Monday, November 28, 2011

I don't know nuffin' or nuffin'

OK, I know a little.  So I know enough to know that I don't know a lot, although for now I know enough.  But like most, I don't know what I don't know. You know what I mean? Oh no!

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: 我知道 (wǒ 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
     bù​shì 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.)


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  2. Greg,
    I normally like to read your posts, but stopped, literally, at item III, 2nd paragraph... and skipped down to read the apology. Out of cowardice.

    My students often get caught in these "logic jinxes" that tie them up and make them useless, and of course they can't keep it to themselves; they disrupt the whole class. A few weeks ago, my class was losing their mind about so-called "double-negative" structures in Spanish. Jinxed!

    The counter-jinx goes in three parts. First I say something like, "Language is not logic." (Language is a communication system, it requires redundancy.)

    Of course that never works; at least with American teenagers, the standard response is "but I'm confused." So then I go after the jinx-victim with "You're not confused, you just don't like it."

    That usually does the trick, but the nuclear option is to say something like, "It's not your job to approve of it or "underSHTand" it, your job is to learn it."

    By this point they usually believe me, but remain resentful, and so as a peace offering I suggested that they write an angry email to the native speakers, and maybe the native speakers will stop what they're doing and change the way they talk because it made an American high school student uncomfortable.

    Ok, I'm not going to win teacher of the year, ever. But what makes language learners susceptible to "logic jinxes" is their inability to disbelieve that language does not equal logic; it feeds into their sense of injustice, which makes them feel ok about hijacking my lesson plan.

    I'm powerful enough to deflect most logic jinxes in Spanish or French class, but I'm horribly weak when it comes to Chinese. When I was living in the mainland, I found I could not trust most native-speaking informants when it came to tone, pinyin, vocabulary, or basic truthiness. So even when someone tells me flatly that something is so in Chinese, I confirm it with Chinese speakers that I trust; my teacher and my friends. It's a habit of disbelief and fear.

    And that, my friend, is why I stopped reading at Item III, 2nd paragraph... I don't want to be jinxed... I know it will make me crazy!

    Crazy-er, I suspect.

  3. Hey JP, thanks for your note. Glad you had the presence of mind to avoid the jinx! You probably didn't even have to go past III to realise I'm done for.

    Actually I'm at peace with this all now :-) The article presented my flow of consciousness, and I was purified by getting it down in writing - even if you missed the jinx bit.

    Thanks again for stopping by.

  4. Chris, hello. Is that grammatically correct? To my ear, "我都不知道" sounds better - but I would love to hear from a native speaker. Frankly, as JP put t, I've probabl jinxed myself - so I can' tell anymore. :-)

  5. I would say it, but I am not native, so best to check. Used with 懂 the pattern works.

    put the dou before the 懂 and it means "I totally do not understand" put the dou after and it means "I do not understand totally", should work with zhidao as well imho. Passes the Google test, lots of hits for both patterns.

    I generally find if you ask a native speaker cold I always get a more complicated version (I tend to give them out when asked for English too and then 10mins later realise, could have given a more concise version). When asked about English and having to think I tend to give out the sort of sentences a 1960's BBC news presenter would use, even though it is my mother tongue.

    I will try to find a native speaker to test it on this week.

  6. Forgot to say I, guess the danger is my reversed short version doesn't quite capture the meaning you were after.

  7. Just a question and I hope I'm not missing your point completely - could you not state it like this instead?

    wǒ yí qiè bù zhīdào
    (I everything not know.)

    Hoping that I can learn something from your reply. :)

  8. So I was speaking to some people this evening.

    Chis, you suggested "我不都知道". I was told that actually "我都不知道" would work, and "我什么都不知道" is still the best. But even if yours were grammatically correct, it does still have the 'logic flaw' as you later note.

    Peckish, apparently while "我一切不知道" is close, the proper variation should be "我一切都不知道". That 都 is required as a 'connector' (quote unquote).

    Finally, after having this all explained to me, Maggie (believe it or not: it was yet another Maggie who helped out this time!) said "But forget about all this crap Greg, there are much more interesting things to learn ...

    So, dear readers, forget about all this crap. Learn something else.

    (In fact, now would be a great time to read one of my earlier articles called "Why a meal is much more important to me than my grandmother".)