September 11, 2007

Linguistic Advice in the Lavatory: Speaking Mandarin is a great convenience for everyone

[Guest post by Victor Mair]

This is a 1950s-public-service-ad style placard that appears above the urinals in all the men's bathrooms at Capital Normal University in Beijing. Similar displays appear in all the women's bathrooms as well.

The particular circumstances of this slogan call for further analysis. When we look more closely at the entire message, a number of interesting aspects emerge.

First of all, the handsome young man is enjoining everyone to speak Mandarin **in Beijing**. This must mean that a lot of people at this university and elsewhere in Beijing (much less outside of Beijing, which is supposedly the epicenter of Mandarin usage in China!) do not speak Mandarin to each other.

The campaign against multilingualism is underscored by the fact that the spokesman pictured here might be a translator, which would not be necessary if everyone in China spoke the same language, viz., Putonghua (Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]), the designated national tongue. Even if he's not a simultaneous translator with the headset of his profession, one wonders why an operator, an announcer, or whatever he's supposed to be, is pictured making this particular gesture and wearing that type of headset.

A further irony is that the administration of the University felt it necessary to post this slogan both in English and in Mandarin, which raises the very real questions of HANZI literacy and the emerging role of English as a rising lingua franca of convenience (as it is in the world's other most populous country, India).

Most amazing of all, however, is an amusing, yet subtle and perhaps subconscious, pun in the Chinese slogan:

说 好
speak well

  (i.e. everybody)

The grammar of the second line makes "convenient," which is normally a stative adjective, into a causative verb: "cause / make convenience [for]."

Now, FANGBIAN is a translation of Sanskrit upāya, that is to say, "skillful means," "skill-in-means," which implies teaching at a suitable level for or with devices appropriate to one's auditor. In medieval Chinese Buddhist monasteries, FANGBIAN became a euphemism used by monks who wanted to go to the toilet, but it soon spread to the general populace. Still today, in colloquial parlance, FANGBIAN can mean "go to the toilet," and DA4BIAN4 ("great convenience") indicates defecation, while XIAO3BIAN4 ("lesser convenience") signifies urination.

All in all, this is a remarkable sign that is posted at Capital Normal University, a sign that raises a host of questions, many of which cannot be fully answered without knowing the minds of those who thought that the message was vital enough to be posted above all the urinals and stalls in the WCs at one of Beijing's most important universities.

[Guest post by Victor Mair]

(Photograph courtesy of David Moser)

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 11, 2007 06:28 AM