January 30, 2007

Using words you don't understand

Arnold's post about the danger of using the Hindi words encountered untranslated in a novel, some of which are obscene, reminds me of a prank played on me years ago when I visited Taiwan. I went out for dinner with a bunch of Taiwanese people. Knowing that I could speak a little Mandarin, they told me that I should advance my education and learn Taiwanese. As my first lesson, they taught me what they said meant "thank you" and encouraged me to use this in the restaurant. Whenever one of the waitresses, who were all teenage girls, brought me something I would say what I thought meant "thank you". This produced a great deal of giggling, which at first I attributed to the humor of the foreigner trying to speak Taiwanese.

The giggling went on though, past the point where it seemed justified. A foreigner using a Taiwanese expression isn't that funny. I finally realized that something was going on, and my hosts revealed that the expression they had taught me did not mean "thank you" at all. Rather, it is something a man says to a woman who is flirting with him. It means "Back off. You're being too forward. But don't think that I'm not interested." This of course explained the continued giggling.

The moral of both stories is that you shouldn't just try out bits of language that you don't understand. People may think that you mean what you are saying.

Posted by Bill Poser at January 30, 2007 01:03 PM