April 29, 2005

Crisis ≠ Danger + Opportunity

A few months ago, Mark Swofford at Pinyin.info posted Victor Mair's terrific essay debunking the "widespread public misperception ... that the Chinese word for 'crisis' is composed of elements that signify 'danger' and 'opportunity'. As a result, I can link to it, in response to an email from Robert Neal Baxter, who quotes from an article by Xavier Queipo on a Galizan news and opinion site:

Os chineses, na súa lingua de ideogramas, non teñen un ideograma específico para designar o concepto "crise" e recorren a unión de dous ideogramas, o que representa "riscos" e o que representa "oportunidade".

Chinese people, in their ideogram language, don't have a specific ideogram to refer to the concept 'crisis', resorting instead to joining together two ideograms which representing 'risks' and 'opportunity' respectively.

The cited article is of course not about Chinese at all, but about political issues in Galiza, and the author is just using this (false) linguistic cliche as a rhetorical framing device.

Robert doesn't know any Chinese, but (being well educated linguistically) he sees that nothing about this trope makes sense, and observes that

People really shouldn't just make stuff up as they go along about other peoples, cultures and languages just to suit their rhetorical or stylistic needs.

Indeed. Of course Queipo didn't make this up, in the sense of employing any creative invention. He just deployed a cliché. But someone once made this up, and people have been repeating it ever since, just like the nonsense about Eskimo snow words.

Robert continues:

What this shows, at best, is a profound misunderstanding of the way Chinese works. [...]

At worst, it reveals a journalistic willingness to exploit people's fears and ignorance about far-flung peoples with weird habits and customs and their corresponding willingness to believe any old bullshit that people make up about them. [...]

Would it be fair to assume that English has no word for what the French refer to as 'papillon', resorting instead to a compound made out of the words 'butter' and 'fly'. What would such a statement, even if it were linguistically valid - which it isn't - show about the language or the speakers of the language in question? Probably very little. In fact it's about as likely that a Chinese speakers using the word 'crisis' made up of whatever morphemes it happens to be made up of is to be aware of this secondary reading as an English speaker would be to think that butterflies are some sort of 'air-borne grease balls'.

Didn't Michel Foucault once point out that butterfly expresses a fundamental contradiction in anglophone culture: the libertarian urge to take wing, subverted by the consequences of a diet too rich in animal fat?

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 29, 2005 08:28 AM