Language traps always trip me up

Nury Vittachi, Bangkok | Opinion | Sun, October 13 2013, 11:32 AM

This is an important warning. Never speak while traveling. You may die of a misunderstanding. I guarantee that if you say “Good morning” with the wrong tone, it will actually mean “Kill me now” in at least one Chinese dialect.

Consider this. I used to speak basic Cantonese but gave it up one night after I walked into a Hong Kong restaurant and announced that I was hungry: “Ngoh tou ngoh.” My friends fell about laughing because I’d used the wrong tones, changing the meaning to: “I have diarrhea.” Later, I called out: “Maai dan” (“Bring the bill”), but again used the wrong tones, turning it into: “I want to buy an egg.” My highly amused companions, who were at the cigar stage of the meal, sternly warned me not to call for a cigarette lighter (“da fo gei”) because that phrase with the wrong tones means “Let’s beat up the waiter.”

I’m quite sure people who create Asian languages insert these traps on purpose. If your foreign host mentions that he or she has a “baba”, DO NOT offer to babysit, however much you like cuddling babies. In Japan, a baba is an old lady. In Chinese, baba means “father”. In France, a baba is a round spongy object containing rum—a bit like my father. He spent a lot of time in France, so that may be the actual derivation.

My visits to Tokyo are always tricky, since my Japanese friends speak a sort of half-English, using just the first bits of English phrases. Sexual harassment is “seku hara”, and personal computer is “paso kon”. Knowing my luck, “Good morning” is short for “Good morning, kill me now.”

British people assume that their country’s nickname, “old Blighty”, comes from the word “blighted” (destroyed) and refers to the bad weather. Blighty is actually the Hindi “bilayati” which means “Foreigner Land”. Years ago, there must have been a conversation like this. Indian: “So, foreigner, you come from Foreigner Land [Biliyati]?” Brit: “Ah, so that’s how you say ‘Britain’ in your quaint Asian tongue; let me just write that down.”

A French reader told me about a Parisian chef who in 1765 started selling a tasty liquid he called a restorer, which is “restaurant” in French. The English thought “restaurant” meant “place to eat out”. Germans were dipping sops (Deutsch for “chunks of bread”) into the delicious warm bowls of restaurant. The confused English told the world that the new dish was called “soup”. So the English sentence: “Sitting in a restaurant, I drank some soup” actually means “Sitting in some soup, I drank some bread.” I was disinclined to accept this slur on English speakers but I checked Wikipedia and found the Frenchman was right in every detail.

But going back to meals in Hong Kong, one of my colleagues tried to tempt me to eat a popular local dish he translated as “Chicken With White Fungus”. I was tempted to reply that there was already chicken with white fungus in the shared fridge at my office, along with chicken with green fungus and pork fillets with mystery grey fur.

But I just kept my mouth shut. I’ll drop him an email from Foreigner Land.

The writer is a frequent traveler and columnist.