From semantics to celebrations to misinterpretations, language is more than just memorizing words and phrases—as we discover in this month’s reveal. Pushing past practical to philosophy, let’s take a look.
No more champagne, and the fireworks are gone…” ABBA’s classic depiction of the grey morning following a New Year’s Eve’s party feels eerily pertinent right now. It’s New Year’s Day, I’m still in bed with a slight headache and a bloated stomach due to last night’s overindulgence and my ears haven’t quite stopped ringing from the enjoyable yet way-too-loud music that accompanied the last few hours of the past year and welcomed in the new one. The weather outside, if not quite frightful, is not particularly inviting either: Dongguan can be a very bleak and desolate place once the temperature drops to single digits and the sun disappears behind what possibly is an industrial smog, caused by ramping up production ahead of the approaching annual Chinese New Year holidays. In other words, perfect conditions for procrastinating the inevitable decision of getting up and leisurely examining any random thought that might cross your mind.
And so, dear readers, I’ve decided that it’ll be philosophy of language rather than the more practical aspects of learning it that I’m going to treat you to this time. Lucky you. And more specifically semantics, the intercept between linguistics and philosophy that deals with the meaning and reference of linguistic expressions, the things implied or indicated by those expressions and the way they vary depending on conversational contexts. Now, don’t you worry, it’s still just a light-weight column in a colorful publication, not a scholarly tractate, so naturally I’ll keep the theoretical stuff to a minimum.
How many more misunderstandings, subtle and difficult to detect, might occur on a daily basis, no matter how fluent we think we are in each other’s language?
What prompted this sudden bout of philosophizing was a realization that by the time you’re reading this, another new year will be upon us—the Chinese New Year. It’s actually been a recurring source of misunderstandings lately, trying to talk about the coming new year with my Chinese friends and acquaintances. To give you an idea, here’s a typical conversation taking place in the last days of December:
Me (in Chinese): “So, do you have any plans for celebrating the new year?”
My young Chinese yoga instructor (happily): “Oh yes, I’ll be going back to my hometown to celebrate with my family.”
Me (slightly concerned): “So the class tomorrow is cancelled?”
Yoga instructor (perplexed): “Why would that be?”
Me (even more perplexed): “Aren’t you leaving for your hometown soon?”
Yoga instructor (with an uncomprehending frown): “In a month from now, yes.”
I’m sure you get the picture, it’s likely you’ve been through a few of these conversations yourselves. You might think that midnight on December 31st, when the year switches its last digit, would be the only natural and logical point of time to celebrate the advent of a new year, yet for a Chinese person the new year starts only after successfully chasing away the infamous monster “Xi,” aka “Nian,” and he is still strictly following the lunar calendar for his dreaded public appearances. All right, so the Chinese have been good sports and accepted the Roman calendar. And of course, it’s nice, for practical reasons, that the whole world can be synchronized using the same standard measure of time. Yet isn’t it fascinating that it’s the ancient, traditional calendar that ultimately defines the concept of time in the minds of Chinese people even today? That the “New Year” for them starts first and foremost during what we in the west know to be Spring Festival, rather than on the first of January?
And, if even a well-defined and easy-to-translate expression as “New Year’s Eve” can mean something completely different to a Chinese speaker, how about all those other words and expressions that are vaguer and more prone to variable interpretation? How many more misunderstandings, subtle and difficult to detect, might occur on a daily basis, no matter how fluent we think we are in each other’s language? So, if your resolution involves any Chinese studies (I know mine does), please remember that studying a language is much more than simply memorizing words and phrases. It’s about understanding the cultural context that we use them in and being able to interpret their real meanings.
新年快乐! Or, Xin nian kuai le!