My inner cave person speaks Chinese

By Ellie Buchdahl ( China Daily ) Updated: 2012-01-11 10:58:33

My inner cave person speaks Chinese

Back in the days when men were men and mammoths were wooly, language was a simple affair. As any cave person will testify, everything from declarations of love to haggling over a hunk of mammoth could be expressed with a grunt.

In our post-Tower-of-Babel times, things are a bit more complicated. We have the perfect passive participles, the past principles working as adverbials; we have the hacking "ch" of German, the Italian rolled "r" and the minefield of the English "th" sound. And then we have Chinese.

I arrived in Beijing five months ago with my cub journalist pen primed to the double purpose of writing cutting-edge articles - and scribbling in fluent Chinese.

Cocky so-and-so that I was, I had believed that my Oxford degree in German made me a master of all languages, and that I would conquer Chinese at the drop of a hat. The 50-yuan-an-hour ($7.90) Chinese teacher I tracked down in a frenzy of post-arrival efficiency assured me that Chinese was "easy". "It is not like English," he said. "There are no tenses. There are no articles."

After two or three hours of struggling with tones, I realized that this had been a total lie. Whoever designed the Chinese language clearly got bored after about three hours of making sound combinations. Two words with exactly the same tone can mean totally different things. A verb can be a part-time preposition and a preposition can have a mid-life crisis and become a verb. Donkeys are apparently not the same kind of "carrying animals" as horses - at least not in terms of measure words.

However, many mornings and evenings I spent "ma"-ing like a demented sheep to my language CD, my Chinese simply wouldn't work in practice. Everything I said was met with blank stares and an accusing "shenme" that suggested that my honking and gesticulating had translated into some deeply personal insult.

Taxis were the worst. My tentative words would illicit a barrage of rage from the driver that would only recede into low, bulldog-like snarls when I waved at him my carefully-typed address on a piece of paper.

Finally my patience snapped. Bitterness, despair, jealousy of my foreign friends who had somehow got the hang of it all - all these converged during one particularly harrowing taxi session. Instead of cowering behind my piece of paper, I deployed all the skill I possessed and, mimicking his roar, bellowed my address into his face.

Something amazing happened. The taxi driver fell silent. He gave a nod. In a quieter voice he repeated what I had said. Fifteen minutes later, I was handing over my cash and stepping regally out onto my front doorstep.

From that moment on, my life changed. In a burst of taxi thespianism, I had located the secret of the Chinese growl.

The growl exists on a sliding scale depending both on the timbre of a speaker's voice and the particulars of the situation. It be anything from a low guttural grunt to a full-blown explosion.

Basic affirmation of a question or statement - whether or not you understand what is being said to you - can be met with a simple nasal honk, usually but not necessarily accompanied by an equally nasal "hao le". The hint of a rasp in the back of the throat determines its growl status.

Extreme pleasure or extreme anger must be expressed with a fully open mouth and decibels going into double figures.

The Chinese language is a special case in that the growl is a necessity rather than a linguistic flourish. However, when I think back to when I learned German, I remember my sense of distinct pride when I managed to produce the "bwwwwaaaah" that expresses Teutonic surprise. The same goes for the Gallic "uhhhhhh" preceding "je ne sais pas", or the soft Italian "ppphttt" of nonchalance.

However perfect a passive participle may be, when it comes to raw caveman comprehension, the heart of every language is still in the Stone Age.

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