Monday, November 28, 2011
I don't know nuffin' or nuffin'
I. It was quite early on when I learned to say "I know" (我知道)(wǒ zhīdào). That was easy. And 'not knowing' was almost just as easy: 我不知道 (wǒ bù zhīdào).
II. It took a little longer to be able to say "I know everything": 我什么都知道 (wǒ shénme dōu zhīdào). Of course I didn't actually know everything, but even *I* could memorise that sentence.
Yet that sentence bothered me! You see people told me that Mandarin was just like English: subject-verb-object. I eat fish. I photograph people. I know everything. But look at the sentence above: (我)(什么都)(知道): (I)(everything)(know).
So much for Mandarin being just like English. Sigh.
And I'm sure that someone will be able to explain to me why the above still is consistent with English, by referring to compound verbs, adverbial phrases, the genetive case, or even transferred epithets.
But I'm not a linguist, I'm just someone struggling to learn Chinese. And to me, Mandarin is not like English.
III. So imagine how frustrated I became when I realised that basically I know nothing. "I know nothing" 我什么都不知道 (wǒ shénme dōu bù zhīdào).
Breaking the sentence down, it looks like this: (I)(everything)(don't know). My mind translated this as "I do not know everything" - which did not match the actual meaning. My mind was blown: I didn't even know how to know nothing!
Let me just make sure you're following me. In English, if I know everyone in my street, then this means I know every single person who lives on my street. And if I know no-one on my street, then the number of people I know is zero. Not one. However when I say I do not know everyone, what I mean is that I know some people, but not all people.
So the Chinese version 我什么都不知道 (wǒ shénme dōu bù zhīdào) didn't make sense to me - because it seems to relate to knowing nothing, rather than not knowing everything. Very different! But this wasn't the time for logic. 我什么都不知道 (wǒ shénme dōu bù zhīdào) means "I know nothing". Memorise it. And I did.
IV. At the back of my mind I continued wondering how to tell people that I don't know everything. I know something, not nothing though, but also definitely not everything either. Earlier this year I asked Maggie (Hi Maggie!) how to say it. And this is what she said was a good option to understand the difference:
I do not know everything
bùshì suǒyǒu de shìqing wo dōu zhīdào
(not all the things)(I know)
With all due respect to the Chinese language, this feels really clumsy! Item IV is logical I guess, but it's not simple and it's certainly not obvious. Oh but it works. And as I keep reminding myself, this is Chinese. I can disagree as much as I want, but if this is it, then this is what I'll learn.
Apologies: I'm too scared to re-read this post before I press [publish]. I'm worried I'm going be so confused by my own confusion, that I'll just end up clicking [discard] and blame it on the entropy of the universe. Maybe you started reading this post believing that although you didn't know everything, you didn't 'know nothing'. But now you know for sure that you don't know what I thought you should know. But don't blame me. No! What you need to know is it's not my fault.
That's Chinese, you know.
(And if you think this post was long & confusing, make sure you do not click on this link.)