Monday, November 12, 2012

A joke about Chinese calligraphy in inscription

It's common practice in China to have a well-known calligrapher or a government official to write the name of a famous building, bridge, or tower, in Chinese paint brush, to be used as inscription on the entrance or facade of the architecture. The ideal person is an official and calligrapher two in one. The less ideal is one of two, which one preferred depending on who you talk to. If the calligraphy is beautifully carried out and the name or title of the architecture is easily recognized, the inscription definitely enhances the beauty and value overall. But the two criteria may not match all the time.

One particular case is the inscription "山东博物馆 " (shan1dong1 bo2wu4guan3, Shandong Museum). On October 9, 2011, somebody first suggested a possible alternative reading of the cursive writing, "心系情妇那" (xin1 xi4 qing2fu4 na4, heart tied to mistress there). On October 21, more possible readings "山东情妇馆" (shan1dong1 qing2fu4 guan3, Shandong Mistress House) and "心系情妇波" (xin1 xi4 qing2fu4 bo1, heart tied to mistress wave or bosom), and it starts to evolve into a short story. A day later, "山东情妇报" (shan1dong1 qing2fu4 bao4, Shandong Mistress Newspaper) was suggested, and the full story was completed:

十一期间一对儿情侣在山东博物馆游玩,小伙子凝视着博物馆上面的字说:“书法写的不错啊,心系情妇那!” 女孩说:“你傻B啊!明明是山东情妇馆!贪官的情妇都关这里面了!” 这时,一个路人经过,听到两人的对话,心里暗暗想:两个2货!不认识字还在这装有学问!明明是心系情妇波!!

(During the October 1 national day holiday, a couple were touring around Shandong Museum. The guy stared at the inscription on the museum building and said, "Calligraphy not bad, 心系情妇那!" The girl said, "You stupid! It's obviously 山东情妇馆. The corrupt officials' mistresses are locked in there!" A passer-by heard their talk, and thought to himself: two idiots pretend to be educated not knowing how to read, it's clearly 心系情妇波!)

You judge the reading. Here's the image:

If the above image is not shown, this smaller image is from the official web site:

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"谢谢叔叔!" "Thank you Uncle" said not to a family relative

In a crowded bus in China, a middle aged man sees a young kid standing by him. He stands up and yields his seat to the kid, who says to him "谢谢叔叔!", literally "Thank you Uncle!" Can a non-family-relative be called uncle, aunt, grandma or grandpa? I posted a question to a language discussion forum, because I read, in a German language textbook, "Kinder, das ist Onkel Schmitt aus Amerika" ("Children, this is Uncle Schmitt from America"), which prompted me to think that a non-relative can be called uncle in Germany.

The discussion was quite active, with most responses providing cases where a non-relative can be called uncle in different parts of the world in different languages, even in the US. But there're some nuances in usage: in most cases, if the name follows the title, it becomes more acceptable (just "Uncle" may be rare but "Uncle George" is acceptable in many situations); this addressing is more popular in a rural area; and it was used more than it is now.

Keeping those minor differences in mind, I would summarize three types.

(A) Even a stranger on a bus may be called aunt, uncle, grandpa, grandma, older brother/sister, not followed by a name. Countries having this usage: Japan, China, possibly many other Oriental countries.
(B) A good friend may be called aunt, .... Countries: UK, Turkey, Germany,...
(C) Only family members or relatives are addressed like this. Countries: US,...

The above distinction is definitely changing in time and varies from place to place even inside one country or culture zone. I've been in the US for only 20 years and never lived in a rural area. I won't be surprised if a neighbor is called Uncle George by all kids on the street. But that's probably very special, only for specific persons deserving this dearly respect in a small area, not generally applicable. So I don't consider it to be type (B).

An example in type (A) is at the beginning of this posting. Here's another one. A Chinese greets his male same-age friend at the door. If the friend is a Chinese (or Chinese American), the father would like his child to say to his friend "叔叔好!" (literally "Hello Uncle"). But if the friend is not a Chinese, this greeting ("Hello Uncle") would be awkward and confusing to say the least.

The three types do not include cases that are too informal, or if the title applies to only a very specific person in a specific group (imagine a well respected old man in a church where everyone dearly calls him "Grandpa"). The reason for these exclusions is that in these cases, these family relative names can be used across all cultures, not culturally sensitive or interesting.

Needless to say, there's nothing absolute, especially the distinction between (B) and (C). It's more like a continuing spectrum. At one extreme, a stranger on the bus can be called "uncle" if he yields his seat to a little kid, who would say "Thank you, Uncle!". At the other extreme, the man has to have fairly close relationship with the child or his parents to be addressed that way. It's the degree of the closeness, maybe among other factors, that maps into the continuing spectrum.

Language difficulty

More specifically, it's difficulty of learning a language, as Wikipedia correctly calls it. This topic always generates a lot of discussion, mostly personal opinions, which I won't deal with. To streamline this discussion, I only focus on metrics that are measurable and on aspects most people usually neglect.

Difficulty is not an objective measurement. It must be subjective and human nature contributes to its measurement. So what is possible to measure something subjective? The answer is survey and statistics, as done in social sciences in the last century, and some humanities in recent decades. A wide spread measurement on the Internet is the student study time statistics from Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State, available at Wikipedia, Effective Language Learning, another forum, and one of the earliest, in here, but not at the FSI web site.[note]

[note] In April 2010, I contacted Defense Language Institute (which assigned the actual language training to FSI) for the official web page showing the student study time broken down to individual languages. The gentleman sent me back a PDF file of that same information, but told me that was not available on their web site.