Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Cat-Head Bird, and other Language Monsters

By Beth Green

One of the great joys of travel, for me, is exploring the way one group of people can take a fairly simple thing and look at it in a completely different way than their neighbors.

You can get a glimpse of this, without learning another language, simply by traveling and reading translated signs.

My oldest memory of how quirky languages can be dates to when I was about six and my family lived in Puerto Rico.
Photo by missteee

We’d gone to San Juan for a short trip—I can’t remember why—but I remember the sign in the ferry cabin: “Lifeguards under seats.”

In Spanish, the words for “lifejacket” and “lifeguard” can have the same base word: salvavidas.

Much later, when I’d moved to Europe to be an English teacher, I collected various idiosyncrasies, wrote them in notebooks and hassled my students with them by calling them “learner errors.” It is, of course, an error for a student of English to refer to going to “the nature,” instead of simply “the countryside.” But saying, “this weekend I was in the nature,” brings me a completely different—and richer—mental picture than does “this weekend I was in the countryside.”

My students weren’t the only ones making errors, either. More than once in the Czech Republic I made waiters laugh out loud by ordering “kočka”—cat—soup instead of “čočka”—lentil—soup. (In Czech, the č makes a sound like the English “ch”.)
Photo by Doug88888

But my appreciation for just how much lateral thinking there is between languages and in translation blossomed when I moved to China and began to study Mandarin. Because of the way the language is structured—most often with one- or two-syllable blocks, each syllable conveying a meaning—the definition of a word is often quite literal.

Take owl, for example. These nocturnal birds are found all over the world, but only in China are they referred to as “cat-head birds.” (Mao tou ying, 貓頭鷹). The ever-lovable panda’s name is also a literal mash-up of the cat and another animal: xiong mao,熊猫, or “bear-cat.”

In English, when we name a new invention, we often pull names from Greek or Latin roots, or perhaps add an abbreviation to it (e.g. e-book.) In Chinese, they often just make a new combination of already existing words. Train is “fire vehicle,” airplane is “fly machine.” Telephone is “electric talk,” while mobile phone is “hand machine.” You can imagine some of the headaches people must go through when trying to find a new, suitable, name for an invention. And, later, the problems translating it.

Photo by jeffbalke
I don’t mean to poke fun at these languages for having amusing words—we in English have enough trouble communicating among ourselves sometimes. A few years ago my partner, who is Australian, came with my parents and me on a road trip in the Western US. We had just come from Las Vegas, Nevada, where he’d been introduced to a lot of new Americana. The next morning we stopped at a diner in California before heading farther north. We all selected something from the breakfast menu, and were eating happily (I thought) when Dan put down his fork and knife with most of his food uneaten.

What’s the matter?” I asked.

I’m worried about my food,” he said. “I ordered chicken fried steak, but this doesn’t taste like chicken.”

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