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Jizhen luvs Jie 4eva

雞貞真係愛你ge傑仔
Jizhen loves yuo U, Jie!
雞貞一世愛你賤貨傑!
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.
— Jaysis!
— 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.)

14 Comments

  1. Soong Li wrote:

    I found 海上花 not that hard to read with the dictionary at the back of the book. The problem was that once I removed the language barrier – there was no fun in reading on…

    Monday, September 4, 2006 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  2. beaa wrote:

    “the girl writing this didn’t know how to write 葛”

    Perhaps you made a mistake here. In macau, they don’t use Pinyin. Their “Pinyin” is based on the pronunciation of cantonese and is in the style of Portuguese. “KOT” is the “Pinyin” of 葛 in Macau. So “ge” in this picture is not 葛.

    I think the name of the girl is 雞貞, “KAI-CHENG” in “Pinyin” of Macau .

    Monday, September 4, 2006 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  3. Hi, beaa —

    Thanks for the correction. By “Pinyin” I didn’t mean 汉语拼音 but rather “pinyin” in the general sense of romanization, e.g. Jyutping (粤拼), Yale romanization, etc. Thanks for the correction on 葛’s Cantonese pronunciation — I didn’t know it was a 入声 word.

    What character do you think Kai-cheng meant, then, if not 葛?

    Monday, September 4, 2006 at 4:06 pm | Permalink
  4. beaa wrote:

    Hi!
    I only know that the “pinyin” in Guangzhou, Macau and H.K. is diferrent.

    Actually I only know a little cantonese. So I asked my friend, he said that

    ge 表示 从属关系
    你ge杰仔 means 你的杰仔

    Tuesday, September 5, 2006 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  5. eswn wrote:

    okay, this is the world’s meanest (as well as most trivial) nitpicker here:

    雞貞真係愛你家ge傑仔
    Jizhen loves yuo U, Jie!

    You have totally glossed over the presence of 真係 in the phrase. Why, oh why?

    真係 in Cantonese is 真是 in putonghua. That is to say, she ‘really’ loves him as opposed to just loving him!

    Thursday, September 7, 2006 at 12:39 am | Permalink
  6. Nah, you’re totally right. At the time, I was thinking that “really” doesn’t get used as much in English as 真是 in Mandarin, but I guess I could’ve glossed it as “truly loves you.” Still, that seems (to me, at least) a little bit flowery in the context of 賤貨.

    What’s your take on 葛/’ge’?

    Thursday, September 7, 2006 at 1:30 am | Permalink
  7. Absurdfool wrote:

    i think “家” is a misspell of “咖” in cantonese
    cantonese use to put exclamation in the end of the sentence to emphasize their meaning
    like:
    你唔知”呀”?
    dont you know?
    我唔知”啊”
    I dont know.
    to emphasize, one would said:
    你唔知”咩”?
    dont you know?
    the counterpart would answer in a more definite way:
    我[真系]唔知”啊”!
    i “really” dont know!

    Thursday, September 7, 2006 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  8. Ah, OK. Didn’t know that 咖 was an exclamatory particle, but then again I don’t really know Cantonese at all.

    Thursday, September 7, 2006 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  9. eswn wrote:

    I think the word is not 咖. Instead, it is a it consists of 口架 (that is, it is a composite word with 口 on the left and 架 on the right, but unfortunately I don’t have a Cantonese wordprocessor right now, which would have used a tiny gif file so that it can be displayed on other systems).

    P.S. You should google “口架” for fun.
    Example: 我相信我地聖心既學生係吾會係公眾場合講粗口架 Translation: I believe that students from our Sacred Heart School would not use foul language in public places with the 口架 at the end for emphasis.

    Thursday, September 7, 2006 at 5:39 pm | Permalink
  10. Aha — interesting. So 口架 (I don’t have access to my beloved Wenlin, which would have the character for me) is used to indicate an assertion?

    Thursday, September 7, 2006 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  11. eswn wrote:

    well, it is unfortunate that i have no formal training in cantonese — i only know how to use it (like someone just injected it inside my head). to me, it is really a question of intonation (?). that is, you can say 我相信我地聖心既學生係吾會係公眾場合講粗 without the 口架 at the end and somehow it sounds flat (that is, the intonation goes downwards). Adding the 口架 at the end with a stress mkaes the intonation go upwards and therefore more emphatic.

    Thursday, September 7, 2006 at 11:29 pm | Permalink
  12. schtickyrice wrote:

    雞貞(chicken chastity/virginity) can’t possibly be the real name of any girl, even a cantonese one. Considering that 雞 can also refer to a female prostitute, 雞貞surely must be a vulgarization or an ironic take on conventional morality. You guys are all reading too much into this.

    Saturday, October 7, 2006 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  13. vanity wrote:

    I believe there is actually a character for “sóng”, which consists of 尸 on the top and 从 on the bottom. But I couldn’t find it in any Chinese language input software I’m using, and I don’t know if it even exists in the computer world.

    Friday, December 15, 2006 at 7:22 am | Permalink
  14. Kevin wrote:

    phonetic spelling aside, i met a rival writer in dublin who begrudged roddy doyle his fame because he borrowed all of his colorful language from the students he used to teach. they were the creative ones, not roddy.

    Monday, February 11, 2008 at 10:38 am | Permalink

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  1. Shanghai express :: Petición de ayuda :: September :: 2006 on Saturday, September 9, 2006 at 7:04 pm

    […] Leo aquí y aquí que la literatura china (rectifico, la literatura china escrita en chino mandarín, al parecer el cantonés permite más flexibilidad) tiene muchas dificultades para reproducir el habla coloquial o por lo menos tiene más dificultades que las literaturas que se basan en un sistema de escritura alfabetizado. […]

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