My China Story: The difference between ‘woef’ and ‘wang’
When our Mandarin teacher taught us the words for cat (mao) and dog (gou), she added a sort of fun extracurricular, explaining also the sounds they make: “miaow” and “wang” — or rather how those sounds are perceived by the Chinese.
In the Netherlands, a dog’s bark is perceived and imitated as “woef”, not “wang”. My teacher explained that this difference lies more in the ears of people hearing it, rather than the dogs barking it, as Chinese people are perceptive to different sounds than Dutch people.
While my mother-language has gargling Gs and rolling Rs, Mandarin is jam-packed with words in the shis, tjis and djis, which all sound similar to me. I also have to learn to recognize the four tones that totally change the meaning of words. (Mā is mother; mǎ is horse).
How we hear a dog’s bark may be of little significance, but the bigger point is that we hear sounds differently. And since we perceive animal sounds differently, we probably hear humans differently too, or music, or perhaps waterfalls or ocean waves crashing into the rocks on the beach. It’s fascinating because we rarely think about how different people may perceive the world differently.
Language shapes the way we think, the sounds we hear, the things we see. There’s the Sapir-Whorf theory, which is based on test results that the more words a language has for shades of blue, the better its speakers are at determining those shades.
Zuni-speakers are likely to see green and blue as identical colors, because their language has no separate words for them. Russian-speakers use siniy for dark blue and goluboy for light blue, and Russian speakers have shown to be better than English speakers at separating the two. Whorf considers language not as a reporting device for our experiences, but our defining framework for them.
Rory Sutherland, an advertising legend, explains that by creating a phrase, you can change the way people think, decide and behave. For instance, the term “designated driver” was coined because there was no ready name for a person who doesn’t drink alcohol so to be fit to drive others home. Without such a name, it’d be harder to embed this behavior as the norm. And so after the term was born, TV series were encouraged to use it to help the term find its place in everyday language.
A less positive example on how language acts as a framework for thinking comes from Philip Wollen, who said: “When animals do something noble we say they are behaving ‘like humans’. When humans do something disgusting we say they are behaving ‘like animals’. This perpetuates the myth that animals are inferior and disposable beings.”
They say language is your country, and I’m finally getting to understand that, because culture is not the words themselves, but the thoughts attached to them. I wonder if the Mandarin word qian increases the importance of money, since it also means “forward”. And I wonder how the Chinese look at things, as progress can be literally seen as upside-down compared to the Western view: the word shang (up) is seen as backwards and xia (down) is seen as forward, perhaps coming from the original way of writing, which was from top-to-bottom instead of left-to-right. “Next one” is referred to as xia yige (“one down”).
I know that some animals can see beyond what we call the visible light. I know that some birds can feel the Earth’s magnetic waves, and I know that bats perceive shapes and distances through sonar. Would a bat be amazed or left in awe from a really beautiful sound reflection of an object that we wouldn’t think about, the same way we can look at stunning landscapes or nice sportscars?
I wonder if language holds the same possibility to expand my world. I wonder how much depth I will find within Mandarin and the thoughts and emotions that come with it. This is my China story. This is how China changes me, and how China changes to me. Through language. I will do my homework well, laoshi.
Jaap Grolleman from the Netherlands is marketing director at GoEast Mandarin and has been living in Shanghai for 18 months now.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.