Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Learning Hokkien in Old Xiamen

Bill Brown ... Xiamen University
Excerpts from Carstairs' Amoy Dictionary
Click here for "Why Xiamen was called Amoy

When Xiamen folk ask, "How did you learn Chinese?" I respond, "I picked it up off the streets over the years--and have been trying to put it back..." This usually gets blank stares, so I add, in typical Chinese self-deprecating fashion, "My Chinese is not really that good. And after 20 years even a parrot could pick it up!"

That sometimes gets a bit of a laugh--but I doubt even a parrot could learn Amoy.

I can envision a bright parrot picking up Mandarin, but not the nasal eight-toned Amoy Dialect (also called Minnan Dialect, Hokkien, Taiwan Dialect, etc.). In fact, the mere attempt can lead to insanity--at least according to Desmond Neill, a British army officer serving in Malay and the British Ministry of Labour in Singapore. He was sent to Kulangsu in the late 1940s to learn Hokkien.

Below are excerpts from Neill's absolutely delightful account of studying Hokkien in Amoy, ("Elegant Flower - First Steps in China", John Murray, London, 1956).

[pp. 7,8] Early May 1948 and the day for departure to Amoy had arrived. My ship, evidently not important enough to command a berth alongside the harbor, was anchored somewhere in the Roads behind an imposing array of other steamers, billowing clouds of black smoke in preparation for their sailing. Near Clifford Pier lay a disorderly armada of small sampans, which bobbed up and down on the languid waves like discarded coconut shells, manned by Chinese who scrutinized each new arrival with an eagle’s eye for a fare.

‘Where are you off to?’ shouted one in Malay.

‘To Amoy,’ I replied in my best Hokkien. The man looked blank. He did not understand. Those six months had been wasted.

Filled with a desire to apply my newly acquired knowledge, I made another attempt, concentrating desperately on the right pronunciation. The boatman’s leathery face wreathed with a smile as a new understanding slowly dawned on him. In a flash, all the other Chinese on the pier within hearing distance had gathered around. With grinning enquiring faces they fired question … I became tongue-tied. They chuckled in amusement at my silence. I wanted terribly to explain, tell them I was going to the land of their forefathers.
‘To Amoy,’ I explained.
‘Eee! Aiyaah!’
‘To learn Hokkien….’
‘A Red-Haired speaking Hokkien lah!’ guffawed two or three in a full-throated chorus…’

[On disembarking in Amoy]… ‘Here’s how!’ bellowed the Captain. ‘Come and see us when we return and don’t go round the bend trying to learn this outlandish language.’

...There are seven distinct tones in Hokkien and several hundred monosyllabic noises which go, singly or in combination, to make up the spoken language, with nasal and aspirate variations. The nasal twang would come through with commendable mellifluousness for someone slightly adenoidal or with a cold in the head. …Correctness of tone pronunciation and tone changes was of prime importance for there was only a slight different in modulation, for instance, between returning to China and pawning a pair of long trousers.

…the first few days rolled into weeks of heartbreaking despair as I struggled with Mr. Lim and with the tones, noises and sounds that seemed to make up no pattern, no harmony, and had little meaning for anyone. Simple sentences were understood by shopkeepers or boatmen, but in the middle of lengthier explanations and conversations, a word would slip the memory or a tone mispronounced and in my sympathetic auditor would break out into a hurried and incomprehensible suggestion of what I was perhaps endeavouring to say. At last, however, the jumbled pieces began to fit slowly together. It was like hearing an orchestral concert, prefaced first by the screeching of violins and cellos being tuned up to the right key, with Mr. Lim as the unruffled conductor. But never did an orchestra take so long to tune up.

The memorizing of characters was a strain largely on the retentiveness of memory, helped by a little ingenuity in writing every character out on a blank visiting card….To help memorize a character one was tempted to draw it out on the hand on in thin air with a finger. It was on these occasions that outside observers immediately diagnosed that incipient insanity which is prognosticated for anyone learning Chinese.

...Litigation for instance is made up of two dogs fighting with words [Yu4] , and I have often wondered if the traditional Chinese aversion to the formality of the law courts did not give rise to the idea of litigation in this way. Peace is signified with a woman under a roof, and discord with two women under it.

Note: Márquez’s Gramática española-china del dialecto de Amoy is considered one of the oldest manuals on a local dialect!

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