Thursday, February 3, 2011

Heisig: my just desserts

I was reminded recently that there is a large gap between knowing individual Chinese characters, and being able to understand what the entire phrase or sentence might mean.

This is already an idea I know well, I certainly mentioned it a few times in my series on learning to read using the Heisig system, and I've left numerous comments on others' blogs to that effect.

Nevertheless, I felt this example was 'extreme' enough to be worth sharing.

As you can see from the photo attached, there is an item on this late-night dessert place, which says:

(By the way, I did screw up a bit by initially confusing the 杏 character with 否. Forgive me?)

Anyway ... so doing what I normally do, I tried to work out what the dessert was. Actually, from my Heisig days, I knew the meaning of every character, which are as follow:
    = South North apricot wood melon snow ear

I had no idea what that was!   (All I could guess was that there was melon in there.)

It's easy enough to put this through a dictionary, but even here, it doesn't get much better, because I'm still left with:
    = South North apricot [papaya] snow ear

Upon discussing this with a HK friend, it turns out that the expressions are Cantonese in nature, and so knowing Mandarin (or using a Mandarin dictionary) isn't going to help much. But I persisted ...

Now, using human input and a Cantonese dictionary, I discover that the grouping should be as follows:
    (almond)(papaya)(white fungus)

Aside: According to Wikipedia, apricot kernels are sometimes used instead of bitter almonds, but it seems to be accepted in HK amongst those I spoke to that when they see 南北杏 they generally take it to mean 'almond'. White Fungus, in this case, does indeed look more ear-like than mushroom-like.

So there we have it. (Although *I* didn't have it.  No, I ate some kind of warm red bean soup instead. Mainly because I didn't need a dictionary for that one!).

Chinese seems hard, but it's actually harder than that! :-)

Can you recall any specific words that you learned along the way where the word or phrase looks *nothing* like the characters which make it up? If so, please leave a comment below.

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