Saturday, March 16, 2013

Cover The Box (Why Languages Are Different)

Suppose this box represents all the possible things you might ever want to communicate:

Pictured: All there is to talk about. Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.

Every language uses specific words, phrases, and grammatical structures to cover the entire box of possible meanings. It covers the whole box, so that all meanings within the box can be expressed in that language. But here's the thing: The covering is different.

Suppose this next diagram represents English. Each little region represents an English word/expression/grammar structure:

Each "circle" represents an English word/expression/grammar structure.

And then this one is Chinese:

Each "circle" represents a Chinese word/expression/grammar structure.

All the same meanings can be expressed (well, more or less... I have yet to find anyone who can tell me in English what 空心菜 is...) but there's not a direct correspondence between the little subsections on the English diagram and the Chinese one.

In other words, for every Chinese word, the English "translation" may or may not mean quite the same thing.

For some words, it is quite literally the exact same thing. Inchworm is 尺蠖 (chǐhuò), and guess what- a 尺蠖 (chǐhuò) and an inchworm are really EXACTLY the same thing.

Fun fact: 尺 (chǐ) is a unit of measure sort of analogous to the English foot. Image source.

But what about 睡觉 (shuìjiào), which, supposedly, means "sleep"?

Sometimes it is used the same way as the English word "sleep." Like if someone asks "What did you do this weekend?" and you say "sleep", the correct Chinese word would be 睡觉 (shuìjiào). Sometimes, it means "sleep."

But quite often, the correct translation for 睡觉 (shuìjiào) is "go to sleep."

Let's look at the English word "sleep." If you ask someone, "When did you sleep?" perhaps they will answer "From 11 pm to 7 am." "Sleep" is something that takes place for an extended period of time.

But if you ask "你什么时候睡觉?" (nǐ shénme shíhou shuìjiào)- basically "when did you 睡觉 (shuìjiào)?" the 睡觉 (shuìjiào) here should be translated "go to sleep" or "go to bed." The answer to this question would be, perhaps, "At 11 pm." "Sleep" is something that happens over a period of time- from the time you go to bed to the time you wake up. "睡觉 (shuìjiào)" happens at one specific time- the time you go to bed.

And the fact that "sleep" and "睡觉 (shuìjiào)" are not the same seems to be something not immediately obvious to the average Chinese and English speaker. I've heard Chinese and Chinese-Americans use terms like "sleep early" because they were doing a word-for-word translation from Chinese, and incorrectly translated "睡觉 (shuìjiào)" as "sleep". I was confused- what in the world does "sleep early" mean? The only thing I could imagine is shifting the entire 8-hour sleeping period forward- go to bed an hour early, get up an hour early. Sleep early. (??? Seems like a strange concept to express...)

But what they really meant was "go to bed early."

And then you get the term "sleep late", which, because of the difference between "sleep" and "睡觉 (shuìjiào)" ends up expressing the exact opposite of what they were trying to express. In correct English, "sleep late" means "get up late." Get a lot more sleep than usual.

But the average English-speaking Chinese person who says "sleep late" is really trying to say "go to bed late." Get less sleep than usual.

I have heard people say completely backwards things like "I slept late so I'm really tired today."

So anyway, now you know. "Sleep" is not "睡觉 (shuìjiào)". They're similar, but it's often the case that when you translate from one language to another, you're not going to find a word that means the exact same thing, used in the exact same situations.

But you know what? That's awesome. Don't read this and think "wow, learning languages is way too hard." No, this is why learning languages is AWESOME! I totally never would have imagined that other people could view the distinction between "sleep" and "go to sleep" differently than I do, as a native English speaker.

So cool! And that's just the beginning. Chinese and English are so completely different, and it's great.

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  1. Props on your article. This is the reason why I love languages as well; being able to express equivalent thoughts or feelings in a completely different way.