Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Chinese language pronunciation

While reading about Classical Chinese, I came across a reference to the problem of homophony, which is when different words sound the same. Since Chinese is such an old language, there are many words that are homonyms for each other. (For example, "ma" can mean "mother" or "horse" depending on the tone used.) There's a famous essay called "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den" that when read aloud will have no meaning to a listener since every word is pronounced as "shi". Here's the text in phonetic Chinese (Hanyu Pinyin):

« Shī Shì shí shī shǐ »

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

Hmmm... not much to understand...

Now here's the text in Chinese characters. Notice the text is in distinct characters, so someone reading it can easily understand it.


石室詩士施氏, 嗜獅, 誓食十獅。
十時, 適十獅適市。
是時, 適施氏適市。
氏視是十獅, 恃矢勢, 使是十獅逝世。
氏拾是十獅屍, 適石室。
石室濕, 氏使侍拭石室。
石室拭, 氏始試食是十獅。
食時, 始識是十獅, 實十石獅屍。

And here's the meaning in English:

« Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den »

In a stone den was a poet Shi Shi, who loved to eat lions, and decided to eat ten.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
One day at ten o'clock, ten lions just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi Shi just arrived at the market too.
Seeing those ten lions, he killed them with arrows.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that those ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this.

Fun stuff this language! Too bad I don't have enough time to really study this. I feel like I need a few more life times to pursue all the different things that interest me. Either that or find a way to get along without sleeping. That would give me an extra 8 hours a day! Then I'd have time to practice karate, work, learn Chinese and Japanese, and maybe even eat and do laundry. :-)