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,

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