This place matters

This place matters

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A few thoughts on China before I leave for Florida

According to some word origins calendar, the word "chopsticks" derives from the phrase "chop chop," which, in turn, comes from a Cantonese expression meaning "hurry hurry." The calendar claimed that chopsticks were so named because sailors saw how quickly Chinese immigrants ate with them. I've read elsewhere that this isn't the case; that's the trouble with word histories, especially in trivia-tidbit form. Theories are passed off as fact, and all we have to go back to is the Oxford English Dictionary, which can only tell us where the word first appears in print. And words don't tend to appear in print until long after they've started coming out of people's mouths.

Also, if somebody showed you a page of English text written a thousand years ago, it would look like gibberish. Even our alphabets are somewhat different. If you were from China and I showed you a page of Chinese text from a thousand years ago, you'd be able to read it without much problem. Written Chinese just hasn't changed much. I would guess it has to do with the fact that our written language is directly related to how we pronounce words, and theirs isn't. That and it's a lot easier for foreign influences to change a language when the language is trapped on a tiny island.

Also, ever wonder how or if people in China text each other, what with a 5,000 character alphabet? Apparently, you type the first three roman letters of the phonetic pronunciation of a character, then select the character from a list of characters that start out being pronounced that way.

Edit: A friend commented with a correction - since most people in China learn simplified characters these days, the task of reading an ancient text would be possible, but by no means effortless. I stand corrected.

1 comment:

disheah said...

Ooh, China! That should be fun. Which part?

I remember my father would always go on about "chopsticks" when I was a kid: "Why do they call them chopsticks here? It's a misnomer! They don't chop!"

Technically speaking, an average modern chinese mainlander would have a little bit of trouble reading traditional chinese texts without a dictionary handy, since everyone learns the simplified characters these days.