11/19/2016 08:18:00 pm

Fascinating Languages

Languages are really fascinating.
"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart."
‒Nelson Mandela
They are the barriers between us and the people in another country, say China. But when you get a grasp of that language, it turns into a tool, and a really useful one too.

For example,
In Chinese we usually say 'jīa yóu'. The literal meaning of 加油 (jia you) is 'filling a machine with petrol" , so as to have more power to run longer, but it is kind of like saying "go for it" or "you can do it".

I do know that in Japanese they say 'ganbatte', it literally means, “Do your best”. It's interesting how the English phrase is sort of spiritual and wishing for some good luck to be brought to you, like 'Good Luck' or 'God Bless', whereas the Chinese and Japanese version emphasizes your own efforts.

And 'jia you' can be used in a lot of situations- before exams or tests, as a form of encouragement; when someone feels tired, like during a camp where everyone is drained out, as a morale booster; during a competition as a form of a cheer...

Come to think of it, there are a lot of words in Chinese that are really interesting when directly translated. Cobra is 眼镜蛇 which literally is 'eyeglasses snake'; owl- 'cat head eagle'; kangaroo- 'bag mouse'; lizard- 'wall tiger'; giraffe- 'long neck deer'... there's almost an endless number of words that are really interesting when directly translated to English.


  • shredder: 碎纸机 'smash paper machine' 
  • lobster: 龙虾 'dragon prawn'
  • alien 外星人 'out star person'
  • everyone 'large family'
  • mobile phone 'hand machine'
  • computer 'electric brain'
  • suffer: 吃苦 'eating bitterness'
❝To have another language is to possess a second soul.❞
I guess this is really true, since a language portrays a culture and perspective on life. In my O level English exam paper, there was a comprehension passage talking about this topic. In the English language, when commiting an act, the agent was emphasized, whereas the Japanese did not mention the agent (for example, when they were showed a scene where a boy named Jack broke a vase,  at a party. When asked, the English-speakers could recall the person who broke the vase, whereas Japanese speakers could not remember.

Also, the language you use influences your thought.

For example, [also from that exam passage but since it was submitted with the answer I can't refer to it] in (can't remember the tribe/cultural group name), instead of saying 'how are you', the people would say 'where are you going' as a form of a greeting, and the response would be to give directions, for example 'I'm heading northwards'. So in this case, having a sense of direction is a norm in that culture.

Another example would be the Chinese greeting, "你吃饱了吗?" (nî chī bâo lè mā?)(Did you eat yet/have you eaten/are you hungry?), instead of "How are you" like in English language. It doesn't necessarily have to be used before meal-times, just a general sign of politeness, the same way you ask 'how are you' as a sign of politeness and not necessarily want the other person to spill all of his problems (especially if it's during a formal encounter).

Sometimes if it's family members or close friends, if they receive a reply "(I haven't)", they would offer some food. Notice the word 饱 bâo, which means full, is used. Yes, you may have had a bite before I asked you, but are you still hungry? It seems like Asian parents especially are afraid that their children would starve. That instant when my grandmother heard my brother saying he was hungry, she'd go to the kitchen and find food for him to eat. I guess it's also a different way of showing concern. After research, I found out that this greeting became common after a long history of famine during in ancient China. Imagine replacing 'how are you' with 'have you eaten' in English, people would think you are weird!

Wong Fu Productions' video 'What Asian Parents Don't Say?' illustrates this perfectly, the contrast between Asian and Western ways of showing concern.

Also, the Chinese have different words for 'you', depending on whether the other person is more senior than them in terms of age or rank. German and French 'gender-ify' (my own word) their objects. For example in German, 'the' when addressing a man or masculine noun would be 'Die' (pronunced dee), a feminine noun would be 'der' (deer) and a neuter noun would be 'das'. 

In English it's just 'the' for everything. We use 'he' 'she' and 'it', also 'him' and 'her' to address things. On the other hand, in Chinese, it's either 他 (general, male) 她 (for females) 它 (objects and animals), all pronounced tā. If it's plural, the word 们 mén is added, whereas in English it really depends (insert all those grammar rules, e.g. if it ends with x add es like in foxes, if it ends in y replace the y with ies....)

The number of specific terms to address a family member also reflects how important they view the terminology of relatives, and how much they emphasize on social status. For example, in English, your mother's brother would be called your uncle, your father's brother would also be addressed in the same way, same as your mother's cousin, or your mother's sister's husband . But in Chinese language, there are specifics for every relative, for example:
  • older sister: 姐姐 jîe x2
  • older brother: 哥哥 gē x2 
  • younger sister: 妹妹 meì x2
  • younger brother: 弟弟 dì x2

Maternal side:
  • mother's brother: 舅舅 vs uncle
  • mother's brother's wife: 舅母 vs aunt
  • mother's sister vs aunt 阿姨
  • mother's sister's husband 姨丈vs uncle
  • mother's sibling's daughter (older than you) 表姐/ daughter (younger than you) 表妹 / son (older than you) 表哥/ son (younger than you) 表弟 vs cousin
Paternal side:
  • father's older brother 伯伯 vs uncle
  • father's younger brother 舅舅 vs uncle
  • father's sister 姑姑 vs aunt
(Refer to this video for more terminology if you're interested.)

Imagine visiting your relative's house during Chinese New Year, and having to greet every single one of your relatives, including your grandparent's siblings and their children who are your parent's cousins!

Also, in Chinese culture the younger (in age) will have to address the seniors and tell them to eat, in order of seniority. For example, one would say "Grandma eat, grandpa eat, Uncle eat, Aunty eat, Father eat, Mother eat, (older cousin A) eat, older cousin B eat, older brother eat, older sister eat." Usually the children would take turns to say (meaning the older grandchild will call all of the relatives to eat, then the second oldest grandchild would do it, then the third oldest...) The youngest person on the table would be very tired because he would have to tell everyone to eat, individually! This is because filial piety is emphasized in the culture. Nowadays not many families would practice this culture (my family doesn't, really), but some of my friends' families do.

 There is simply too much to write about this topic, and whilst writing this blog, I did some research on how language reflected the culture, and I must saw I am hooked. Maybe I'll write another post about this topic soon!

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