Wednesday, July 10, 2013

lao shi/ban/po

Chinese is a modular language, with each of those characters representing a syllable that conveys a particular unit of meaning. Many of the most common words in daily use are really compound words composed of two or more of those little units lumped together.

For instance, dian means "electricity" or "electrical." Hence dian hua ("electrical talking") = telephone. Dian nao ("electric brain") = computer. Dian ying ("electric shadow") = movie. Dian shi ("electric look-at/inspect") = television.

You can see where this sort of thing leads to a bit of confusion for the person attempting to learn the language afresh, automatize the proper words, and fish them from memory real-time in conversation. I've gotten better recently, but I still occasionally ask where my TV is, when I mean to ask for my telephone.

Where it really gets troublesome is in the constellation of lao words.

lao means "old," which is usually a term of respect in Chinese. Hence lao shi ("old expert") means "teacher."

lao ban is interesting. A ban is an unbending plank or board, such as might be used in construction. It's the same word used for a ping pong paddle. It can also be an adjective meaning "stern" or "severe." It can also be used as a verb meaning "get serious," as a teacher might tell his students to stop horsing around and get serious. So when you put "old stern plank" together, you get the word for "boss."

The word po means "grandmother" or "matriarch," and laopo is the commonplace term for one's wife. I suppose it's along the lines of calling her "my old lady," but without the pejorative implications the expression has in English.

(Incidentally, the equivalent expression for "husband," laogong, just literally means "old male." You can read a lot about the history of Chinese gender relations in the contemporary language. Interestingly, laogong has become a colloquialism for "eunuch," according to my dictionary.)

So these three radically different concepts — "teacher," "boss," and "wife" — all start with the same syllable, all are about the same length, and are spoken with the same combination of tones.

Last week, I was showing a Chinese friend of mine around my department on campus, when we happened to run into the guy I used to work for a few years ago. My friend's English is a little bumpy, so I tend to keep it in Chinese when speaking with her. Hence I explained to her, in Chinese, that "he used to be my laopo," my wife. She barely kept her straight face as it is. I wonder if she'd have really lost it if she'd known that my former boss is gay.

A couple of weeks ago I was complaining to Ma Lei about a class of not-very-good students at my university. "They ought to pay attention to what I say," I exclaimed in frustration, "because I am their husband!"

I have, once or twice, come home tired from worked and announced to Ma Lei "Boss, I'm home!"

So far I have not made the one mistake that might possibly prove fatal. I live in dread that, one day when talking to Ma Lei, I will refer to my cute Chinese teacher — my laoshi — as laopo.

1 comment:

  1. Germanic and Romance languages are unusual in having a fixed vocabulary. In Slavic and in Semitic languages one can make up a new word (like "robot" or "m'shoomak") and everyone understands it without needing an explanation.