Friday, June 29, 2012

Off-topic: ESL blog award

I was entered into eCollegeFinder ESL (English for Second Language) Blogs Award, and apparently got to the 39th place in the finals. Not bad, considering late entry into the nomination phase and no promotion by me or anybody. Actually, I'm not sure if my blog is for ESL. It probably was a long time ago. But now it "degenerates" into a general, English and Chinese and sometimes any language, blog.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Linguistic authority

A recent update on "Ni Hao Ma" (你好吗) is not a native Chinese greeting prompted me to blog about what I have thought of for some time, let me call it, linguistic authority. It is the established convention for a language by its native speakers in a certain geographic region where a significant proportion of the population speaks that language. For example, there's a linguistic authority for the Chinese language in China but no such one in the US in spite of a Chinese diaspora. The effect of this authority is such that the Chinese speakers in China have the right to invent new Chinese words which will be accepted, although not necessarily used, by whoever learns Chinese. Similarly, Americans can invent new English words which will be accepted by people learning English. If an English word were invented by Chinese, it would be laughed at and rejected (at least initially; some of these words may be proved to be good ones later, such as shero I suppose); such words are called Chinese Pidgin English (洋泾浜英语).

A linguistic authority exists where the majority of the regional population speaks that language. Therefore, mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, and to some extent Hong Kong, each have their own linguistic authority. The word "共识" (consensus) was initially used in Taiwan and readily accepted by the mainland China. Just because Chinese mainlanders don't say "镭射" (laser) and Taiwanese don't say "激光" doesn't mean they can call the other side wrong. But the improper use of "chocolate" as a verb in an advertisement I saw a few years ago at the Shanghai subway stations, "I chocolate you!", is unpleasantly Chinglish, because the inventor of this phrase, probably a Chinese, does not own the authority in creative usage of the English language. But imagine someday English native speakers start to use "chocolate" as a verb. This usage in non-English-language areas of the world will be accepted, like it or not. (Whether its usage among the native speakers will survive is a different matter.)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Interjection (叹词)

Interjections (叹词) are another type of "虚词" or empty words. At least one interjection seems to be common to many if not all languages, i.e., Ah (啊). Some are only slightly different in pronunciation among different languages, e.g. Chinese "哦" pronounced [o:] (IPA symbol) compared to "Oh" in English (or Spanish or French). Some are pronounced about the same but carry different meanings, such as Chinese "欸" which suggests slight surprise and confusion ("欸,他怎么又走了?", "Huh, how come he left again?"), where "Huh" (or "Huh?" or "What?") is an acceptable translation. But English "Eh" indicates hesitation in speech ("His name is, eh, John Smith, I think").

Some interjections are completely inscrutable without translation. The Chinese "哎呀", pronounced [aija] in IPA or "aiya" in pinyin which can take different tones, is uttered for a big surprise. Conversely, English "Uh-huh" ("yes") or "Uh-uh" ("no") is completely unintelligible to a Chinese with no knowledge of English.[note] This fact may not be immediately appreciated by the speaker, causing confusion in a conversation. There's no problem if I say "uh-huh" to a Chinese having lived in the US for some time, in an all-Chinese conversation. I may be lightly laughed at but well understood if I say it to a Chinese that has learned English for some time. But if I say it to my parents who know no English at all, they assume I didn't catch the part of the conversation right before this point.

Thus, we see that interjections, unlike words of other classes, are special in that the speaker unconsciously uses one unique to a specific language in the environment this language is spoken, even when he converses in another language, often his mother tongue. It is not conspicuous to his mind that interjections may be just as language-specific as are other types of words.

[note] These yes-no words may not be considered by some as interjections.