Cantonese Bebop

Cowboy Bebop (TV Series 1998-1999) - Backdrops — The Movie Database (TMDB)

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I’m not exactly Uhura but I thought it might be a good idea to go through my Cantonese notes from my exchanges and my own slow progress through whatever book I happen to be reading.

In this case, it’s Goosebumps ‘Horrorlandia.’

Caveats/warnings:

  • My Chinese reading level is around that of a 9 year old, with a few discrepancies e.g. adult interest vocab like politics, history, science etc. that a 9 year old probably wouldn’t know, or basic Kindergarten nouns like animals, buildings, toys etc. that I don’t know.
  • I sometimes use the Cantonese written word, not the traditional Chinese one.
  • My handwriting is erratic.
  • There’s a chance I might be wrong in my explanations.
  • Also a chance I may be right.

If anyone’s a beginner or has half an interest in learning Cantonese then this post might be both useful and/or confusing for you.

Maybe I’ll turn it into a whole series…add in my experience with other languages, like Japanese and Portuguese…though Cantonese is by far my best one. Can’t say I’m fluent, but solid intermediate is a fair appraisal, I think.

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Okay, let’s start with my notes from today’s exchange.

Usually, I’ll write in a mix of Chinese and Yute Ping [Romanized Chinese], but mostly the latter as I don’t want to slow down the exchange and make the other guy bored.

But today I made an effort to write solely in Chinese, with the exception of names like Biden or Trump.

First thing you should notice is my child-like handwriting!

Second thing is that there are a lot of random characters scattered about.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a mess.

An important thing to know about Chinese is that a lot of words are in clumps of two or three characters. More than that, and you could be looking at an idiom [the bane of my existence]. By words, I mean from the perspective of another language like English.

For example, the title of the book [恐怖樂園] is two words or signifieds [horror + amusement park]

Some of these words, you can look at one character and have a pretty good idea what the word is related to.

E.g. 驚訝 – 驚 can be seen in many words connected to some kind of alarm or fear. Here it means ‘surprised’.

A similar sounding word [that looks quite similar too] is 警, which is used in loads of words, like 警察 [police], 警告 [warning], 警報 [alarm] etc.

Basically, the more words you learn, the more chance you have of guessing new ones as you’ll be able to recognise at least one of the characters in the word [composite].

Of course, if you’re learning Cantonese, you’ll soon find out there’s a divide between what is written and what people actually say in conversation. I don’t know what the percentage is, but I would guess around 70% of written words are used in conversational Cantonese, and the difficult part is figuring out which ones are which.

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I should probably backtrack a little and say Chinese characters are split into parts. The radical, which tells you roughly what the character is related to, and the components [some of which are also radicals in other words].

Example: 你 = you. The radical is the bit on the left…can’t seem to write it here…which means it’s related to a person, and the two parts on the right are the components. The lower part means ‘small’ and the roof part means something I still haven’t figured out yet [you can search online for the exact etymology, including how the character developed over the centuries; some of them are pretty bizarre]. Honestly, with all the pronouns, I just read from memory, no breaking down required.

A better example, from my notes: 地方 [place] – the radical on the left side of the first character that looks like a cross means the word is related to land in some way. So if you see a character with that radical then you might be able to guess what the word is.

The clearest, easiest to remember radicals are probably the ones related to 心 [heart/mental aspects], 水 [water], 木 [wood], 言 [say], 手 [hand], 日 [day] and a few others I can’t remember right now.

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Don’t know if I botched that last section…it’s easier with a pen and paper as I can write down the radical part in isolation…but if you’re still here, just know that Chinese words like 灣 [bay] or 壟斷 [monopoly] may look impenetrable on the surface, but once you know how they are broken down into their component parts, the fear dissipates.

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Even after several years of on/off learning, there are some words or phrases that I always seem to forget and I have no idea why. Maybe some kind of mental block. Or the on/off factor. Or new words displacing the old ones. Or the Gates Foundation nano-chip shuffling things around.

It happens in other languages too, no matter how many times I have someone scream it at me or say it and look disappointed when they hear me respond with ‘what?’ for the seven hundredth time.

Today it was 竟然 [actually/unexpectedly]

Really don’t know why I can’t remember it. Maybe something traumatic happened to me when I was younger and there was a sign with 竟然 written on it nearby, and now I have a subconscious block.

Or maybe it’s cos 竟然 is abstract?

Here it is on the first page of Horrorlandia, near the top of the 2nd line:

It’s weird, the dictionary translates it as ‘actually’ or ‘unexpectedly’ or ‘it turns out that…’, but in this sentence it seems like the original English word used may have been ‘end up’.

E.g. When we stepped inside the big gates [entrance, I assume] of Horror Amusement Park, we totally didn’t anticipate/expect that, in less than an hour, we would end up lying inside our own coffins.’

That seems the smoothest translation to me, but I suppose you could reword it and use ‘turn out to be lying in our own coffins.’

But if you play with it too much, is it still an accurate translation?

How dynamic can dynamic be?

EDIT: Okay, I looked online and found the original English version of the opening sentence.

As we entered the gates to HorrorLand, we had no idea that, in less than an hour, we would all be lying in our coffins.

Seems like the author skipped the 竟然 element and leaned on the ‘we had no idea that’ part to carry all the shock factor of the line. My reverse translation made the mistake of being too loyal to each Chinese word. I used ‘when’ instead of ‘as’ at the beginning too.

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As for sentence patterns that I tend to forget, I’d say the reason is pretty simple: there’s an intellectual understanding of the word or pattern, where you understand their meaning when reading them in a book, and there’s the moment when you actively try to use that word or pattern in conversation. This can be tough or sluggish, or worse, will just make you give up halfway through your sentence, so a lot of people will avoid using them as a result. I still instinctively dodge comparative sentences in Cantonese and Japanese cos they either slow me down or mess up my rhythm completely.

An example of this from todays’ exchange, and on the first page of Horrorlandia above, is 連…都…

I know it, I’ve studied it, I’ve read it hundreds of times, but if I try and use it then the other person better have monk-like patience or the conversation is done.

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One tip when writing notes in Chinese, or any other language, is to skip the translation into your own language. That way you’ll have to wrestle with the word in its original form when revising, instead of just looking at the translation.

You can see in my notes, that I tried doing that. And the next time I look at them I might not know what 棺材 means, but if I look at it for a few hours, it might come back to me.

Actually, I should’ve written it in a sentence, then it would be easier to guess its meaning, but it’s done now so I’ll just have to look at a picture of a coffin and say goon choi over and over until it sinks in.

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Other useful vocab/patterns from that first page [see if you can find them:

我 [I/me]

我們 [We – Ngor dei in spoken Cantonese]

打算 [intend/plan to do stg]

所以 [so…]

應該 [should]

可以 [can/able to – you can use 能夠 too, but 可以 is more commonly used as it’s also similar to may in English e.g. may I lick you?]

現在 [now – in spoken Cantonese, it’s yee gah, can’t seem to find the written character for this on google translate, but it’s on my notes above, the two characters after Trump].

在…之後 [after – put at the end of the clause usually, but not always]

完全 [completely/totally]

沒有 [not/don’t have – in spoken Cantonese this will change to 無]

路標 [road sign]

Yeah, this could go on forever, but most important word for beginners is definitely 路標.

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On reflection, not sure how useful all this is.

Or if I’ll ever become fluent from only two Cantonese exchanges a week

but I did learn how to say merchandising and monopoly today so not a total loss.

Plus coffin too.

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