Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) (259-210 BC) unified China by standardizing weights and measures, building roads, burying Confucian scholars alive, burning books, and also standardizing the Chinese language.
This was no easy task because even today there are myriad dialects in China and many of them cannot understand each other. But, if you learn to read, everyone can read the newspaper. In mainland China they use simplified characters, as opposed to traditional characters, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Here is an example of a simplified vs a traditional character.
These two characters are the same (gui3, turtle):
However, there is also a third type of character: the crazy Cantonese characters. These characters are definitely not Qin Shi Huang approved, and they make no sense if you don't know what you are looking at. I recently had a translation project that used these characters, and it was pretty difficult trying to decipher it. Here are a few of them that I learned:
啱喇 (ngaam1 laa3): "That's correct." The first character is completely made up to fit an existing Cantonese word for "right, appropriate." The second is just a final sound to have the exclamation end in a long vowel noise. If you try to say it out loud, just drag out the "laaa" for about 3 whole seconds while trailing off, and you will be speaking expert Cantonese. It is interesting to note that many of the characters that are made up to fit existing words have a "mouth" radical (口) next to them, like these two do. In real characters that often indicates that the word has something to do with your mouth (the above 喇 is also part of a real word for trumpet), but it can also indicate a purely spoken word.
唔係 (m4 hai6): "No." Again we see the mouth radical on the word "m." In Cantonese this word basically indicates negation of any verb that follows it. However, it is also a real character that means "hold in the mouth." The second character is also a real word meaning "link, connection." In this case the words were probably chosen due to their similarity in pronunciation to the Cantonese words for "not" and "is," which equals the word for no.
細蚊仔 (sai3 men1 zai2): "Children." This is kind of a really weird one. If you take the meanings of the characters literally, it means "thin mosquito babies." I can only guess that it is a combination of pronunciation and a good sense of humor. Another word for children is 細路哥 (sai3 lou6 go1) "thin road brother." Yeah, I know.
Qin Shi Huang may have forced thousands of people to build the Great Wall, and created a huge tomb with terra cotta soldiers guarding his body, but the barbarians eventually went around the Wall to invade China, and people dug up the soldiers. (Actually there is a movie about him which I really like called 古今大战秦俑情 (Ancient and Modern War of the Terra Cotta Lovers), starring Zhang Yimou and Gong Li.) So I guess it is only fitting that the Chinese language is once again becoming divided. Which is OK, really. I mean the guy was kind of a maniac.