Monday, June 12, 2017

re-confessing a prejudice

I'm not going to make any Chinese friends by saying this, but it's something I've confessed before on this blog: I think written Chinese is among the most beautiful scripts on Earth, but spoken Chinese is among the butt-ugliest languages, except when it's spoken by certain Chinese or Chinese-speaking movie stars (like Chow Yun-fat or Michelle Yeoh). It doesn't help that the Chinese renderings of foreign words often sound nothing like the original words—a linguistic tendency that reinforces the often-hermetic nature of Chinese culture.* But yeah: spoken Chinese makes me want to plug my ears with its annoyingly yowling, singsong intonation and a nasality that eclipses even American English, which is plenty nasal.

By way of evidence for my claim that Chinese distorts foreign words far more than other languages do, I present to you this YouTube video: "The World of DAVE." Watch as an American, a Korean, a young Japanese lady, and a young Chinese man all take a whack at saying certain words and phrases that are foreign to everyone except, perhaps, the American guy hosting the video segment (Dave himself, who seems to speak Korean quite well, but with a strong American accent). Notice how the Korean and Japanese renderings of the original phrase are more or less faithful to it, whereas the Chinese guy's rendering is from another planet. True, there are some moments when the Japanese girl's pronunciation comes under fire, but it's mostly the Chinese guy in the crosshairs.

(By the way, the joke about the Chinese pronunciation of "Spain"—shibaya—is that it sounds like the Korean ssibal or ssibaliya (씨발이야!), which I guess can be translated as "fuck" or "fucking" depending on context, although ssibaliya is more of a sentence than an interjection. And one joke that comes up twice in the video—with the words "chicken" and "jersey"—has to do with renderings that sound like jaji, one of several Korean words for "penis." That's why everyone is giggling so much.)

*Back when I was a professional tutor in northern Virginia, I had an excellent Chinese student who knew absolutely nothing about "Tank Man," who was recently celebrated this past June 5, right around the time of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre—a blot that the Chinese government has been at pains to erase from history. So, yes: Chinese culture is modern and somewhat globalized, but it is also quite, quite hermetic.

All this reminds me of a hilarious theory I heard once while working in Seoul. It was a theory about British linguistic imperialism that explained why the Brits seem to have such trouble pronouncing anything in Korean. The theory is this: it's not that the Brits can't pronounce Korean words—it's that they refuse to pronounce them correctly, putting an ear-bleedingly nasal spin on Korean vowels and taking a sledgehammer to Korean consonants as a way to assert British dominance over Koreans and their language. True enough, I had one English coworker at Sookmyung Women's University who had positively godawful Korean pronunciation, and I once met a British-sounding Australian chap at Woosong University who had trouble saying even the most basic of Korean words properly. Anyway, the idea is that the Brits deliberately mispronounce Korean as a way of, verbally speaking, planting a flag on the language. To be clear, I find this theory risible as there are far too many Korean-fluent Brits on the peninsula, but I do find the notion hilarious, and a dark part of my brain wonders whether the Chinese tendency to distort foreign words so extremely might have something to do with Chinese linguistic imperialism. Of course, the natural reply to such cynicism is to note that Chinese, by its very nature, makes it exceedingly difficult to render foreign words with any level of fidelity. (Here's an article on whether "Coca Cola," rendered in Chinese characters, actually means—per the legend—"Bite the wax tadpole.")


Neil Barker said...

I noticed the same thing during my time in Seoul with Kiwis pronouncing Korean words. Mostly the newbies, but I couldn't get over how some of my Kiwi coworkers pronounced kimbap. It sounded like the newbies were saying kembep. I would always chuckle and smile at that. Great people though!

Kevin Kim said...

The Aussie that I mentioned in my post pronounced "pyeong" as an elongated "pee-yaaawwwwng." My English coworker used to go to a gym, and she'd refer to the gwan-jang as the "gwang-jang," with her "a" sounding like the "a" in "cat," pronounced Yankee-style.