Jizhen willl always love you, you sonofabitch!
I took this photo in a park in Macau a few months ago. At the time, I thought it was just kind of a cute, if somewhat rude, protestation of love in written Cantonese, but what’s more interesting to me now is the slip-ups near the end of the first line, where the girl writing this didn’t know how to write 葛, and accidentally wrote the simple form 杰 of her boyfriend 傑’s name. (I’m using the Mandarin readings of the characters because I don’t know Cantonese worth a damn. I guess the girl’s name would be “Gaai-something,’ but whatever.)
The latter mistake of using the short-form instead of the full-form isn’t particularly interesting, I guess — people make substitution errors like this one all the time. (Though it’s nice to see that this girl was being fastidious about her graffiti — lesser vandals would have just let the error stand.) The former, though, is interesting to me in the context of literature.
Moving back a bit: I was thinking a while ago about Roddy Doyle, one of my favorite English-language authors. One of the reasons that he’s so good is that he has an absolutely killer ear for dialogue; his characters swear, stumble, commit illiteracies, and sound exactly like the guys hanging out on your corner at night. (Assuming that your corner is in Dublin.) One of the ways he does it is by representing, in written form, the people’s accents. Some of this involves messing with grammar — Doyle’s characters will use Irish-specific constructions like “amn’t I not?” — and sometimes it’s spelling changes. Here’s a sample:
— Mickah Wallace is goin’ to go the door for us.
— Oh, good fuck! said Outspan.
He had a small scar on his forehead, courtesy of Mickah Wallace.
— Tha’ cunt! He’ll fuck off with the money.
— He won’t, said Jimmy. — Mickah’s alrigh’.
— He’s a fuckin’ savage, said Derek.
— Who is he? said Deco.
— Wha’ is he, yeh mean, said Outspan.
— He got fucked ou’ o’ our school, righ’, Derek told them, — because he beat the shi’e ou’ o’ the Dean o’ Girls. Girls! He kicked her up an’ down the yard when she snared him smokin’ an’ she tried to take the pack off o’ him.
— See tha’?
Outspan thought he was pointing to his scar but his finger was on the wrong side.
— He done tha’. Fucked a rock at me durin’ a match. He was the goalie an’ I oney had him to beat, the cunt. An’ he fucked the rock at me.
— I still scored though.
— Yeh didn’t, said Derek.
— I fuckin’ did.
— Yeh were offside.
— I fuckin’ wasn’t.
— Fuck up, youse, said Jimmy. –Tha’ was years ago. We were all fuckin’ eejits then.
Outspan wasn’t finished yet.
— He got up on the roof o’ Mountjoy when he was in there cos the other guy in his cell had AIDS an’ he thrun slates down at the screws.
— That’s not true, said Jimmy.
— It is.
— Yeh just said it was him.
Jimmy explained to the rest.
— It was on the News. Some tossers up on the roof. An’ Outspan just said one o’ them was Mickah.
— I recognized him.
— They had their jumpers wrapped round their faces.
— I recognized his jumper.
— Fuck off. He’s doin’ bouncer an’ that’s it. He’ll be grand.
In comparison, written Chinese seems to keep writers from doing anything like this. There are some vocabulary clues, I suppose — have your characters referring to themselves as 俺 instead of 我, or saying 忒 instead of 太 and you’ll mark them as being from the sticks, and that kind of thing — but I can’t think of any way of representing accent in text in the way that Roddy Doyle does in the passage above. In theory, I suppose one could use homophonous characters to transcribe the sounds of a dialect, and indeed people do do this sometimes, but on any kind of large scale it just becomes distracting. (The best example I can think of is 海上花, which is written in a representation of Wu dialect and is a major pain to read.)
There’s also the problem of regional vocabulary. There are words, even in relatively standard Mandarin, that don’t have any agreed-upon written form; consider Beijingnese words like sóng (‘pussy, weakling’), which I’ve seen written as 怂 and 耸, or cuìber (‘flunky’), which could be either 催巴儿 or 催奔儿 (the former seems to be more commonly used; I could swear that I’ve seen the latter, which more closely reflects both the sound and the meaning of the word) and that kind of thing. (I got cuiber from Victor Mair’s piece on the Soviet Dungan script; if anyone can think of any other examples of untranscribable Beijinghua, let me know.) (Update: My girlfriend suggested zhóur, “slow-witted,” which my dictionary of Beijing dialect terms writes as 轴, a character meaning “axle.”) Cantonese is relatively well-off in this area, as there’s a long tradition of 俗字 vulgate characters being invented to represent words and grammatical particles that don’t have standard 规范字. Other times, existing characters are repurposed, which is what happened with the photo above: 葛 – the ‘ge’ that the girl forgot how to write – is a surname under normal circumstances, but seems to be used in Cantonese the same as the Mandarin 这个, i.e., “this.”
The analogy that comes to mind is Medieval Europe, where everybody was writing in Latin long after it had ceased to be anyone’s first language.
Something to think about. May expand on the topic later — I managed to fuck up my iMac at home, and am reduced to using a Linux-running laptop to access the internet there. The installation of Linux that I have doesn’t support Chinese, so I have been doing most of my blogging and internet access from work instead. (Linux-running friends assure me that I could easily get my system to work with Chinese, if I would just download another 57 packages, invest five hours of my time, and write a few shell scripts, but fuck that noise. Christ, I hate Linux.)