Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ah, Language! Thou Art So . . . Humorous

I have a theory:  I believe that the Chinese people deliberately created their language in such a way as to ensure that foreigners regularly look extremely foolish.  Recent events bear this theory out.

In my last Chinese lesson, my teacher asked me (in Chinese) whether or not I like birds.  I meant to say, "I like birds."  I said what I thought was "I like birds."  My very sweet teacher began laughing quite hard, even harder than she laughs when we successfully get my tongue tied in knots trying to say similar-sounding words in rapid succession.  In fact, she was tearing up from laughing so hard.  This was a good indication to me that I had made a mistake.  When Jackie could finally speak, she informed me that I used the wrong tone when saying the word "bird".  So, what I actually said to her was "I like to pee."  We enjoyed a long mutual laugh over that one!

I was fortunate, actually.  Our lovely, innocent, ladylike kindergarten teacher had a much worse language faux pas recently.  Being a Star Wars fan, she thought it would be fun to name one of her fish Qui-Gon.  She excitedly quizzed her little kindergartners over and over about the new class pet's name, and they eagerly shouted it back.  Many, many times.  She noticed a look of concerned surprise on the face of her Chinese teacher's aide (never a good sign).  Later, the lady mentioned to her that that particular word means "orgasm" in Chinese.  Oops!

We foreigners aren't the only ones making these "fun" blunders, of course.  Back when I taught in Korea, I was asked to give English names to some new students.  Normally, I would just name the kids on their first day in class, but this particular time, Cate (my boss) asked me just to write down the names for her, so she could tell the kids in advance (cue ominous organ music).  The next day, I asked the adorable new boy in my second-grade class to introduce himself to his classmates.  Loudly and proudly, he announced, "My name is Phallus!"  At least, that is exactly what word he said.  I was, naturally, nearly struck dead with horror.  His name was actually Felix, but Cate had not known how to pronounce it.  I quickly corrected him, then made sure to tell Cate what that mispronounced name actually meant.  From then on, we went back to having me name the kids in class!

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"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"