Who isn't writing in their mother tongue?

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Tazlima

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There is a popular tattoo that women often get of a Chinese character which means 'Peace and harmony.' The same character means 'Dirty whore' to the Vietnamese.

I suspect the detail that the symbol is a tattoo is important.

There was, for a long time, an issue where a major provider to tattoo parlors sold templates of an "asian/chinese" alphabet, where A=symbol 1, B=Symbol 2, etc.

(Sorry about the old link. I know I've read about this other places, but it was hard to dig up).

Obviously chinese characters don't work that way, but a large number of people who are bound and determined to get a "tattoo of their intials in Chinese" and see such an "alphabet" at their local U.S. tattoo parlor have probably never studied a language that didn't use the Roman alphabet. The average US high school might offer classes in Spanish, French, German, maybe Latin if they want to get fancy. However, it's relatively rare to find a curriculum that offers Chinese or Arabic or Russian.

Add in the fact that this was going on at least as far back as the 80s, before the internet made translation research a breeze, and you have a recipe for some really bad "Chinese" tattoos.

Tattoo suppliers sell loads of these sheets of sample tattoos, a symbol with the meaning provided underneath. Not just the so-called "alphabet," but actual characters (albeit, possibly upside-down or backwards) with the more-or-less correct meanings. It would be easy for someone creating such a sheet to input whatever characters they wanted, safe in the knowledge that a huge percentage of their clientele would be none the wiser. I could absolutely see someone flipping through the book, going, "ooh, this one means 'peace and harmony' and proceeding without further research.

From there, all it would take is one person to actually understand the tattoo and being like "um... why does it say 'dirty whore' on your shoulder?"

"Oh no. This means peace and harmony in Chinese."

"Hmm. Well, I only speak Vietnamese and English, and these symbols can have different meanings depending on the language. It definitely means 'dirty whore' in Vietnamese, but maybe it's different in Mandarin?"

"Yeah, that must be it!"

And so the foolish tattoo recipient now has a plausible excuse for their "dirty whore" tattoo, and can at least console themselves that in ONE language it means 'pease and harmony,' even if they "can't remember exactly which one."
 
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Tocotin

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From there, all it would take is one person to actually understand the tattoo and being like "um... why does it say 'dirty whore' on your shoulder?"

"Oh no. This means peace and harmony in Chinese."

"Hmm. Well, I only speak Vietnamese and English, and these symbols can have different meanings depending on the language. It definitely means 'dirty whore' in Vietnamese, but maybe it's different in Mandarin?"

"Yeah, that must be it!"

And so the foolish tattoo recipient now has a plausible excuse for their "dirty whore" tattoo, and can at least console themselves that in ONE language it means 'pease and harmony,' even if they "can't remember exactly which one."

That link is very interesting, thank you for sharing. (Actually, Chinese characters can be used in a similar way – to convey sounds only, but this is too out of topic.)

The thing is that a person familiar with Sino-Vietnamese reading of characters would have some general knowledge of Chinese characters. And anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of Chinese characters – I'm talking elementary school level – would know that there is no way these two completely different phrases could be written with the same set of characters. The meanings would not be THAT different.

I was trying to figure out what characters, if any, could be found in both phrases. The "harmony" phrase would probably contain the character 和. The slur would need one character with the radical 女, which carries the meaning of woman (or girl). There is a possibility to take 和 for 如, but they are completely different words, and the second one, despite having the 女 radical, doesn't have a particularly feminine meaning. It is possible that the "peace and harmony" phrase would contain, say, the character 安 (which is "woman under the roof" and means "safety", among other things), but this character does not have an overwhelmingly negative meaning. So I couldn't really find anything.

The slur is Western in origin, the whole story is an urban legend, and a misogynistic one at that.

ETA: I studied Vietnamese, very briefly, long time ago, more because I liked our teacher than out of the interest in the language. The teacher told us that the Vietnamese weren't taught Chinese characters anymore (it was long ago! now there appears to be a revival), and that she knew that her last name could be written in Chinese, but that she only vaguely remembered what it looked like; she couldn't write it. I had already been studying Japanese (and a bit of Chinese), and I knew her surname, Hoang (don't worry – it's a popular one), so I said that I could figure it out if she told me the meaning of it. She said "yellow", I wrote 黄, she said "that's it". :)
 
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Tazlima

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Wow, I started sifting through the archives of the site I linked, and that gibberish font is still going strong. Much more than I realized. Looks like it accounts for a good half of the tattoos they translate.

There are a ton of photos like the top one at this link.

The sad part is that it's not even neatly-written gibberish.
 

Tocotin

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Uhh, the person who is running the blog is not exactly well-informed either. (ETA: when it comes to Japanese.) They have to trust dictionaries, online dictionaries at that, to check this stuff? The character for "twine or string", 紐, cannot be "slang", because if it were, it would be written ヒモ rather than 紐.

The "Yolanda" 余乱田 tattoo is, well, acceptable. It's an ateji, which means Chinese characters used entirely phonetically, usually to represent foreign names and words, without any regard for the meaning. For example, 亜米利加 is an ateji for "America", and the characters mean "Asia + rice + benefit + add" (among other things).
 
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Tazlima

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. And anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of Chinese characters – I'm talking elementary school level – would know that there is no way these two completely different phrases could be written with the same set of characters. The meanings would not be THAT different.

I was trying to figure out what characters, if any, could be found in both phrases. The "harmony" phrase would probably contain the character 和. The slur would need one character with the radical 女, which carries the meaning of woman (or girl). There is a possibility to take 和 for 如, but they are completely different words, and the second one, despite having the 女 radical, doesn't have a particularly feminine meaning. It is possible that the "peace and harmony" phrase would contain, say, the character 安 (which is "woman under the roof" and means "safety", among other things), but this character does not have an overwhelmingly negative meaning. So I couldn't really find anything.

Ah, I didn't realize all that. I'm fascinated by linguistics and have been slowly teaching myself Japanese, but I'm still a complete beginner.

I know that a phrase even in the same language* can have very different meanings depending on the dialect, and thought that interpretation of Chinese characters could be equally divergent.

*E.g. as a child, I learned the hard way that in Hawaii, the phrase "you like beef?" is NOT asking if you're a fan of burgers and steak. My innocent response earned me a beating.
 
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Tocotin

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I know that a phrase even in the same language* can have very different meanings depending on the dialect, and thought that interpretation of Chinese characters could be equally divergent.

*E.g. as a child, I learned the hard way that in Hawaii, the phrase "you like beef?" is NOT asking if you're a fan of burgers and steak. My innocent response earned me a beating.

Oh, I'm sorry! :(

By the way, that blog is indeed hilarious. My favorite tattoo is "small pig, big mistake" OMG :D
 

Irene Eng

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...

From there, all it would take is one person to actually understand the tattoo and being like "um... why does it say 'dirty whore' on your shoulder?"

"Oh no. This means peace and harmony in Chinese."

"Hmm. Well, I only speak Vietnamese and English, and these symbols can have different meanings depending on the language. It definitely means 'dirty whore' in Vietnamese, but maybe it's different in Mandarin?"

"Yeah, that must be it!"

And so the foolish tattoo recipient now has a plausible excuse for their "dirty whore" tattoo, and can at least console themselves that in ONE language it means 'pease and harmony,' even if they "can't remember exactly which one."

You're probably right. The Chinese teacher at our high school in NY, for a long time was Mrs. Chen, a non Chinese who married Mr. Chen. The fact that many native Chinese speakers couldn't pass the teaching exam (which's in English) was one of the reasons. But now the situation has improved and that, came with the Chinese method of teaching too. One Chinese teacher I observed was very typical, stingy on smiles and encouragements, and generally long on ...

Thanks for sharing this. Very interesting.
 
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Siri Kirpal

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Very interesting discussion here!

Okay, I (mostly) only write in English, which is not only my first language, but the only one I know well. But I'd like to share some thoughts.

If you're writing poetry, and you want rhymes, it helps to be writing in Italian, because the vowel endings make for easy and unforced rhymes. Because (most) Chinese characters can be pronounced umpteen different ways, depending on WHICH Chinese you speak, it's one of the worst languages for rhyming poetry. But because those characters mean things in their own right (like the woman under the roof for safety), Chinese is MUCH better than English for writing poetry with visual puns and similar layers of added depth. English is somewhere in between, but closer to Italian.

Because English has so many words for the same thing, writing auditory puns in it is easy. A young man from Mexico mentioned that to me, commenting that it seemed like most of our jokes were puns. So I asked him what they joked about in Spanish. "Death" he said. So I asked how they did that, and he said by exaggerating everything. So, the language in which you write in part determines how you write jokes.

And yes, words for certain things do appear in some languages and not in others, even if the language -- and the culture behind that language -- definitely has the concept. So, for instance, my husband and I were in NYC at the Met three years ago. There was an exhibition of Chinese scroll paintings. I was examining one of them (my favorite scroll painting of all time), when a young Chinese girl (maybe 9 or 11 years old) came up to me and said (clearly trying out her school English), "This my people made..." I could tell she wanted to tell me this scroll was part of her heritage. So I said, "So, it's your heritage." The girl freaked and ran for her father. After some thought, he told me he didn't know the word either. We eventually ran it through their tablet that translated from one language to the other. Heritage came up with a string of characters, which makes me think Chinese doesn't have a single word, although it certainly has the concept. And if any of you know differently, if there really is one character/word, I'd love to know about it.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

Irene Eng

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Sat Nam! (Literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

Very interesting discussion here!

Okay, I (mostly) only write in English, which is not only my first language, but the only one I know well. But I'd like to share some thoughts.

If you're writing poetry, and you want rhymes, it helps to be writing in Italian, because the vowel endings make for easy and unforced rhymes. Because (most) Chinese characters can be pronounced umpteen different ways, depending on WHICH Chinese you speak, it's one of the worst languages for rhyming poetry. But because those characters mean things in their own right (like the woman under the roof for safety), Chinese is MUCH better than English for writing poetry with visual puns and similar layers of added depth. English is somewhere in between, but closer to Italian.

Because English has so many words for the same thing, writing auditory puns in it is easy. A young man from Mexico mentioned that to me, commenting that it seemed like most of our jokes were puns. So I asked him what they joked about in Spanish. "Death" he said. So I asked how they did that, and he said by exaggerating everything. So, the language in which you write in part determines how you write jokes.

And yes, words for certain things do appear in some languages and not in others, even if the language -- and the culture behind that language -- definitely has the concept. So, for instance, my husband and I were in NYC at the Met three years ago. There was an exhibition of Chinese scroll paintings. I was examining one of them (my favorite scroll painting of all time), when a young Chinese girl (maybe 9 or 11 years old) came up to me and said (clearly trying out her school English), "This my people made..." I could tell she wanted to tell me this scroll was part of her heritage. So I said, "So, it's your heritage." The girl freaked and ran for her father. After some thought, he told me he didn't know the word either. We eventually ran it through their tablet that translated from one language to the other. Heritage came up with a string of characters, which makes me think Chinese doesn't have a single word, although it certainly has the concept. And if any of you know differently, if there really is one character/word, I'd love to know about it.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal

Google translates heritage or legacy to 遗产.
 
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Siri Kirpal

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Interesting! That looks like a compound. Do you happen to know what it breaks down into?

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

FlyBird

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遗产 is more commonly used to mean “inheritance”, as in financial inheritance or wealth. 遗means “leave”, 产is “wealth” or “asset”. I think heritage is better translated as 文化遗产, meaning “cultural inheritance”.

I think another way Chinese is so good for poetry is because the fixed word length, so visually the pattern or shape of the poetry is very precise. I also think rhyming is more precise in Chinese because of the short word sound, so the rhyme fit each other nicely. Maybe I am biased!:)
 

Snitchcat

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Not biased at all, Flybird.

When it comes to rhyme and languages, the rhyme is also very dependent upon dialect, regional pronunciation and era.

Over time, pronunciations and meanings change. For instance, "nice" used to mean "precise"; now it's "pleasant".

Yes, 遗产 refers to material inheritance; however, that's only one translation of. At an individual level, you also have 遗物, which is specifically about the personal material things a deceased person left behind, e.g., clothes, jewellery.

For cultural inheritance, you could also use 文化傳承, i.e., "culture inherited".
 

Snitchcat

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And getting back to the original question of this thread: Nope, I don't write in my native language, either. :)

P.S., Native language is not English.
 

Siri Kirpal

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Thanks, Flybird and Snitchcat! Those strings look more like what showed up on the tablet.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

FlyBird

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Sat Nam! (Literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

Thanks, Flybird and Snitchcat! Those strings look more like what showed up on the tablet.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
Sat Nam!

That was a wonderful encounter you had with the Chinese girl at the scroll painting exhibit, it's heart-warming to read about it!

Also, Chinese poems do rhyme well, in my personal experience. Cheers!
 

Ravioli

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My mother tongue is German, but I find it a very cumbersome language and have a hard time writing in a way that sounds natural and "chill". Also, English simply has the bigger reach. I have spent so much time on the international internet, that my written English is a lot more practiced than my written German, too. I've tried to translate Concrete Monsters to German to try and find a publisher here, but every German sentence presents a challenge, and when finished, a cringe.
 

FlyBird

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My mother tongue is German, but I find it a very cumbersome language and have a hard time writing in a way that sounds natural and "chill". Also, English simply has the bigger reach. I have spent so much time on the international internet, that my written English is a lot more practiced than my written German, too. I've tried to translate Concrete Monsters to German to try and find a publisher here, but every German sentence presents a challenge, and when finished, a cringe.
There maybe an advantage to this, the "cumbersomeness" in one language may come off as a rather distinct and fresh "voice" in another language, so keeping some of it may give you an edge, compared to making it sound just like any other English or German book.
 
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MindfulInquirer

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Wow, you are saying there could be such a thing as a better language for writing. Ask someone who writes in French if they agree. I do observe that in public notices with multiple languages, like on the bus I take to work, English is always shorter than Spanish. Chinese is even shorter but it's not a fair comparison because it is made up of individual characters of the same size, so there is no such thing as a long word or short word, all words (not compound ones) are the same length.

I don't usually like to use this expression, but it really is "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". French or German or English or Spanish or Arabic will all have their objective strengths, but then it's a matter of innate personality: I like plainness, power. I think you can achieve emphatic, poignant phrases in English, French will be a lot more descriptive and technical.

I like that you can write proper literature in Eng, say a short story, with basic English. As long as you word it correctly, and tidied. In other languages I know of, you'd have to throw in some rarer words in there to achieve the stylistic literary style. And Eng may even be a technical language when compared to something like Swedish/Norwegian, even more simple and modest, which it's possible I'd be a big fan of if I knew a tad about it.
 

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If I may pick this up again - I prefer English because I just love it! It took me a lot of effort to learn and I tried really hard, it's actually my biggest accomplishment so far. And it just makes me giddy and happy and isn't it just the best language in the world anyway? :D
 

oneblindmouse

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I'm writing a novel in English, even though it's set in Spain, because as English people read more than Spaniards, my book has a better chance of reaching a bigger audience.

By their very nature, different languages lend themselves more to one usage than to another. As English is very direct and monosyllabic, writing poetry in English is very different to Spanish, which has longer words. But Spanish is easier to rhyme, due to grammatical expressions.
 

NellyParker

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Oh I'm so glad I found this thread!

I'm a French writer who uses both French and English. When I was younger I wrote only in French because I didn't feel comfortable enough to write in English, now that I can use both, I find that I'm unable to choose between one or the other. I write in French because it's my mother tongue, and when I was little I marveled at the fact that words on a page could create such vivid images in my mind, but French is an extremely difficult language to write in. When trying to write in French what often happens is that the sentences don't sound natural, it took me a long time before I was able to write in a flowing style. However some ideas just sound so much better when expressed in English. Plus I read mostly in English nowadays, fiction in English is more accessible and much more varied than what I can find in my mother tongue, so it was only natural for me to start writing in English as well. But that didn't mean that I was ready to abandon French either.

At first I felt like I had to choose, and I felt very conflicted. Eventually it became obvious that I couldn't choose, so I decided to use both. As a result my first drafts are a horrible mix of French and English, sometimes I switch language mid-sentence, or just for a few words. When I revise my texts I always produce two versions, and I find that my writing is better thanks to that.

Writing in two different languages is surely a challenge, because I constantly switch between two ways of thinking, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
 

MinaJane

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Hi Nelly, happy to find you here!

As a result my first drafts are a horrible mix of French and English, sometimes I switch language mid-sentence, or just for a few words.

I only write in English, I started writing when I was immersed in studying English and American literature, so it felt more natural... and now everytime I try to write something in French, it feels wrong. But I do put some words in French when I have a precise idea of what I want to say but can't find the proper word in English, and translate it later.
 

NellyParker

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I only write in English, I started writing when I was immersed in studying English and American literature, so it felt more natural... and now everytime I try to write something in French, it feels wrong. But I do put some words in French when I have a precise idea of what I want to say but can't find the proper word in English, and translate it later.

I agree, English flows more naturally than French. The reason I still write in French today is because I started to write before I could speak English. Had I become interested in writing later, I don't know if I would have had the patience to develop my writing skills in French.
 

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