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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Coffee and Tea and Language Without Me

When you have to boil a pot of water (“put the kettle on”) to make coffee, you stop and pause, grab that half-forgotten bag of premium wulong cha (black dragon tea), and (if you’re me and you feel oddly uneasy at six thirty in the evening), you end up making both. So I’m sitting here at my desk, a tall mug of black Nescafe cooling alongside a tiny glass and accompanying teapot. I’m drinking them in tandem. Maybe it’s me, maybe I think I am turning Chinese, or maybe the instant coffee is just awful, but I am finding my taste leaning heavily in favor of the tea.

Sink full of dishes, a tiny cup of tea orbited by an empty glass, a tiny teapot (the dragon changes color when the tea is ready!), a big mug of Nescafe instant coffee (mixed with a lone chopstick), and a tiny "mixing" glass for the tea (more useful than it sounds, stop by and have a cup and I'll show you).

It seems like it’s been a while since I got a good blog in, and I mean that in both the noun and the verb “way.” Pay attention folks, I am unraveling the language before your very eyes. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Blogger. Someone smack me, I am too pretentious for my own good.

I had a decidedly Dedalus moment the other day, as I (surprise, surprise) wandered the streets of Zhanjiang. (I don’t do as much wandering as I would like, but that’s mostly my fault, and not for lack of time.)


More wandering.

And yet more wandering.

I was reviewing some basic Chinese words in my head, when it hit me: the superfluous egocentricity of language (notice the I at the beginning of this sentence). Always in English, you’re referring to yourself, be it to describe action, state a preference, or what have you. Shouldn’t the subject [I] be understood by the very fact that you say it? I imagine that clarification may be necessary when writing (again with the I), but it’s much more simple in Chinese. You can ask, do you have dumplings? You mei you jiaozi? And if dumplings are not to be had, you will hear in response, I/we do not have them; or, in Chinese, mei you, which, simply, is “not have.” It strikes me as a much more inclusive statement, never separating the speaker from the collective. There’s an unspoken yet understood group that does not have dumplings; likewise, you rarely need to add the “I” in Chinese. I like dumplings; formally, “wo xihuan jiaozi,” but a simple “xihuan jiaozi” will do.

It’s simple, and I like it. Grammar, at least, shouldn’t be a problem. I look forward to eating these words as I learn more Chinese, of course, but for now, it’s an interesting observation on the language.


Patrick said...

Thats quite odd...

Meg said...

That implied-subject thing always seems to work against me when I need to know something. SOMEONE doesn't have what you need, SOMEONE lost the paperwork, etc.