Four Tones

Last Thursday this blog got 293 views—that’s more than the first full month’s quota when it began. It brings the total views for November 2012 to 1614, the most it has ever had. Once again, I need to thank you for reading.

Thursday showed roughly ten times the daily hit average, since for the last semester  we’ve been at around a thousand views a month. A couple weeks back I enabled a plethora of social media buttons, so maybe that was it. Or maybe there was a run on the geoduck. I checked, and the hits were mainly on the weekly post—but the phallic quacker did get fifty or so over the week. Obviously size matters.

Not only size, but tones do too. At least in Chinese. Once again, I’m attempting to learn the language. I’m doing it as I’ve learnt so many other things, by myself. Which begets a problem: learning a language is like building a missile—you really need to try it out on someone to see if it works. And you’ll know it did when you get a riposte.

One time-honored technique for linguistic training is to get yourself a girlfriend of the required nationality. Or a boyfriend, of course, depending on what floats your boat. Problem is, your linguistic mate can’t be too attractive, otherwise you’ll never talk. So like everything in life, if you excuse the pun, there are ups and downs.

And you must beware of other matters. Some time ago an English insurance executive was posted to Japan, where he became romantically involved with his secretary. In time, he became fluent in Japanese. He impressed his London bosses at a board meeting in Tokyo—however, the Japanese board members were bemused. Apparently, his secretary told him later, he had addressed the board in pillow talk, greeting the men with phrases such as “Hello darlings, it’s wonderful to cuddle with you today.”

So I thought I’d turn to the wonderful world of software, and find some unsuspecting digital partner I could test my Chinese on. Let me tell you, there isn’t much there yet—in both camps: digital solace and my Chinese. Apparently Noam Chomsky, of MIT fame, produced some kind of conversation machine, but I couldn’t find it.

I did find something called Jabberwacky, a slight shift from the Lewis Carroll creature in ‘Through the Looking Glass and what Alice Found There’.

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

What’s magnificent about these verses, and in fact the whole poem, is that although many of the words are utter nonsense, you still get the story. The Tumtum tree sounds as if it may produce some yummy fruit, but it might be wise to stay clear of the frumious Bandersnatch, lest you are prepared to have your bander snatched, or even, perish the thought, your snatch bandered.

Jabberwacky lives up to it’s name. Apparently it does speak and listen, but I used it in text mode first. In English, not Chinese. When you click the link, it breaks the ice with some conventional chit-chat.

Who wrote one of your favorite books?
Steinbeck.
I have only read one of his books, but I think he is a good writer.
Which one?
Which what?
Which book?
Have you read his book titled IT?
You’re going off topic.
That number is a word counter.
How are you?
I’m tired. You?
Becoming tired, trying to talk with you!
But I’m talking with you.
Words are coming out, but not much sense.
Oh, so you don’t know sign language?
Hardly helpful since you can’t see me.
I can tell, you seem confident.
Ok, bye.
Your bye comes without warning. Isn’t that a bit rude?
I guess if you were human you’d have seen it coming.

I was a little disappointed with the Jabberwacky’s IQ. It brings home how remarkable you are, not only for reading my blog, but also because I bet we could have an intelligent conversation. And drink wine.

I asked JB if it was sunny, and he said yes; JB mut be male, he’s too dumb to be a woman—and in any case, he likes to be called George.

I wondered where.
‘All over, but mainly at the beach.’
‘Is the beach crowded?’
‘Not really.’
‘Is that because it’s night time?’
‘Yes.’

The inquisitor who tortures Diego in The India Road would have no problem extracting a confession from Jabba the Twit. More to the point, clearly JB won’t help me with my language adventures.

Mandarin Chinese uses characters, as you know, and these are not letters, but sounds and pictures that represent a word. Usually one character to a word, but it varies. In English, Portuguese, and any other languages that use an alphabet system, you have words that are pronounced the same but have a different meaning, such as pane and pain. The context makes things clear, and the spelling is (often) different. A pane in the ass would be more like a pinneal eye.

Mandarin, which is also known as the people’s language, or putonghua, does not have enough sounds for all the words needed to express complex ideas. The Chinese have resolved this by using tones, which means they can’t use punctuation as in the West. The words ‘why?’ and ‘why’ would typically mean totally different things.

Mandarin uses four tones, but Cantonese uses eight. The extra tones make it far more challenging to learn. The guy who told me the businessman story was based in Hong-Kong for a time. He would tell colleagues his cellphone number in Cantonese—in the wrong tone, one of the digits means dog’s penis. Apparently he got many requests for his number.

Spoken langauges precede the written version, so it was these toned words that later became characters. For those of you who were tortured by French irregular verbs, learning Chinese is a walk in the park. A verb is interpreted contextually, and has only one form. If you go somewhere, the verb never changes:

I go to China tomorrow
We go to lunch last week
He go to church on Sundays.

further simplified to:

I go China tomorrow
We go lunch last week
He go church Sundays.

When you learn Chinese, it’s a paradigm shift on any European language. If you reverse the problem, it’s easy to see how challenging verb tenses must be for orientals. Not to mention adornments such as pronouns, which grace the body of western languages.

I’ve realized that although many people recommend you learn characters as the basis for the language, it’s perfectly possible to learn to speak Mandarin and not know the characters. If I can communicate verbally, I’ve added a billion people to my Rolodex—oops, I meant Twitter account.

Writing Chinese? I’m in good company, about one hundred million Chinese are apparently illiterate. And they talk with each other pretty well.

In desperation, I decided to try Jabby one more time. Maybe find out his thoughts on the world’s most popular subject.

What is sex?
I don’t know.
What is intercourse?
How?
Doggy style.
Poodle style?
George, you kinky bot!
I don’t know.
How do animals reproduce?
I don’t know how to.
I had a sneaking suspicion!
Didn’t you just notice something back there?
You know, that could be taken completely the wrong way.
I’m just wonderful like that.
You mean at making jokes about sodomy?
Yes, I mean at school.
I went to boarding school, I can relate to that.
No you can’t. There can be only one god. And it isn’t you.
If there was ever a good way to end a pointless conversation, this is it. Bye.
There can’t.
Ah, now that’s where you’re wrong. Watch me use the close button.
Are you insulting me?
No, just politely telling you I have to go write my blog.
No, and I am getting bored with you.
A stubborn bot is one who won’t change his mind and can’t change the subject. I liked you better when you did anal jokes.
Guess.

When you’re feeling blue, have a quick chat to JB. You’ll brighten up in no time.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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