Tuesday, May 29, 2012

No swearing please, we're Chinese

Mandarin is probably the only language on this planet that you can't swear in.  "F___ you!", an expletive that is now so common that no movie is released for public viewing if it's not heard at least a few times, cannot be translated into Mandarin effectively.  There is simply no words in the entire Chinese vocabulary that are equal to the task of translating foul language.  It's not that Chinese people are generally gentle and slow to anger.   It's just the peculiarity of the Mandarin dialect.  All the other Chinese dialects are not so ill-equipped in their arsenal of swear words.  From the Gobi desert to the South China Sea and from the Great Wall on its Northern border to the southern island of Hainan, there are hundreds of non-Mandarin Chinese dialects, all of which allow their speakers to express themselves more meaningfully than the Mandarin dialect which reeks of expired antiseptic handwash in hospital toilets.

Last night, I fell asleep on the sofa just after playing a few pieces on my clarinet.  My playing obviously sends not just my listeners to sleep but the player himself too.  When I woke up, it was way past midnight.  I felt in need of some exercise and I took my bike out for a spin.  Somewhere in the shopping district of Singapore, I saw this push button at a pedestrian crossing that gives us an interesting insight into this quadriplegic Mandarin dialect.

This is not just a sticker mischievously placed above the button by a passerby.  It's very much a part of the button, installed by none other than the LTA (Land Transport Authority) itself.  It is of course very much to its credit that the LTA has shown itself to have a sense of humour but for those not familiar with Chinese, let me explain what the sign means.

It simply says "MY GRANDFATHER ONE".  The sign bears the scars inflicted on it by some prude who must have thought the sign inappropriate.  But what does it mean?

I have already explained that the Mandarin dialect contains no foul language.  In Chinese literature, whenever a character is furious with another, he says to him "Ta ma de".  That's as far as the Mandarin dialect permits.  A word-for-word translation of it would be "His mother one".  There is no genitive case in all Chinese dialects and the "de" or "one" is necessary to indicate possession.  Literally, it means "His mother's".  Notice that even in the height of anger, a Mandarin speaker is unable to direct the abuse at the person who is the object of his anger.  Instead of "YOUR mother one", the highly euphemized abuse still has to be deflected to "HIS mother one".  It's surprising we still read of wars within the Three Kingdoms in ancient China despite its sanitized language.

So, our prude who tried to destroy this sign probably thought "MY GRANDFATHER ONE" is meant to allude to a certain part of her grandfather's anatomy just as Ta ma de refers to a certain part of "his" mother's anatomy, whoever the "he" may be.

But what Miss Prude totally missed is the real intention behind this sign.  It's common to say in Chinese of someone who struts down the road proudly that he thinks his grandfather owns the road.  The intended meaning of the sign is this - once the green man appears, I will cross the road as if it belongs to my grandfather.  There is no vulgarity intended and Miss Prude need not have troubled herself to destroy the sign and incidentally in Singapore, any act of destroying public property is deemed vandalism which is an extremely serious offence.

EDIT: 2:25pm, 29 May 2012

By attributing this work of genius to the LTA and praising them for their sense of humour, I have certainly given credit to the wrong party.  As it turns out, LTA is up in arms against someone who has been pasting the stickers all over Singapore.  While I think the person ought to be given due recognition for his sense of humour, the LTA has issued a warning that those who place stickers may be prosecuted.  Thanks to a friend who alerted me to my error and gave me the link below, I now know I should be wiser than to think government officials in Singapore are capable of showing their funnier side.  This is what the Straits Times says:

Source: http://www.straitstimes.com/BreakingNews/Singapore/Story/STIStory_736275.html

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