Friday, July 10, 2009

Ta-ta-ta = fun fun fun!

Have you ever thought about the Chinese pronoun "ta"?

It can be written 他/她/牠/它 (he/she/it(animal)/it(inanimate object), but it's pronounced ta/ta/ta/ta.

"Hhhmph!", I remember another foreigner scoffing, years ago, upon making the discovery that, "in Chinese, they only have ONE WAY to say he, she, and it. In English we have THREE." (She had an admirable grasp of the obvious.) It's clear what she was implying, which was flawed from the get go. Languages don't compete with each other, nor can they be compared to one another in this way, especially languages as different as Mandarin and English. Not that this stops newbies from engaging in this sort of "My language is better than yours" talk.

This comment, years ago, got me thinking about the "ta" issue.

Anyone with even a basic understanding of Chinese knows that the Chinese have a word for everything. Seriously, not joking. "Younger female cousin on my mother's side" ~ there's a word for it. "The sores you get on the inside of your mouth when you eat too much pineapple" ~ yup, there's a word for that too. "The sound that a skirt makes as it gently billows in the breeze". Yes, that one too, and thousands and thousands more...and more. It's super cool. And supremely specific.

So it seems obvious that it was a deliberate choice to keep the SPOKEN "ta" the same for he/she/it(thing and animal). But why?

Well, because a spoken gender neutral pronoun is very useful. It makes it easy to talk about a friend in detail without revealing his or her gender. This is very useful if your girlfriend asks you who you had lunch with and you don't really want to say that it was with a girl. You can say, "Oh, an old friend. I know ta from high school." Of course, you can try the old "they/them" trick in English, i.e."An old friend...I know them from high school." but it's not the same as with the English listener immediately registers the fact that you are deliberately masking "their" gender.

Not so with Chinese. And if you're gay, it's even better. You can have whole conversations about a person your co-worker/acquaintance assumes is a woman (but it's a man) or vice versa. I've hardly ever heard the question "是男的他還是女的?" (Is that the male "ta" or female "ta"?) and I've had plenty of conversations where it could have been asked, but never was. Why?

I think that it's because it's polite to ask questions in Chinese culture - to show you care. Ergo, the language has many built-in "features", so to speak, that allow you to evade topics you don't wish to discuss and avoid giving out information you don't wish to reveal. That's why you can say "我有事" (I have something to do) and no one asks you "什麼事?" (What "thing" do you have to do?). It's rude to ask, as it's understood that the speaker doesn't care to elaborate. Ditto with identifying gender. The listener generally waits until the speaker chooses to identify the subject's gender "我女的朋友" (My girl friend, i.e. friend who is a girl).

Oooh, now there's an interesting point: when you choose to be specific about your relationship with someone, you can be VERY specific, much more so than in English. You can say 我的女朋友 = my girlfriend OR 我的女的朋友 = my girl friend. In English, we have to point out that we are "just friends, using way more syllables than Chinese to get the meaning across that this a platonic friend only. Whereas with Chinese, you just add the 的 and it's crystal clear!

But back to gender neutral "ta" - try having a conversation with a subject whose gender you deliberately keep ambiguous by using "ta" - and see for yourself! It's fun, interesting, and sometimes, very useful!

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