Friday, May 31, 2013

Words vs meaning

I recently read an article in The Economist newspaper about Brazilians and the way they use Portuguese.

The writer suggested that when a Brazilian says sim a foreigner would probably think it meant ‘yes’, because that is what it says in the dictionary, but in fact it might also mean ‘maybe’ or even ‘no’. Talvez seems to mean ‘perhaps’ but probably means ‘no’. And Vou aparacer mais tarde doesn’t actually mean ‘I’ll be coming later’ but ‘I won’t be coming at all’.

There were a lot of comments especially from Brazilians. Some readers thought this was negative stereotyping; some gave reasons for saying one thing but meaning another (e.g. to be kind). But most of the Brazilians seemed to agree that they did use this kind of indirect language, but it didn't matter because at least they knew what it meant.

This reminded me of two things. Firstly, of when I invited some Japanese friends and some Brazilian friends to a dinner party many years ago. I asked all of them to come “about 7.30”. The Japanese arrived at 7.15 - when I was still in the shower and hadn’t finished cooking. For the rest of the evening we waited and waited for the Brazilians. They finally turned up at 9.45, just as the Japanese were leaving, and they didn’t think they were late at all.

Secondly,the article also reminded me about, ‘crosstalk’, which I wrote about in this blog quite a while ago. Crosstalk is when people think they understand each other because they understand the words and grammar that are used, but actually fail to grasp the meaning behind the words. This can happen within a culture and between people who speak the same language, but of course it is more likely to happen across cultures and between people who have different first languages.

Anyway, just for fun I wondered what kinds of misunderstandings might occur when people from English-speaking countries visit Asia, or when Asians from one country visit another Asian country. This is not so serious, and you may not agree, but please send any suggestions. I have only referred to three or four languages so perhaps you have some examples in other Asian languages.

I thought of three categories: (1) Things that probably don’t mean what you think they mean; (2) Things that seem similar but are probably different; and (3) Things that seem different but are probably the same.


私にはもったいないです (Japanese)

This looks like "You are too good for me" but it probably means "I am too good for you" and is often said when turning down an invitation of marriage.

はい (Japanese)

This sometimes means "Yes" but sometimes "No' and often "I have no idea but do carry on talking."

日本語御上手ですね (Japanese)

While this seems to mean "You are good at Japanese" it probably means either (1) "Wow! You can say ‘thank you’ in Japanese: that’s amazing for a foreigner!" or (2) "Hmm, your Japanese is not bad for a foreigner. What is wrong with you?!"

没有 (Chinese)

This seems to mean "We don’t have any/ we’ve sold out" but can also mean "I’m too busy/tired/ hungry to serve you." Actually it nearly always used to have the second meaning, especially when you could see the thing you wanted right on the counter, but in the new capitalist China it is not used so often.


On da way lah! (Malay/Manglish)

This does indeed look very much like "I’m on the way" but is more likely to mean "I have just got home and am going to have a shower. Later I will set out for your the house but I will probably be stuck in traffic for hours.

途中だよ (Japanese)

This also looks like "I’m on the way" but in Japan is more likely to mean "I have already arrived and I am standing outside your door right now."

Pasti sudah siap esok petang (Malay)

This could be translated as "It will definitely be ready by tomorrow afternoon" but really means "I have no idea when it will be ready – perhaps you could call me next month?"

約束できませんが明々後日までに努力します (Japanese)

In Japan this would be said by a service provider very apologetically and suggests "If we are really lucky it just might be ready in four days". What it means is "It will be ready tomorrow morning."

Waa, u pandai cakap Melayu (Malay)

Don't be fooled into thinking this means "You are really good at Malay." It actually means "I don’t really know why you foreigners try speaking Malay when we all speak English but I guess you spent a lot of time in Indonesia."

Pintar bicara Bahasa Indonesia, Pak! (Indonesian)

This ought to mean more or less the same as the previous phrase for Malay but means "It’s really nice that you are trying to speak Indonesian but I’m afraid you sound like a Malay."


Pergi kemana? (Indonesian = Where are you going?)

お出かけですか (Japanese = Are you going out?)

你出去啊 (Chinese = You’re going out!)

你回来了 (Chinese = You’ve come back!)

下班了吗 (Chinese = You’re home again!)

吃饭了吗 (Chinese = Have you eaten?)

跑步啊 (Chinese = So you are out jogging then!)

All these and many other phrases around Asia have a single meaning: Hello!

Highlighting the indirectness of speech in Asian languages can, of course, lead to the impression that English speakers always say exactly what they mean. Some Asian students are even taught to be as direct as possible when speaking English. But this would be misleading. When an American says 'I could care less!' they always mean 'I couldn't care less'. When an Aussie says 'Well that's a lot of use to me!' they are very likely to mean the opposite. And when a Brit says 'How do you do?' it simply means Hello. It's not an invitation to start telling them about your holiday or your health or your problems at work.