Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mando-lish-nese: the trilingual bookstore name

In the heart of Hong Kong's Causeway Bay (the shopping district with the highest rent in the world, higher even than New York's Fifth Avenue, and double that of Tokyo's Ginza district), I saw this book store:

... and the name of the place really intrigued me. You can see it better here:

If I were to tell you that the English name is derived from the Chinese name, would you believe me? Possibly not, so let me take you through my logic ...

  • 樂文 = Luck-Win  (In Simplified characters it's 乐文, but ignore that for now - this is HK)
  • You probably know 樂 from 快樂 (kuàilè = happy, S=快乐) - and 樂 by itself means 'happy', not 'lucky'
  • Similarly 文 is from 文化 (wénhuà = culture), and 文 by itself means 'culture' not 'win'
So what's going on?
  • The first clue is that 文 is pronounced wén in Mandarin, and that sounds exactly like 'win'
  • But that hasn't solved the problem, because 樂 is pronounced 'le' and not 'luck'
  • So now we leap across to Cantonese, where 樂 is actually pronounced 'lok', and yes - that does sound a little like 'luck'
So I thought that was cute - like many Chinese brands, the name of the book store is so positive (Luck-Win), and actually the English name can be derived from Chinese ... but not from the meaning of the characters, only from the pronunciation.  And even better than that, one comes from Cantonese pronunciation, and one comes from Mandarin pronunciation.

I think my next project will be an online Mando-lish-nese dictionary. Clearly there is need for something like that :-)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Parseltongue! (the Year of the Snake is coming)

calligraphy by Jasmin
On the 10th of February it will be here - the Year of the Snake.

There is plenty of information about this coming year in the Chinese Zodiac, and for your convenience, here's a quick link to summarise some of the key points.

But since this is a language-learning blog, I thought now would be a good time to provide you with some words & idioms associated with snakes in general, in a WordPack kinda way. You're obviously using flashcards (right?) so copy some or all of these into your pack, and learn them when they make it to the front of that pack.

(And in case you don't get the heading of this post, in the Harry Potter series, 'Parseltongue' is the language of snakes. Now you too can be a 'Parselmouth'.)

The character
The character for snake or serpent in Chinese is 蛇 - pronounced shé  (and if you haven't heard this word before, make sure you don't make this common mistake when saying it).

It's component parts are 虫 and 它, meaning insect+it ... just in case that's either interesting or useful to you in memorising it. (I use Stephen King's IT character ('it') to help with the visualisation.)

Both Simplified & Traditional character sets use the same character, although I have found an alternative Traditional character of 虵 which seems to be the same thing.

Some relevant words
Using my favourite MDBG online dictionary, I found some words that might be useful for you.
  • 蛇皮 (shépí): snake skin
  • 蛇毒 (shédú): snake venom
  • 蝮蛇 (fùshé): venomous snake
  • 蛇年 (shénián): Year of the Snake
  • 蛇形 (shéxíng): S-shaped / coiled like a snake 

Snake (and Snake-like) characters
In the Chinese Zodiac, the character of the snake does have implications of malevolence, sorcery, mystery, divination. So it's interesting to note the following too:
  • 虺蜥 (huǐxī): figuratively a vicious person, but literally a poisonous snake
  • 蛇头 (shétóu): figuratively a human smuggler, but literally the head of a snake
  • 法海 (Fǎhǎi): Fahai the evil Buddhist monk in Tale of the White Snake
  • 白蛇传 (BáiShéZhuàn): Tale of the White Snake / Madame White Snake
And also ...
  • 摩喉罗伽 (móhóuluójiā): Mahoraga, the snake protector deity of Buddhist law

Idioms / Chengyu
Chengyu is a massive body of Chinese idioms (usually four characters) which you can read about here. Below are the ones I have found which have something to do with snakes:
  • 虎头蛇尾 (hǔtóushéwěi): a strong start but a weak finish (literally tiger's head snake's tail) T:虎頭蛇尾
  • 画蛇添足 (huàshétiānzú): to go too far with something (literally to draw the legs on a snake) T:畫蛇添足
  • 打草惊蛇 (dǎcǎojīngshé​): to inadvertently alert an enemy (literally beat the grass to scare the snake) T: 打草驚蛇
  • 引蛇出洞 (yǐnshéchūdòng​): to draw something bad out into the open (literally to pull a snake from its hole)
  • 杯弓蛇影 (bēigōngshéyǐng​): unnecessarily suspicious (literally to see a bow reflected in a cup as a snake)
  • 佛口蛇心 (fókǒushéxīn​): two-faced (literally words of a Buddha, heart of a snake)
  • 打蛇不死 (dǎshébùsǐ​): nip the problem in the bud (literally beat the snake to prevent death)
  • 强龙不压地头蛇 (qiánglóngbùyādìtóushé​): a gangster who is above the law (literally strong dragon cannot repress the snake) T: 強龍不壓地頭蛇
  • 一年被蛇咬十年怕井绳 (yīniánbèishéyǎoshíniánpàjǐngshéng​): once bitten twice shy (literally bitten by a snake in one year, fears the well-rope for ten years) T: 一年被蛇咬十年怕井繩
  • 虚与委蛇 (xū​yǔ​wēi​shé​): pretence of complying (literally false gift by sending a snake) T: 虛與委蛇
  • 龙蛇混杂 (lóng shé hùnzá): a mingling of good & evil within a person (literally mixing dragon & snake) T: 龍蛇混雜
  • 牛鬼蛇神 (niú guǐ shé shén): evil people of all types (literally cow ghost snake spirit)
  • 人心不足蛇吞象 (rénxīnbùzúshétūnxiàng​): a man who is never content is like a snake trying to swallow an elephant

So yes, Year of the Snake. At least now you'll be ready - and armed to the teeth with words and idioms to impress anyone that you might slither into. Good luck!

Edit: I can't believe I didn't think of it while I was writing the article, but you might now also be wondering how they say "Parseltongue" in the Chinese translation of the Harry Potter books. With the help of a couple of friends at a language exchange meeting yesterday (thanks Fiona & Wavy) we found two versions:  蛇老腔 (shélǎoqiāng) which is perhaps best translated "ancient snake speech"; and 爬说语 (páshuōyǔ) which is more of a loanword that sounds similar, albeit with clever choice of characters.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Under the blankets, with a torch

It's a secret, so I'm not telling anyone, but I have started Heisig Book 2 again. Shhhh ...

As you might remember from last July, I wrote a post called I have begun Heisig Book 2. Kinda.  At that stage - just 3 weeks after beginning - I was already behind 'schedule', and that was really disappointing for me because I managed to do the entire Book 1 in about 3 months. By August, just a month later, I was writing a post called Total failure - I simply did not have enough time to study Heisig, and decided that the little spare time I had should rather be spent doing flashcards rather than additional characters.

(To give you a sense of my time shortages, last year I did over 50 flights, which is approximately one business trip every second week. Ouch.)

Well, at the start of January this year, I picked up the book again, and began with character 1501.

What I'm doing differently - lessons from last time

1. No goals
I didn't set myself any goals - last time I actually found that disheartening. Instead I decided I would first get some momentum going, and get a sense of what time I would have available - and only then decide what goals to set myself. I still don't have a solid rhythm going, and I'm still not working through the book each day, but I'm enjoying the pressure-free attitude to Book 2, which means at least I'm enjoying it.

2. More revision
As I had remarked in the July article, Book 2 is more difficult - obviously. This means I really need more time with the revision because these more complex images can fade quite quickly in the beginning. I'm less panicked about finishing within a certain time frame, so revision actually feels like it's contributing to my goal of learning to read, rather than delaying my goal of getting through the book.

3. Character-to-English
When I did Book 1, my focus was on being able to see the character and know it's meaning. This is, after all, my challenge when I'm trying to read.  Learning to write was less important to me, so the need for English-to-Character is less. After focusing on C2E when studying the book, I loaded up an Anki flashcard deck, and my revision of the book was based on E2C.  I found this an extremely enjoyable and efficient approach, and I'm doing the same ... learning C2E mainly while studying the book. Later on I will load up a flashcard pack for Book 2.

4. Enjoy
I was not enjoying learning Book 2 when I picked it up last year. Don't get me wrong ... I wanted to learn the book, and I remember how excited I was when the book was first delivered to me, but it was the wrong time, and the wrong attitude - and it failed.  Now I'm enjoying it - and although I can't guarantee that I won't fail again, I at least feel like I'm on the right track.

5. Don't give up (in the long run)
I gave up in August, it was the wrong time for so many reasons. But I didn't give-up totally. I knew I would pick it up again, at the right time. And I did pick it up again. And this might be the right time :-)