Sunday, June 2, 2013

Say what? Chinese Proverb (Chengyu) on Notecard

I spotted this handwritten notecard in an English/Chinese phrasebook in a used bookstore today. The prior owner (user) of this book has inserted a notecard recording the phrase kǒu chǐ bù qīng (literally translated: "mouth teeth not clear," in Chinese: 口齒不清 or 口齿不清). This expression indeed conveys the sense of someone being unclear or inarticulate. It seems somehow fitting that this notetaker made a false start in writing out this note, and the text remains partially illegible.

By the way, this phrase is one of many chéng yǔ (成語 or 成语), i.e., proverbial expressions or "set phrases" in Chinese. These are most often four words long and since they are highly idiomatic and context-specific, they can prove quite difficult to translate.

One curious convergence of idiomatic expressions across languages is the Chinese expression Hǎo jiǔ bù jiàn! (好久不見 or 好久不见), which translates remarkably literally into English as "long time no see." Some have argued that this expression entered the English vernacular via Chinese Pidgin English -- perhaps by Chinese immigration to North America or contact between the members of the British Navy and traders in China.

For some useful chéng yǔ, see HERE; for more on chéng yǔ as oblique references to Classical Chinese literature, see HERE.

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