Hào zhī my China?

OK, so I had my second Mandarin lesson today and I’m ready to quit. We had a stand-in teacher with a slightly different dialect and it threw us all off completely.

Now just before you think I am ridiculously sensitive, let me please explain what difference a dialect can make. Here is a little table from my Mandarin file:































It is not correct to say there are 5 vowels. There are 26 vowels – that’s as many letters as we have in the whole alphabet! You will notice a little squiggle on top of them: that explains the voice tones are to be used with each. And it matters:

mā means mum
má  means flax
mǎ  means horse
mà  means to scold

bā  means eight
bá  means to pull
bǎ  means target
bà  means dad.

So you can see how easily you can get into serious trouble with your parents when all you are trying to say is that the stupid horse was so full of flax that he pulled eight targets into the ditch! And westerners have huge difficulty with the subtlety of the sounds. We tend to have an intonation that covers a sentence not a huge change on every vowel. And then just once you’ve spent weeks mastering the differences the teacher says the most dreaded words ever heard by any language student: “But of course there are exceptions …”

But if I tell you much more I’ll have to charge you. Suffice to say that with a little bit of Chinese you can’t go a long way. I always get about 5 minutes’ worth of fascinating small talk at any cocktail party containing foreigners by telling them how to say “thank you very much” in Afrikaans. They usually don’t believe me but it leads to howls of derisive laughter. So I always look out for similar phrases in other languages.

In Mandarin:

“Knee how” means “hello”.
“Sheer sheer” means “thank you”.
“Knee how ma?” means “how are you?”
“Chew her knee” means “congratulations!”
“Dway boo chee” means “I’m really sorry” (in case you really chew her knee).

I am also interested in words that have been incorporated into other languages and have lost all traces to their origins:
“Jumbo” is actually from “Jambo” or “hello” in Swahili.
“Banana” comes from a similar sounding word from north-west Africa.
And when, in Mandarin, you want emphatically to deny something, you say “Boo shir” – now say that quickly and emphatically and you finally understand where the English got their phrase from. I think as a civilization we owe a great apology to all the bulls in the world, and a debt of gratitude for all the fertiliser they so generously provide.

I could keep this going for hours, days, years in fact. John Simpson of the BBC (one of my favourite journalists) always says the most important phrase to learn in any language is “My friend here will pay the bill.” I am sure I’ll have more over the course of the next few months.

Side view of Pearson House - there are better ones on the net.

Just a few lines about the building we use for classes. It is a most beautiful red-brick establishment called Pearson House (can you believe it). It was built to house those blinded in the First World War and was until quite recently the headquarters of the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind.

View from the classroom window.

It has a large, flowing front lawn leading on to a large car park which, on Saturdays, is transformed into the Parnell Farmer’s Market – Parnell being the oldest suburb in Auckland. From the street one can see the massive Auckland Domain – the central park which houses the city’s main museum.

Google Earth view of the domain. Pearson house is 4 o'clock.

Here are the co-ordinates if you are interested.



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3 Responses to Hào zhī my China?

  1. Karie says:

    don’t chew my knee chew hers oooooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwww

    hy stop chewing my knee

    got to go


    love ETIENNE

  2. Sally says:

    Beautiful venue. Terrifying language.

    And now I wonder: what about sign language in Chinese ? Gotta be more complicated too ?

    I’m also wondering about that Parnell Farmer’s Market. Might be a good place to practice your Mandarin: “Please may I pinch your kiwi ?”

  3. Karie says:

    … according to a Zuma wife, Chinese is simple and straight forward. You are just looking for attention and sympathy! You don’t fool us!

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