Thursday, February 4, 2021

2021: The Year of "牛"

Of the twelve Chinese zodiac animals, some are translated into English as various names, such as 羊 as "sheep", "goat" or "ram", 鸡 as "rooster" or "hen", and when a year falls on such a zodiac animal, there is invariably a debate as to which English word is the best fit. Other animals are much less debated. For instance, nowadays 牛 is almost always translated as "ox".

So another question arises, Why is "ox" preferred to, say, "bull", "cow", "buffalo", or "cattle"? In fact, such translations did exist, but they gradually died out over the past decades, specifically since 1960's or 1970's according to Google Ngram. The reason for "ox" to eventually come to the top is not easy to explain, as is the case with many things in human languages. Let's break up the question a little bit. To be precise, an ox is a castrated male cattle, a bull is an uncastrated one, and a cow is a female. I think the reason why the word "cow" is not chosen, in spite of its higher usage frequency, is that in the western zodiac, there is the Taurus, which is male, and that word and its referent probably had some influence on the early choice of word for the Chinese zodiac animal 牛. Next, let's analyze the choice between "ox" and "bull". According to an Internet user who answered the question I posted to a Facebook group, an ox is a bovine trained as a draft animal, as stated on Wikipedia. Similarly, a 牛 in the mainstream traditional Chinese culture is also a draft animal, not one as the source for food (beef, milk, etc.). In this sense, English "ox" is the more appropriate translation than "bull".

Back in 2015, I blogged about the English word for 羊 as the Chinese zodiac animal, and I proposed the idea that to eliminate the ambiguity in the Chinese word or character, we simply find the biological name at the lowest level in taxonomy under which the species the various English names refer to are. For example, a sheep belongs to the genus ovis, which belongs to the subfamily caprinae, and a goat belong to genus capra, which belongs to subfamily caprinae. Therefore, the best word to translate 羊 is caprinae. Well, it is best only if we can ignore the ignorance of the general public. But generally that's not a very good idea. Fortunately, in the case of 牛, the word "cattle" seems to cover both "ox", "bull", "cow" or even "buffalo", and "cattle" happens to be a common word that even an ignorant John Doe knows the meaning of. So I think "cattle" is the best translation for 牛. But it's too late to promote this because the English-speaking people have already been saying "ox" for Chinese 牛 for 50+ years.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

English teacher's accent (英语老师的口音)

Facebook一语言学习群有人说他在法国一所小学教英语。学校招了一名印度裔英语老师(英语是她的母语),他是这名新老师的领导。学校其他老师向他抱怨说新老师的口音对小孩是个问题,特别是发r这个音时。他认为这些老师不对,因为他认为习惯不同口音是非常好的一件事。(他说“i dont want to be angry. I want to make them understand the wonderful benefit of learning from different accents. Do you have any suggestions?”)

这个讨论目前已有近百条评论,绝大多数都赞成这位领导的观点:接受多种口音是对的,印度英语也是英语,而那些抱怨的老师有错,有些评论甚至称那些老师是种族主义者。极个别的评论指出小学生口音尚未固定,这个阶段学会英国或美国英语的口音有必要,年龄稍大一点再接触其他口音不迟。但这些极少数的评论基本没有点赞,或被其他人指责。

我对此没有评论,只是建议这名法国老师到语言学群再去问一下,那里大部分群员是语言学家或语言教育专家,可能会给出更全面和专业的回应,通常还附带相关论文题目或链接。不过,我私下还是有自己的想法:假如是为我自己的小孩,如果有选择,比如五个英语班,老师分别来自美、英、苏格兰、澳、印,其他方面相当,那我会选前两个班之一。这不是歧视澳大利亚、印度或苏格兰英语,更不是贬低那三个地区的文化和人民,而仅仅是希望孩子今后的口音能被世界上最大多数人最容易地接受,以方便交流,而与此同时,我们仍然可以培养儿童对各种族裔和文化的包容甚至喜好,而将选择学习的口音与对多种文化的包容对立起来才是片面和狭隘的。其实,假如我们做统计,或平均看,学英语后需要用到英美口音的时候一定多于用到印度口音的时候,而且印度人能完全听懂英美人,但反过来却不是,这就足够成为为自己的孩子选择英美口音的理由了。

(又见微博讨论,如有网友问“如果学中文请东北河南天津河北陕西这些地方的老师授课,真的不介意?”)