated with tones – and the example above only gives some of the meanings for “ma” – well, it’s a tad discouraging. I repeatedly catch myself in yet another spasm of eye-rolling optimism: someone’s name, or a phrase I’ve heard, makes me excited that I’ve made (yes!) another linguistic connection. Oh, I get it! I ask, and I have a 93% chance of being told, no, that’s a different “feng”, that’s first tone not second or, even more bewildering to an illiterate like me, my patient friends explain that it’s the same tone, but a different character. Sounds exactly the same, is written the same in pinyin (the word’s transliteration into alphabetic form), but is represented by a different pictorial character and has a completely other meaning. Thanks. (Sighing ensues.)

Two years ago in an oral English class for Master’s students, I called upon Ms. Gao, proud to have said her name with a clear tone, not the usual English monotone. There were some embarrassed murmurs, Ms. Gao lowered her head, and a few of the guys in the back snorted and grinned. I had pronounced her name in the third tone (my favourite, my default tone, the rising/falling one) instead of the first (the flat tone). Gao can mean “high”, it can be a family name, and several other things I don’t know about yet. That day, though, in calling her name (which roughly rhymes with “plough”), I suddenly needed to learn some new vocabulary, at her blushing expense. To wit: I had just called this shy young scholar “Miss Sex Act”, at least in some people’s slang vocabulary.

Last spring, it happened again with one of my favourite freshman writing students, Zhu Jiarong. I called upon Ms. Zhu, and got a bigger laugh than any of my intentional jokes do. Her surname is in the fourth tone, an abruptly falling sound, whereas I had used the first (flat) tone, one that sounds to me like a raised-voice command. I was just trying to be emphatic, to keep the kiddies awake, and I certainly succeeded! I had managed to call her “Miss Pig”. The class howled, Ms. Zhu quietly told me what I’d called her, and she had the grace and good humour to allow my embarrassment to trump hers, and to smilingly accept my dui bu qi (sorry!).

The good news? I am very skilled in making pu tong hua apologies. I can easily express regret for the fewness of the songs I know in that music-filled language, and the tone-deaf flatness of the words and expressions that I DO know. I can get myself into a pickup basketball game, call fouls, implore guys to pass the ball, and congratulate them for a big rebound, a sweet shot or making a generally hao qiu! There are a few other kinds of conversation that I can sometimes understand and take a limited part in, though often I need one of my friends to be the Chinese-to-Chinese translator. I’m trying to get more systematic and regular in my study, but WOW. I have a lot of work to do. I used to think I had a decent ear for language, even for music, but my linguistic adventures here often leave me feeling like half a Beethoven: deaf to the melodies, but also unable to remember and produce them.

But humility is good.

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