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[Cross-posted on my QQ diary page.]

JISHOU, HUNAN — Last week, two of my colleagues and I debated whether the common English greeting, “long time no see,” was Chinglish or English slang. Since I’ve heard it since I was a kid, I contended it was authentically American. They insisted that its origins are Chinese, because there is a phrase in Chinese that is identical word for word. It turns out we are both right.

I checked for the origins of this phrase. One early appearance apparently was in a 1901 book about Native Americans; the white writer had a Native American speaking pidgin English, “long time no see you.” But a more likely origin is from western trade with the Chinese in the late 19th century.

“Long time no see” is the literal translation of the Cantonese 好耐冇見 (hou2 noi6 mou5 gin3) and the Mandarin 好久不见 (Hǎojiǔ bùjiàn). British (and perhaps American) seamen brought the phrase back home, where it eventually became part of the English language. (I also suspect it spread quickly because of early movies, and radio and TV programs featuring Chinese characters, like the Charlie Chan detective dramas, but I have no evidence.)

As it turns out, “long time no see” is not the only Chinese phrase “borrowed” by the English language. Here are some other common ones.

  • no can do (不能做 bū néng zuò) — “I can’t do it.” “It’s impossible.” An American pop hit in 1981 was “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” by Hall & Oates. (“I can’t go for that” is an American idiom meaning “I don’t like it” or “I won’t do it.”) Sugababes, a UK girl group, recorded a different pop hit, “No Can Do,” in 2008.
  • lose face (丟臉 diū liǎn) — bring shame upon oneself; “I enjoying losing face!” — one of Li Yang‘s Crazy English mottos for English learners.
  • no-go (不行 bù xíng)– not OK, option not taken; used by NASA and some military people in the USA, as in a “go/no-go situation”; “The launch was a no-go.” = “It didn’t happen.”

  • look-see (看见 kàn jiàn) — look, viewing, observation; “I’ll go have a look-see, and tell you about it.”

  • where-to? (哪去 nǎ qù)– “Where are you going?”, “Where do you want me to take you?”; a shorthand way for a taxi driver (especially in New York City) to ask for a destination: “Where to, lady?”

  • No this, no that — Not really a Chinese phrase, it is attributed to Chinese-run laundries in the US, who had signs that said “沒票沒襯衣” (méi piào, méi chènyī–No ticket, no shirt) meaning without your receipt, you could not collect your laundered clothing. Now, a common sign in many restaurants all over the US is “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” It means no one coming in without a shirt or shoes would be served food. In fact, they would be asked to leave, for health reasons.

  • Chop chop (from 快快 Cantonese faai3faai3/Mandarin kuàikuài — hurry up, go quickly; “Come on, we have to go now — chop chop!” English sailors already used the word “chop” themselves, to mean “quick” or “hurry.” “Choppy seas” means there is a brisk wind and rough waves. They turned 快快 into “chop chop,” to mean the same thing as the Cantonese phrase. When they saw how fast Chinese could eat using two sticks (筷子 kuàizi), instead of spoons or forks, they called the utensils “chop sticks” to mean “quick sticks.” Perhaps they confused the word 筷 with this word 快; in Mandarin anyway, they sound the same, but have different meanings. Nowadays, “chop chop” is not so common a phrase, but everyone knows the word “chopsticks.”

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Since I am cross-posting this on my American blog and my QQ diary, here’s a quick Chinese lesson for my non-Chinese readers.

In Chinese, doubling a word has the same meaning as “very”, “better” or “every”, depending on circumstance. So the Chinese phrase 天天快乐 (tiān tiān kuàile) translated word for word is “day day happy,” meaning “Be happy every day” or “I hope you are happy every day.” (There is that word, kuài 快, again, but combined with 乐 le, it means “happy.”)

Another common Chinese phrase is 好好学习,天天向上 (hǎo hǎo xuéxí, tiān tiān xiàngshàng), attributed to Mao Zedong. In Chinglish, it is “good good study, day day up.” Rendered into more normal English, it means, “Study well, and make progress every day.”

“Good good study, day day up” has become a colloquial part of both Chinese and English here. Hunan Satellite TV carries a popular variety show called Day Day Up. There is also a Chinese language self-study site for foreigners, Day Day Up Chinese.

One last thing: Mandarin (and Cantonese) are tonal languages, meaning the tone (pitch) of a word changes its meaning. Mandarin has four tones, Cantonese even more. We can symbolize tones by using numbers after each word, or by using diacritical marks above the vowels. For example, 妈 (mā or ma1 — high steady tone) is “mother,” 麻 (má or ma2 — rising tone) is hemp, 马 (mǎ or ma3 — “scooping tone,” as I call it) is “horse” and 骂 (mà or ma4 — short, falling tone) is “to scold.” As you can guess, this makes learning Chinese especially difficult for foreigners whose native language is non-tonal. I wonder whether Swedes can learn Chinese faster than Americans.

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