Nothing explains everything

‘Nothing explains everything’ – a FB friend posted this interesting sentence on his status update. 

This reminds me of how different grammarians would respond to a sentence like that. Traditional grammarians would be keen to label each part of the sentence: what kind of sentence it is; the subject and the object; the tense of the main verb, etc. Transformational-generative grammarians would be curious about the deeper-most constituents and the most basic rules for generating similar sentences and whether all this tells us anything about the human mind (BTW, did you notice the double meaning of the sentence? How come we are able to ‘see’ and produce the double meaning?). Functional grammarians would start to find out the context, the communicative purpose of the speaker, why he/she has chosen to say it that way, and whether there is a way to arrive at some kind of generalisation about these relationships.

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To correct, or not to correct …

Is it OK to say: (a) please reply me (請覆我…); (b) to apply a course (申請一項課程), and (c) I have a good news to tell you (有一件好消息 …)?

Once in a while, I receive messages from people with the above sentences. Then I’m caught in this dilemma, especially if the message is an informal one from a student I know well – To correct, or not to correct, the language errors? 

Yes, we may say that this is Chinglish, and so should not be tolerated. But we now have a variety of colloquial English which Hong Kong people often use between themselves: ‘add oil’; ‘I very concern …’; ‘I don’t think so lor’; ‘Do you sleep on your office?”; “You don’t listen me, you don’t care me”; “I love you but you no love I”; etc. Even Michael Chugani, an English-speaking journalist, has named his new book as “Is Hong Kong game over?” These expressions are not ‘standard English’, but to sociolinguists, a non-standard variety has its social functions, in particular, to indicate in-group solidarity. Singaporeans, for instance, are not ashamed of using Singaporean English when communicating between themselves. Certain occupational groups in society deliberately swear at each other in conversations to indicate their occupational identity.

Now, the difficulty I’m facing is that, if these expressions come from my students, I cannot tell whether my students are using these forms to indicate familiarity, or whether they are genuine errors. If the former, I make myself a nuisance if I correct them. If the latter and if I hold my tongue, I’m not helping my students, most of whom are English language teachers.

So, to correct, or not to correct ……

Touch and go

MTR’s obsession with the word ‘touch’ is beyond my comprehension. How would visitors make sense of this announcement? –
“Passengers with a smart ticket please use the blue gate – touch and go – …”
Incidentally, the Chinese announcement makes more sense “…拍咭入閘,拍咭出閘…”

A former student alerted me to the expression ‘Touch in, touch out’, used by London Transport. Well, I quite like that expression as the meaning can be easily inferred from the context.

I looked up the website of London Transport, and found that they, too, use the word ‘touch’ in expressions like ‘Touch your Oyster card on the yellow card readers.’ To me, the collocation ‘to touch something on something else’ is a bit odd. I myself would say ‘to tap your Oyster card on the yellow card reader’, which describes the action more accurately, and is a more natural collocation.

Some time ago, I was giving a talk to the S2 students at a secondary school and I imitated the action of tapping a card on a card reader and asked the students to think of a word that described the action. The first attempt came from a non-Chinese-speaking girl, and her answer was – ‘tap’!

The limits and limitation of translation

Formal English, informal English, level of formality應該怎譯?

我不是翻譯人,但工作上偶然也要做少許翻譯,以英譯中來說,除了一些專有名詞沒有通用的中文翻譯外,另一個困難就是如何使譯文看起來像中文!

這次為澳門教青局一個英語課程文件翻譯為中文,算是較大型的翻譯任務,雖然勉強完成,但仍有不少地方自覺不滿意,例如 formal English 和 informal English ,一般譯成正式英語和非正式英語,但 informal English其實不是不正式,只是沒有那麼嚴肅或一本正經,譯做輕鬆或通俗也不完全是 informal的意思;將 formal English譯作嚴肅英語或正統英語,也不完全妥貼, 陳慰的英漢語言學詞汇把 formal English譯作規範英語,也不完美,因為 informal English並非不規範,況且英文的 formal 和 informal,在意義上的對比,一目了然。最後,我也只能「隨俗」的譯作正式英語和非正式英語。

這也可見翻譯之難。最後鳴謝Usagi Eu拔刀相助 使我可以提早完成,平白多了一天假期。

How translatable are terms related to English Language Teaching?

多年前意外買了的一本英漢語言學詞典,在今天我要將一份英語課程文件翻譯為中文時,竟然大派用場。

那起碼是十年前的事了,當時在中大書店偶然拿起這本由商務出版陳慰主編的英漢語言學詞汇,覺得它收錄的語言學詞語頗不簡單,當時雖無特別用途,但既然只是二十五元,我也不多想,把它買下。 

年前曾經整理書架,放棄了不少藏書,今天回想,幸而當時沒有把它也棄掉。

今天,這專門字典給了我不少幫助;我什至因此而對主編及她的團隊深深感激,這樣編一本語言學辭典,因沒有前者可參巧,要由零開始,當中涉及多少功夫,去搜尋有関的字彙,然後再去鑽研其中文譯法。這當中需要大量人力物力,但編者卻不會因此而取得諾貝尓文學獎,而商務也一定大大虧本。這樣的事情在盈利掛帥的今天,是令人敬佩的。

話得說回來,語言學 (linguistics)是很西方的學科,很多意念在中文中原來不存在,而且有其文化背景,故此翻譯成中文時始終有其局限,例如我找到的 turn-taking, Wh -question , spoken text, cohesive device, complex sentence, discourse marker等的中文翻譯,不算妥貼。

這亦令我覺得二零一一年中國政府教育部,頒佈全國中小學新的英語課程綱要,竟然只有中文版 沒有英文版;這真是匪夷所思。

Feeling flattered

The two domestic helpers at the next table in a McDonald’s were chatting in Cantonese. Out of curiosity I asked them where they were from. It turns out one of them is Filipino but she can speak Cantonese. The other is from Indonesia but can’t speak English.

When we talk about a common language of communication for people from different L1 backgrounds, we usually think of English. That’s why I felt a bit flattered that Cantonese became the common language for the two ladies!

From ’email me’ to ‘facebook me’ to ‘whatsapp me’

A former student asked me whether we could say ‘to whatsapp somebody’.

This reminds me of the evolution of the word ’email’. its first occurrence (15 years ago?) was usually in full form: ‘electronic mail’. Later, it was abbreviated as E-mail, then Email, and still later, as ’email’. Still it was usually used as a noun. I remember in those early days, we had to say something like ‘to send someone an email message’, instead of ‘to email someone.’

But of course, it didn’t take long for people to use it as a verb, which would be much more convenient.

A recent similar example is the word ‘facebook’. Initially, you would have to say ‘let’s communicate/meet on Facebook’. Now, you simply say ‘facebook me’.

Hence, the answer to the question from my former student regarding ‘whatspp’ is obvious. Below is an example taken from Urban Dictionary:

‘Can we meet up later?’
‘Sure, whatsapp me.’