Gym has been helping me improve my Chinese since I moved to HK. (And my Chinese would be even better if I went more often!)
While running on treadmill, not only am I listening to Mandarin music, but I'm also watching the (silent) TV screens. Actually, I'm not even looking at the picture - just reading the subtitles as they flash past. It's too fast and too complicated for me to work out what's going on, but it's good practice for the characters that I know ...
This time there was one character that kept on flashing past - I couldn't remember seeing it before, but sadly I also couldn't remember it well enough to reproduce it - which meant even a few minutes with a dictionary came up with blanks. (Forgive me, I was concentrating more on the burn in my thighs, and less on the shape of Chinese characters at that time.)
I got to work this morning, and asked a colleague what this character meant - and after a few failed attempts, she recognised it as 甚. She pointed out that it is usually associated with another character: 甚麼.
The dialogue then went as follows:
G: 这是什么? (zhè shì shénme?) ("This is what?")
(Yes, I've been learning Simplified characters, so I talk in Simplified too :-)
E: 这是甚麼 (zhè shì shénme) ("This is 'what'.")
(Note the identical pinyin, which is why I was confused ...)
G: 我问你: 这是什么? ("I'm asking you: This is what?")
E: 对 我告诉你: 这是甚麼 ("Correct, I'm telling you: This is 'what' ")
If you haven't worked it out by now, the word for 'what' in Simplified is 什么 - which according to the dictionary is written as 什麼 in Traditional Characters. However, there is a variant of this word in Traditional which is 甚麼.
This is what?
Yes, this is what.
Kinda reminded me of the old Abbot & Costello sketch called "Who's on First?". If you don't know it, you'd better see it!
Have you ever listened to a story that sounded like it was going to have an amazing climax, but didn't? Ah yes, well this is one of those :-)