Chinese New Year is just a couple of days away, and it begins a two week celebration full of fascinating traditions and general merriment for Chinese people all over the world.
One of the most interesting things (for me) is the way Chinese people love to play with words. The language has a limited number of syllables, so has quite a lot of homophones. It is not uncommon for these to be switched around to make sayings or even traditions.
At Chinese New Year it is very common to see one character hung on people’s front doors. The character is 福, pronounced fu with a rising tone. The odd thing is that the character is almost always hung upside-down. This is because of the phrase 福到了, fú dào le, meaning fortune has arrived. The middle character 到 has the same pronunciation as the character 倒, which means upside down. So with one character, a whole phrase can be shown: fortune is upside-down, or fortune has arrived. Brilliant.
I was half-heartedly watching a football (soccer) match on TV the other night, and the commentary was in Chinese. I wasn’t really watching the match very closely, but I decided that I should probably be listening more closely to the speakers. Because there are a lot of repeated phrases in sports commentary, and the action is happening right in front of you, it’s sometimes quite easy to work out how to say names and terms in a foreign language. Let’s be honest, most sports commentators don’t have a vast lexicon.
I found myself more interested in the speakers than the game in the end, although it was actually a pretty good match.
Have you learned any language from watching sports in other countries?
I was a teenager in the ’90s and a fairly significant part of that was Joss Whedon’s 7-season saga, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So when I saw that the PBS word-tracking site* had a whole category dedicated to slang coined on Buffy (Buffy Slang), I had to check it out. The site has first and notable instances of slang words, and quite a few of them were first used on Buffy. One of the great things about language is that even if we are hearing a word for the first time, we can piece together the meaning through context, and so get to ‘know’ a word. Teenagers adopt the words, and they become part of a wider lexicon. Even I didn’t know that genius as an adjective started with Buffy. So did saying adjective (or verb) + much? - e.g. random, much?. Obviously some of the slang has remained in the ’90s, but it’s really interesting to see how some of it still remains (or is it just me?).
The topic is so big that there’s even a book about it, which I will have to check out at some point. Do you use Buffy slang? Or slang from any other TV show?
*I’m still not sure if it’s called Do you speak American?, Words That Shouldn’t Be?, or something else entirely.
Sometime last year (actually, the year before now), I discovered Lingt, a beta site that was using online flashcards in new ways. It was mostly for learning Chinese, and students could create their own material, or use pre-formatted sets of words and phrases.
The site uses a spaced repetition method to ensure that you re-see the words you need to review at the ideal times. It also tests (with English, pinyin and simplified characters) multiple ways of ‘knowing’ a word – recognition, recall, listening, writing. It even does it all in a cute, clean interface.
Sadly, I just got notification that the site will be closing down at the end of February this year. I didn’t use it regularly, but it was a very useful tool. On the upside, their technology has been bought by Dictionary.com, who will be using it for their own flashcards section. Hopefully this means that it will be brought to a bigger audience in more languages, and that can only be a good thing.