Wednesday, May 13, 2009

You Sir Name?

Having so much fun with Chinese. It's a swaggering, arrogant written language. It makes no concessions to human weakness. It's been, for thousands of years, the tool and the proving ground of intellectual elites. It prides itself on being difficult. One of the most striking things about it is its economy. Information is conveyed by one thing and only one thing. For example, there is an ending signifying the plural, but you mustn't use it if you've specified a number. It's "ten horse," not "ten horses." You've already established the number -- why cave in to human frailty and repeat that information by signalling the plural again? That would be a syllable wasted! If someone has not been paying attention, let them pay the price! There's a Strunk & White zeal for omitting needless words, in written Chinese. Such a striking contrast to Indo-European prolixity.

To ask someone their name, you say "nín guì xìng?" Which can translate to a flowery English "what is your respected surname, sir?" But it feels nothing like that. It feels more like "you sir name?" Three single syllables, shot one by one. If you missed the gist of it, too bad.

There is certainly an unpleasant side to this, but it must have been fruitful ground for the writing of poetry. I've picked up my primer of Tu Fu again. My God. If he were the only Chinese poet, it would be worth learning the language to read him.

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