Friday, December 31, 2010

Who's on First?

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​ shén​me​?) ("This is what?")
(Yes, I've been learning Simplified characters, so I talk in Simplified too :-)
     E:  这是甚麼   (zhè​ shì​ shén​me​) ("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 :-)