Happy New Year! In China and among members of the Chinese diaspora it is the Year of the Sheep. Or the Year of the Goat. Or maybe the Year of the Ram. Or even the Year of the Gazelle.
Here is the Chinese word for Sheep: 羊. In transliteration it is “yang.” The “a” has a little accent mark above it. It’s in most Chinese dictionaries. Well, in most modern Chinese dictionaries.
Except, generally you don’t find 羊 on its own. It comes with a prefix. One modifier turns it into “mountain goat,” the other turns it into “cotton sheep.”
Okay, no big deal, right? Horned animal with a particular kind of hoof.
Except once you leave China for somewhere they use the same year-naming system, you run into a problem. In other Far Eastern countries -- Vietnam, Korea, Japan, for examples -- they have separate words for sheep and goat.
It’s a small point, so don’t let it get in the way of your celebration.
But a bigger point is the way English speaking Chinese natives and Chinese semi- speaking American natives communicate.
Each side has noun deficiency. Each knows what stuff is, what stuff does and how stuff works. But we don’t know what to call things.
In this, the Chinese first language-ers have an advantage. They put words together to form a new expression. Thus, a razor becomes a “shaving knife.” A light switch can become “lever to make light go on.”
Asian speakers have an advantage over English. They have five thousand years of relatively insular history to develop language, simplify grammar and explain things.
On the other hand, American English has so many moving parts, so many changes in direction and so many rules of grammar it’s more than enough to understand each other without having to figure out a completely dissimilar bunch of 80 gazillion pictograms each of which is spoken in a minimum of four different tones (Mandarin) to six or more (Cantonese.) Say a syllable in the wrong tone can get you into trouble because the tone changes the meaning of the word.
All this can make family or communal living tough. But don’t let it get your goat. Or your sheep.
I’m Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
© WJR 2015 (or the year of the Sheep, Goat, Gazelle or Great Horned Owl.