Friday, 17 December 2010


NB: this post was originally written in September 2010!

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Things I have done over the last two weeks, deep in the Kent countryside:

a) eaten delicious wild mushrooms, picked myself (yes, I do know what I'm doing---never fear, I shall not be following the dismal example of Nicholas Evans). Parasol mushrooms are especially good in risotto, please note, because they release a lot of liquid when cooked.

b) I have also read a large proportion of Burton's massive omnium-gatherum The Anatomy of Melancholy, which is up there with The Faerie Qveene and Browne's Religio Medici as an all-time favourite book.

c) I've walked in the local wet, vetiver-scented chestnut coppices every day.

d) Finally, I've made a stab at learning Mandarin. If you could have seen me, gentle readers, contorting my face into the strange syllables of the perfumed East, you would have laughed. It's not actually that hard, if you are doing everything in pīnyīn transliteration, but it is hilariously like the dialogue from every kung-fu movie you've ever seen. You'd think it was all an orientalist, egg-flied-lice stereotype---but no, they do apparently really say things like 'I come you house make sitsit?' (that is, 'Might I call round?') and 'Two weeks, I go China.' I can, however, quite see why the language's fearsome reputation has come about: I can imagine it being very very difficult to attain real fluency. The weighting of difficulty differs from an Indo-European language: unlike, say, Russian or Old Irish, Pǔtōnghuà (i.e., Mandarin) has next to no morphological stage-business: every word is more or less indeclinable, unmarked for tense, case, or number. This makes it all very straightforward, as long as you learn the correct tone when you learn a word, which is easily done. But then a whole series of flanking expressions and aspect particles come in, many of which do not map onto I-E grammatical categories at all well, and if you couple that with different cultural norms, you can see why it's a challenge to wrap your tongue around. Then of course, comes the massive task of learning the characters, of which 2000+ are needed for literacy to be achieved.

My favourite word so far is the hilarious érzi, 'son', which is pronounced as follows. First, make the quizzical noise of a elderly dog waking up, 'arr?', with a rising tone; alternatively imagine you are a west country farmer (or a pirate) saying 'arrrr?' with a distinct burr, and again with a rising inflection. Then add the brief, unstressed syllable 'dzuh', to rhyme with the last syllable of 'sofa'. Fun!

1 comment:

Aelred Patrick said...

You no fair!

Me want go very much Kent also! Und along the River Darent und thru the streets of Shoreham und under the oaks of Ullingstone und across the whole Weald go a-walking, drawing, painting, dreaming, pinching myself to make sure not dreaming...

I wish I were an Extollager/ Beneath the harvest moon/Spooking a poaching villager/And whistling an Ancient tune

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