Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Parseltongue! (the Year of the Snake is coming)

calligraphy by Jasmin
On the 10th of February it will be here - the Year of the Snake.

There is plenty of information about this coming year in the Chinese Zodiac, and for your convenience, here's a quick link to summarise some of the key points.

But since this is a language-learning blog, I thought now would be a good time to provide you with some words & idioms associated with snakes in general, in a WordPack kinda way. You're obviously using flashcards (right?) so copy some or all of these into your pack, and learn them when they make it to the front of that pack.

(And in case you don't get the heading of this post, in the Harry Potter series, 'Parseltongue' is the language of snakes. Now you too can be a 'Parselmouth'.)

The character
The character for snake or serpent in Chinese is 蛇 - pronounced shé  (and if you haven't heard this word before, make sure you don't make this common mistake when saying it).

It's component parts are 虫 and 它, meaning insect+it ... just in case that's either interesting or useful to you in memorising it. (I use Stephen King's IT character ('it') to help with the visualisation.)

Both Simplified & Traditional character sets use the same character, although I have found an alternative Traditional character of 虵 which seems to be the same thing.

Some relevant words
Using my favourite MDBG online dictionary, I found some words that might be useful for you.
  • 蛇皮 (shépí): snake skin
  • 蛇毒 (shédú): snake venom
  • 蝮蛇 (fùshé): venomous snake
  • 蛇年 (shénián): Year of the Snake
  • 蛇形 (shéxíng): S-shaped / coiled like a snake 

Snake (and Snake-like) characters
In the Chinese Zodiac, the character of the snake does have implications of malevolence, sorcery, mystery, divination. So it's interesting to note the following too:
  • 虺蜥 (huǐxī): figuratively a vicious person, but literally a poisonous snake
  • 蛇头 (shétóu): figuratively a human smuggler, but literally the head of a snake
  • 法海 (Fǎhǎi): Fahai the evil Buddhist monk in Tale of the White Snake
  • 白蛇传 (BáiShéZhuàn): Tale of the White Snake / Madame White Snake
And also ...
  • 摩喉罗伽 (móhóuluójiā): Mahoraga, the snake protector deity of Buddhist law

Idioms / Chengyu
Chengyu is a massive body of Chinese idioms (usually four characters) which you can read about here. Below are the ones I have found which have something to do with snakes:
  • 虎头蛇尾 (hǔtóushéwěi): a strong start but a weak finish (literally tiger's head snake's tail) T:虎頭蛇尾
  • 画蛇添足 (huàshétiānzú): to go too far with something (literally to draw the legs on a snake) T:畫蛇添足
  • 打草惊蛇 (dǎcǎojīngshé​): to inadvertently alert an enemy (literally beat the grass to scare the snake) T: 打草驚蛇
  • 引蛇出洞 (yǐnshéchūdòng​): to draw something bad out into the open (literally to pull a snake from its hole)
  • 杯弓蛇影 (bēigōngshéyǐng​): unnecessarily suspicious (literally to see a bow reflected in a cup as a snake)
  • 佛口蛇心 (fókǒushéxīn​): two-faced (literally words of a Buddha, heart of a snake)
  • 打蛇不死 (dǎshébùsǐ​): nip the problem in the bud (literally beat the snake to prevent death)
  • 强龙不压地头蛇 (qiánglóngbùyādìtóushé​): a gangster who is above the law (literally strong dragon cannot repress the snake) T: 強龍不壓地頭蛇
  • 一年被蛇咬十年怕井绳 (yīniánbèishéyǎoshíniánpàjǐngshéng​): once bitten twice shy (literally bitten by a snake in one year, fears the well-rope for ten years) T: 一年被蛇咬十年怕井繩
  • 虚与委蛇 (xū​yǔ​wēi​shé​): pretence of complying (literally false gift by sending a snake) T: 虛與委蛇
  • 龙蛇混杂 (lóng shé hùnzá): a mingling of good & evil within a person (literally mixing dragon & snake) T: 龍蛇混雜
  • 牛鬼蛇神 (niú guǐ shé shén): evil people of all types (literally cow ghost snake spirit)
  • 人心不足蛇吞象 (rénxīnbùzúshétūnxiàng​): a man who is never content is like a snake trying to swallow an elephant

So yes, Year of the Snake. At least now you'll be ready - and armed to the teeth with words and idioms to impress anyone that you might slither into. Good luck!

Edit: I can't believe I didn't think of it while I was writing the article, but you might now also be wondering how they say "Parseltongue" in the Chinese translation of the Harry Potter books. With the help of a couple of friends at a language exchange meeting yesterday (thanks Fiona & Wavy) we found two versions:  蛇老腔 (shélǎoqiāng) which is perhaps best translated "ancient snake speech"; and 爬说语 (páshuōyǔ) which is more of a loanword that sounds similar, albeit with clever choice of characters.

1 comment:

  1. Following up on some messages that I have received, I wanted to confirm that the picture used to illustrate this post is indeed 蛇, but it's a calligraphy version of the character.

    It took me a few moments to convince myself when I first saw it, but if you focus more on the strokes and less on the shape, I think you'll get it.