Basically the Same Trick in Chinese and English

I recently saw this posting online.  Even though the Mandarin Chinese word “shi” is used below with four different tones of pronunciation, the same tone can still have multiple meanings.  Obviously, then, very common syllables in Chinese, like “shi,” can have tons of homonyms.  Thus, this.  I regret to say that the only words I clearly recognize here are the ones for “ten” and the “to be” verbs.


This reminds me of a similar trick in English: the “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” trope.  Actually a perfectly valid sentence, it can be phrased as “THE buffalo FROM Buffalo WHO ARE buffaloED BY buffalo FROM Buffalo, buffalo (verb) OTHER buffalo FROM Buffalo.”  The linked Wikipedia article also includes some other wacky semantic shenanigans.

Bu Shi !


As I’ve learned Chinese, one of the funniest things I’ve seen is one of the most common terms used: bu shi.  The first word is a negative, like the English “not,” and the second is a basic “to be” verb, also used to express agreement or assent.  So, the phrase “bu shi” basically means, in usage, “that is not accurate.”  If somone asks you if you are a doctor, and you are not, your answer could include the phrase “bu shi.” 

The funny thing here is the pronunciation, if you haven’t figured it out yet.  The sound would be close to saying “boo shih,” which, out loud, sounds an awful lot like a popular yet vulgar expression in English that is also used to mean “that is not accurate.”

Reviewed: Pimsleur’s Mandarin Chinese I

I’ve kicked my goal of learning Chinese back into high gear this summer, and this excellent set of audio CDs has been my main tool.  I’ve just checked it out of the library a couple of times until I finished it, but it’s also available for purchase

The set consists of nine CDs, including ones for a user’s guide and a lecture on Chinese history and culture at the end.  The other seven CDs are the language lessons themselves, each disc having two 30-minute lessons on it.  The narrator and example speakers are perfectly clear, making it as easy as possible to understand what level tone should be used in pronouncing each word. 

(However, I also found that I got the most out of these lessons when I started using the glossary of a textbook while I listened, so I could look up new words as I went.  That’s how I found that I had accidentally been pronouncing the word for “thing”–dongxi–as tongxi.  So I wish the lessons would also spell out the vocabulary in pinyin, the Romanized system of spelling Chinese invented to help Westerners.  It would have helped a lot.  A companion glossary showing the characters for the words would also have been nice–I want to learn how to read and write, also.  As it is, I had to look those up in my own textbook, too.)

The lessons must have been put together by experts, because they have just the right amount of repetition, practice, and drilling to really get you to soak all this new material in.  Words and phrases from old lessons sometimes pop up in new ones, and the dialogues build on each other in a very natural sequence.  Not too fast, not too slow, easy to review if needed (I listened to some of these two or three times).  This set of lessons is head and shoulders above some of the one or two disc “quick, traveller’s” sets I’ve picked up, which just run through a few pat phrases without any decent practice or understanding.  This one is highly recommended. 

One other thing, though: besides things we’d naturally expect in a beginner’s course, like introducing yourself, asking directions, ordering in a restaurant, etc., there were a couple of lessons in the middle of the course whose major sentences to be practiced were all things like this:

Ni xiang gen wo (yi chi ?) he yi diar dongxi ma?  Would you like to get something to drink with me?

Wo xiang yao liang be pijiu.  I’d like to order two beers.

Ni xiang chi wo nar ma?  Would you like to go to my place?

Hmm.  Don’t know how often those’ll come in handy.  Yes, the good people behind this excellent course of study thought that one of the basic needs of the new student is to become proficient in picking up local girls.  I guess it could have been worse.  They could have followed those up with a phrase they didn’t use until the shopping lesson:

Duoshao qian?  How much does it cost?