Friday, November 16, 2012

False Friends

False friends - that might be a way to describe my relationship with languages.  Sometimes we get along quite well but then I realize that I wasn't entirely apprised of the situation.

I recently read a friend's post about false friends in language in which words look (or sound) similar in other languages but have entirely different meanings.  

The best/worst example is shown here (from Wikipedia): 
It means, "Mama, this one, this one, this one....please."  But obviously, it looks very different than that to us English speakers.  

Once I heard about this, I realized I already had a certain fascination with false friends in Chinese and English.  The word for hymn book in Chinese sounds like "sugar bun".  And my use of the word "that" in Chinese has gotten me in so much trouble in America that my friends just glare at me now rather than try to make excuses for me.  "You really need to stop using that word here," they tell me for the hundredth time.  

But this post is not about false friends in Chinese/English.  This is about false friends with Japanese.   

Japanese and Chinese both share a lot of kanji/characters which has made it much easier for me to get along and understand certain meanings.  However, there are some differences that have led to some confusion.  

Here are a few examples: 

(1) 非常: (feichang/hijou) What means 'extremely' in one situation means an 'emergency' in another.  It was slightly confusing until I figured it out.  At least, I could understand how they each interpreted the words in the ways they did --An emergency is an extreme situation.

(2) 先生: (xiansheng/sensei) I say it in Chinese and it means, 'Mister' but when I say it in Chinese it means 'Professor'.  I never had any idea what to say to random strangers when I wanted to get their attention.  In English?  "Sir"  In Chinese?  "Mister" In Korean?  "Uncle"  In Japanese? ???? For the formal language that is Japanese, I couldn't just say, "You" could I?  And I couldn't call just call him "san".

(3) 大丈夫: (dazhangfu/daijoubu) I first learned this word in Japanese.  The characters looked vaguely familiar in Chinese but I did not think about that when I was in Japan. In Japan, it means 'alright'.  I noticed Japanese people use this word a lot and so I quickly followed suit.  Pretty soon, everything was alright.  I thought of it more like, "I'm fine" or "I'm all set" in English when people asked me if I was 'daijoubu' when I was hiking, settling into my apartment, adjusting to the time difference, the food, etc., I learned to smile and respond, "Daijoubu".  When I got back from Japan, I was looking through some Youtube videos and I noticed this video by Jolin Tsai.  "Oh yay!"  I thought.  "She's going to sing a song in Japanese."  "I'm alright" sounded like a legitimate song title to me.
"Real man" What?! Yeah, it turns out that's what it actually means in Chinese.  'Zhangfu' means husband.  I knew I'd seen those characters before but the context was so different that I didn't put two and two together.  So much for a song in Japanese but at least it works perfectly with the Shinee magic dance.

(4) Turns out any terms referring to wife, lover, mistress, old woman are all confused between the two languages.  It seems like you need to be careful how you refer to people or you might offend someone.


Of course, there are examples of this between English and Japanese as well.  Japanese picks up a lot of words from English so that makes sense.

(1) Mansion: It's a huge house that only the rich of the rich can afford in America but it's an apartment in Japan and apparently includes even the smallest of apartments because I was asked many, many times how much I liked my 'mansion'.  I would also try to hold back a smile but I must admit, I liked to think that my tiny closet of an apartment counted as a mansion by someone's standards.

(2) My boom: Hasebe-san was asked in a TV interview what 'My boom' was.  He spent a long time mulling over the question. 
Makoto-san: My boom?  My boom?  My boom?  
Me: What is this 'my boom' of which you speak? 
Because it was an English word, Google translated it as 'My boom' which was absolutely no help at all since that didn't make sense in the context of English at all.  Hasebe-san ended up saying that it was Mr. Children which I know as his favorite music group.  I tried to figure out if 'My boom' referred then to music as in 'boom box' or something to do with sound.  It turns out 'boom' refers to the rapid increase in popularity - so essentially someone's short obsessive interest.  Mr. Children was the only obsession he could think of - he said multiple times that he was a boring person so he couldn't think of anything.  Boring?  Hardly?  Predictable, yes.  (But is this just because 'my boom' would be Hasebe-san and if he defines himself as a boring person and that said boring person is my 'my boom', what does that say about me as a person?) 

1 comment:

  1. Awesome! There are a lot of stories about Finnish/Estonian phrases that mean funny stuff in the other language. One was something about cleaning carpets in Estonian that meant storing corpses in Finnish.

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