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Friday, May 13, 2005

Drunken Weshmen and variations in Mandarin

Have you ever attempted conversation with a drunken Welshman? I did one evening after getting well prepared at the Rugby Sevens. We supposedly shared English as our native tongue. However, I found him almost unintelligible. A view shared by a polyglot French friend who’d joined us earlier before abandoning us in search of a conversation spoken in a version of English he could understand. The oddly musical lilting melody of even a sober Welshman is often melodically entertaining and reminds me of the tones and pitch changes of Putonghua. But to my ear, neither are effective communication tools.

Back at Easter, I’d ambitiously set off to Beijing with my family, following this with a solo week in Qingdao, Shandong. I was armed with all that MSL can do to assist slow learners, with only a marginal affinity for language, I felt optimistic and full of fresh hope for glimpses into the meanings within the cacophony that surrounds me everywhere in China.

Perhaps I was overly ambitious or simply delusional…certainly I was ill-prepared. In hindsight, it’s obvious that the regional variations of Mandarin should be at least as numerous and extreme as those we find amongst English-speakers. We’ve all been told in class of the overuse of and emphasis on “r” in Beijing. Easy enough really, sounds curiously engaging and quaintly regional but quite manageable.

Qingdao was once a de-facto German colony or trading enclave. Interesting Teutonic or middle-European architecture remains downtown and in the old suburbs of the port city. As does a more emphatic use of the “r” than even Beijing has combined with some very difficult guttural sounds that I was not able to reproduce for fear of being arrested for hawking and spitting. The Olympic sailing events are coming there in ’08, so the new east) city is cracking down on such old traditions.

…..But, it’s not just the sounds…..another test is hidden for the unwary Mandarin neophyte. Tones!!……never a strength of mine or most English-speakers, I suspect. In Qingdao, it seems, a 1st tone is changed to a 3rd (high/level becomes falling/rising) and a 2nd tone becomes a 4th (rising becomes falling). I’m sure this is challenging even for good students and native speakers of Mandarin. I’m told the bright side is that 3rd and 4th tones remain unchanged. However, I can’t attest to that, since I couldn’t tell which were meant to be unchanged and which were uttered as pure Putonghua.

I wish they’d had a sign at the airport warning me of this when I arrived. Although I’d have lost my catch-all excuse for errors and conversational offences. On reflection, conversations with drunken Welshmen are now on my list of useful preparation activities before my next trip to deepest China.