Sunday, March 8, 2009

The risks of tonal languages!

If you ever go somewhere full of Cantonese speakers, be wary of how you greet them. See, even the friendly English greeting "Hi" could get you into trouble. For "hai" in Cantonese can mean "Hi", but it can also mean "crab". Or "department". Or "c**t". All depending on the tone.

If you don't understand what a tonal language is, please let me explain briefly. Chinese, Thai, Lao and Vietnamese are all tonal languages. It means that words that sound phonetically identical can have completely different meanings, depending on whether they are spoken with a rising tone, a flat tone, a descending tone and so on.

Cantonese has 6 different tones, although some consider it to have 9 - it's complicated. So you have high falling, mid rising, mid level, low falling, low rising and low level tones.

Of course, if you are not very familiar with the language, the tones all sound pretty much the same. So its pretty easy to get them mixed up. My Chinese-Malaysian friend Jean says she's really reluctant to order crab (hai)in a restaurant using her slightly shaky Cantonese, since asking the waiting staff for a serving of Spicy C**t can be kinda uncomfortable.

What inspired me to post about this was a recent attempt by my friend Joo-Hyung to say something in Vietnamese, which was admirable, but funny as well. The situation was a wedding here in Melbourne between a Cantonese bride and Vietnamese groom. Joo-Hyung (who is Korean by the way) was the MC for the reception and thought it would be a nice touch to welcome both families in their native languages. The attempt at Cantonese was apparently quite successful, while the attempt at a Vietnamese greeting had my Vietnamese friends laughing, and here's why:

What Joo-Hyung was attempting to say was "chào mung quan khách", which roughly translates as "Welcome, guests."
However, it sounded a bit more like "chào mung quan cac" (notice the different tone in the final word, which otherwise sounds pretty much the same).
"Chào mung quan cac" translates as "Welcome, c*cks."

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