Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Immediately on Top

Year 2014 is the year of the horse in the Chinese Zodiac. One word that revolves around the concept of horse in Chinese, English and Malay is horsepower. As a specific value, horsepower is a common unit of measurement for mechanical power. The horse notion is iconically prevalent in horsepower in some other languages, such as /马力; mǎ (horse) lì (power)/ in Mandarin, or /kuasa [power] kuda [horse]/ in Malay. A short discussion on iconicity is available in Sew (2005).
                                     image taken from http://thedesigninspiration.com/photos/horsepower/

Cataloging lexical compounds between Chinese, English and Malay for a contrast of morphosyntactic variation makes a typical comparison. The morpheme horse is at the initial position of the English and Chinese lexical composition in contrast to the final position of the Malay compound. In terms of lexical combination, the Malay bipartite compound kuasa kuda  exists in an opposite combinatory to horsepower and /马力/ in Mandarin. 

In the remainderof this blog post, the focus is on the Chinese characters horse and top. / shàng/, which initially denote on top of a running horse, is currently an adverb meaning immediately. Jim Gibney (2011), who teaches English in China, observes that /mashang/, which literally means 'at horse speed', turns out to be 'eventually' when it comes to getting repair work done for his building.

In the visual representation below, the idiomatic /mashang/ combines with two other Chinese characters have 有 and presents 礼 to denote a wish that is synonymous to receive gift immediately. From a semiotic viewpoint, the visual representation depicts a gift (written with the character fortune) sitting on top of equine as the main component of /mashang/. If iconic symbolization may be part of cultural semiotics (Sew, 2005), the red paper cutting represents an original aspect of /mashang/.

In Chinese culture, apart from material objects, gift as a cultural concept may refer to the money offered to the host of a wedding or birthday banquet (see the Mandarin skit illustrating the plight of a married Chinese couple who hatched a plan for throwing a 10th anniversary wedding banquet as a strategy to make some quick money in Chun Wan 2014, http://www.chun-wan.com/). Receiving gifts is a double-edged sword, as it may be interpreted as bribery, although it is a cultural practice in many parts of the Chinese-speaking world for establishing guang 关 shi系 (relationship), or networking in a cultural-specific corporate world. The delivery of hampers among business associates normally peaks during the month before Chinese New Year in Singapore and Malaysia.

                                      Image taken from http://www.fudan.org.cn/archives/20119/mashang

Interestingly, there is a reversal of meaning change in the pragmatics of /mashang/. Diachronically, the horse character // and top character // undergo the process of semantic bleaching becoming less equine- and top-like in //. Semantic bleaching is related to grammaticalization - a process in which a lexical word loses its original meaning in time. In terms of diachronic grammar, many claim that grammaticalization is unilateral, i.e. a one way development in which a full lexical word becomes more grammatical gradually. There are others who do not subscribe to the unilateral direction of grammaticalization. This post merely recounts a usage-based situation in which a grammaticalized word regains its original lexical meaning.
For illustration and comparison of Chinese wishes in the real world  that begin with /mashang/, Table 1 contains two types of wish shared verbally during Chinese New Year in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore and Malaysia. The first type is the immediately-have-thing wish such as immediately own money, house, and car. The second category, in contrast, is the immediately-be-in-a-state wish including immediately be prosperous, immediately be lucky, and immediately be happy.

Mandarin wishes
Hanyu Pinyin
ma shang you qian 
(Tho, 2014)
Get rich immediately (Tho, 2014)
ma shang you fang
(Tho, 2014)
Own a house immediately
(Tho, 2014)
ma shang you che [hao] (Tho, 2014, brackets mine)
Obtain a car [licence plate] immediately (Tho, 2014, brackets mine)
ma shang cái
Strike a fortune immediately
ma shang hǎo yùn
Become lucky immediately
ma shang xin
Blessed with happiness immediately

Table 1: Select Chinese New Year Greetings in Mandarin

The year 2014 offers an immediate opportunity for the horse and top characters to spring into life, as it were, via a zodiac-based fortification in the semantics of wishing repertoire invoked as a face-to-face cultural practice. Both characters /mashang/ reverberate an on-top-of-the-horse meaning because the immediately-wishes in Table 1 are not commonly shared with each other in Chinese New Year yet become relevant and popular in conjunction with the ushering in of the year of the horse.

After knowing that /mashang/ is used to wish for something immediately, or get into a wonderful state immediately, we may append many things or states that are desirable for listeners in our verbal interaction. A well-tailored wish in the year of the horse will definitely enhance one's CQ (cultural intelligence) immediately, so to speak. The scope that follows the immediately-wish is definitely diverse ranging from good health, youthfulness, longevity, pregnancy, daughter, son, or promotion for everybody in accordance to one's preference(s).

Data base and work consulted
Gibney, Jim. (2011). What ma shang really means. Chinadaily.com.cn  http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/mychinastory/2011-12/26/content_14327802.htm
Sew, Jyh Wee. (2005). Iconicity. In P. Strazny (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Linguistics (pp. 487-488). New York: Routledge.
__________. (2014). Spring in other dialect. Grammar Gang. http://thegrammargang.blogspot.sg/2014/01/spring-in-other-dialect.html
Tho, Sin Yi (2014). Cheeky equine greetings of the Horse 2014. Rightways: Sowing the seeds to success. http://rightwayssuccess.blogspot.sg/2014/01/cheeky-equine-greetings-of-horse-2014.html

Jyh Wee Sew
Centre for Language Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
Kent Ridge Campus, National University of Singapore

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A flying start to university - language know how

Starting university (and even returning to university) is a time of great celebration.   There are many new things to explore and learn as you enter this new phase of your life.

In South Australia, new students will shortly start their orientation to university, ahead of the first week of the semester (in March).

There will be much to learn including where to get the best food on campus; how to buy books; who are the key people in your program of study.

There will also be new ways of doing which can take a while to learn.    As I reflect on my own journey as an undergraduate and postgraduate student, I remember it took me lots of twists and turns before things fell into place with regard to understanding the types of assignments and the style of language required.

By the time I became a Learning Advisor who worked in our Language and Learning services area, I was aware there were some language fundamentals to grasp in order to become successful at uni.   I would like to share these with you.

Firstly, be aware of the different types or genres of writing required.   The free-flowing form of essay writing, with its arguments and justifications, is quite different to the highly objective tone of a report - with its headings and numbered sections and sub sections.  

Secondly, no matter what the genre, structure is also an important part of making yourself understood; ordering your points of difference and giving credibility to your work.   A well structured piece - whether within the whole assignment; at the paragraph or sentence level - is a key way to earn marks.   Linking words - simple or complex - can aid this process.

Thirdly, the tone of writing also plays an important role.   Where an informal tone and use of the first person 'I' might be appropriate for a reflective writing piece, a technical report will let the data speak and create more distance between the reader and the author.   An essay - which may have strong points of justification - will sit somewhere between the two.    Mostly, the tone of your work at university will require objectivity.

Finally, we end with where we really ought to start.   Whenever you approach an assessment piece at university, seek help.  Clarify any points with your lecturer and - if you are able - take your early pieces of writing to your student support unit (they are called various things in different universities).  

We wish you all the best for a flying start at university OR a successful new year.

Andrea and the Grammar Gang

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Going bananas

Let’s talk about the fruits used in the idioms of daily life. Many terms from the fruit category are invoked for describing human beings or human behaviors. For example, it may be good at first for a worker to be the apple of the boss’ eye because it means that the person has become a favorite of his superior. In a different scenario, however, a worker who is genuinely capable at work and received promotion based on merit might be accused of being the apple of the boss’ eye due to the tall poppy syndrome. This is a social phenomenon whereby the talented ones are often resented and criticized for standing out in the crowd due to peer-group jealousy.

Whether it is the apple in sight, or the upper poppy, a person may enjoy a smoother path at work although he or she may be the fruit of envy among the colleagues. I would call the associated jealous crowd green tomatoes, based on the name of a tomato species called Green Envy. The green tomatoes would more likely to consider the successful peers as the bad apples. It is hence twice as hard for the so-called bad apples to maintain a cherry condition with their colleagues, especially if they are in the top banana positions. For one reason, the second bananas or subordinates may have the tendency to turn into sour grapes.
              Green Envy (image taken from http://www.mporchards.com/index.php/about-us/tomatoes)

In Malay, we use sweet corn to describe a person's attributes. A person is inexperienced if he practices a particular trade for setahun jagung [planting sweet corn for a year]. If a person is a green horn, he may be regarded as seumur jagung [as old as sweet corn], which is about 100 days (cf. Kamus Dewan, 2007). Furthermore, jagung kampung [village sweet corn] is a term invoked for referring to a hillbilly living in seclusion and remaining oblivious to the outside world. While a Malay lady’s beautiful calf may be considered as resembling the bunting padi [a paddy bulge] a woman’s pregnant stomach may be described as resembling the bunting keladi [the bulge of water hyacinth] (keladi in general may also refer to yam or taro; see Sew, 2009 for more examples of Malay idioms containing fruit references).
                                                         Bunting padi (a paddy bulge)
                 Image taken from http://seswap.blogspot.sg/2012/02/betis-bak-bunting-padi.html
                   Bunting keladi (the bulge of water hyacinth), image taken from http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-rBgKL_dWzJI/T_xMcFTIfjI/AAAAAAAAAMs/wtkfkpbVdV4/s1600/kiambang+pokok.jpg
In the 1940s, my grand aunt was considered a delicate beauty in her hometown. She was called ong-lai-huey in Hokkien literally meaning the pineapple flower. (Beauty in this context is beyond the standards of the Hollywood circle). The household received fresh seafood delivered by the soldiers during wartime. The fruit idiom was an interesting reference that incurred abundance for the family and sustained personal success in her strides, i.e. generated two marriages, the second after the death of her first husband. Marriage was a strategy to fight off poverty and the hardships of life in the 1940s for very many illiterate Southeast Asian women. Half a century ago, singlehood was a social taboo begetting gossips and hate speeches insinuating that the (female) singles were worthless (see the recent Singapore's Media Corp television drama serial The journey: A vogage). It is still the case today in certain Malay communities (Maznah Mohamad, 2013).

Indeed, life is not a bowl of cherries given the fact that there are always rotten apples and sour grapes in our surrounding. We have to learn how to cherry pick our friends and associates. Hence, it is necessry to act intelligently in different situations as we may have to pass the olive branch in one occasion and be as cool as a cucumber in another. As a rule of thumb, we cannot afford to not know beans about our company, not least the ignorance may be an opportunity for others to upset the apple cart.

Kamus Dewan [Malay Dictionary]. (2007). Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

Maznah Mohamad. (2013). Globalisation and gender dissonance among poor Malays. The 14th Malaysia Singapore Forum, 9-10 Dec. Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Sew, Jyh Wee. (2009). Semiotik persembahan wacana [Semiotics of discourse performing]. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press.

Jyh Wee Sew
Center For Language Studies
Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
National University of Singapore