I’ve been writing this guest blog for months,** but it suddenly began to come together this month. (Finally!) The story starts with one of those virtuous New Year’s resolutions.
We were sitting in a cabin on an isolated island off the coast. And we’d brought The Blue Sword with us, since it’s one of my reliable travel books. (That is, I can read it over and over again and I’ve read it so many times that I can dip in and out of it and instantly know what’s happening, rather than needing to read it compulsively straight through. This is good when you know that you’re going to be waiting around a lot at random intervals.) One of my favourite parts*** of The Blue Sword is Harry’s description of how she learns the language of the Hillfolk. After three days of learning words with Mathin, she’s speaking in simple, painful and ungrammatical sentences, delighted at being able to communicate. There’s a gorgeous paragraph on different types of tents, from the king’s zotar to the denigrated dalgut. Just a few pages later, she bursts out into the Hill tongue without thinking, as if the language has “awakened in her blood like a disease”. I was kind of hoping that this would be the case for me with Mandarin. So I made a New Year’s resolution to start Mandarin classes.
You see, I’m ethnically Chinese, but I grew up speaking mainly English.+ So I’ve only the bare remnants of Mandarin. Enough for, say, a two year old. Hungry, thirsty, yes, no, sleep. One, two, three four five. This makes for exceedingly tedious conversation when we visit Chinese-speaking family members. (We won’t even touch on the fact that I speak even less of the Hokkien dialect, which is nominally my family’s native tongue.) My reading is also regularly interrupted on public transport by Mandarin speakers, asking for directions. While I do know the word for “train”, I don’t actually know how to say “left”, “right” or “straight”. So that never goes well. At almost 30, I figured it was probably time to learn to speak at a slightly more civilized level. So I signed up for an adult beginner’s course. And to make sure that I stayed motivated, I signed up my better half too.++ Let’s call him, um, Faramir.
I do actually like languages, so I didn’t think this would be too difficult. For me, languages are much like music, each with its own sounds and rhythms and melodies. +++ This is most obvious in tonal languages like Chinese, where changing the relative pitch means that you’re changing the word. In Mandarin, there are four tones. I should emphasise that these are relative pitches. No one’s asking for a soprano part from the bass section. It’s all relative to the natural range of your speaking voice. The first tone is a sustained high level pitch. The second starts mid-range and rises in pitch. The third one starts mid-range, drops and then rises back to mid-range. The last one is accented, short and clipped.& The popular example of the four tones uses the syllable “ma”, which means mother, hemp, horse and scold respectively. (There’s also a neutral tone, in case that wasn’t enough.) I can mostly tell them apart when someone’s speaking slowly, but Faramir says they often all sound the same to him. And I’ve never been good at aural tests, much to the despair of my piano teacher!
The other difficulty, for me anyway, is written Chinese. Chinese writing is made up of characters or “picture words”, not a phonetic alphabet. This means that you can’t sound out the letters that make up the word – the appearance of a word doesn’t tell you how to say it.&& You have to memorise all the characters. Of course, this is problematic for those who are used to Latin-based languages like English, French, or Italian. I think it’s worse than even Japanese, which also uses characters, but at least starts beginners off with hiragana and katakana alphabets. Anyway, for each Chinese character, you need to remember three things: (1) how to say it – tone AND syllable, (2) what it means, and (3) how to write it (angles, proportion and stroke order are all important). While simple words like man, earth, or fire can be made up of one character, more complex words will obviously have more. (My favourite is the word for “computer”, which translates to “electric brain”.) We don’t actually know enough words to start reading sentences yet, but I’m told that’s going to be even more fun. You see, Chinese writing doesn’t have spaces between words. So you need to work out what all the characters are AND which ones should be grouped together to make words!&&&
Don’t let me put you off though. Chinese also has some characteristics that make it easier to learn than Latin-based languages. After learning French, it was delightful to find that Chinese doesn’t feel the need to assign a gender to every noun^, let alone force you to change the rest of the words in the sentence to match. Similarly, there’s no difference between male and female pronouns in oral speech, so the words “he”, “she” and “it” all sound the same! (They are written slightly differently.) You can even use the same pronouns for the subject (English: he/she) and object (English: him/her) of your sentences! And conjugating verbs is really easy because the verbs don’t change at all: you just add a character signifying the tense to your sentence (e.g. “ma” to make it a question, “le” to make it the past tense). No tables of verb conjugations here!^^
Anyway, it’s been just over a month since we started. I haven’t managed to burst into fluent Mandarin, but Faramir and I are both having a lot of fun at our weekly classes. More and more words are floating up from the depths of my childhood memory, albeit often with incorrect pronunciation or imprecise meaning. (And a surprising amount of confusion from my 7 years of Japanese study.) It’s been deeply amusing to watch each other practising tones.^^^ With any luck, I’ll be able to give directions to lost tourists in the near future. Well, except that I’m not very good at directions. *grin*
I do hope that we get to learn more about the language of the pegasi.
* * *
* So… I promised Robin a guest post several eons ago. Here it is, finally.
** Well, trying to write.
*** There are quite a few though. Tsornin is definitely a highlight.
+ My parents thought it would be more useful.
++ Homework, like misery, loves company.
+++ According to researchers, perfect pitch may be a learned ability made easier by knowing a tonal language… http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041114235846.htm
& You can listen to examples here: http://mandarin.about.com/od/pronunciation/a/tones.htm
&& Strictly speaking, some parts of the characters might give you some information about how the character is pronounced. But it’s not as simple as an alphabet.
&&& If you want to learn a whole lot more about Chinese writing: http://www.omniglot.com/writing/chinese.htm
^But WHY is a table female?
^^ For those who haven’t studied French, conjugation is the bane of the language. Seriously, they need a BOOK to set out all the tables of the various verb forms and their variations: http://www.amazon.com/Bescherelle-Conjugaison-Pour-Tous-French/dp/2218922622/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1268107138&sr=8-1
^^^ I’m surprised by how hard it is to get your mouth/vocal cords to produce the right sound. I wonder if this reminds anyone of, say, singing lessons…
We’ve got house-sized drifts from the wind but by carefully employed scientific calibration of the top of my town-centre, semi-protected garden wall it’s only about four inches total. However these are evidently the advance-guard guerilla inches sent to infiltrate our technology and render us helpless to do anything but sit by a wood fire and read hard copy. It’s also still snowing and the sky is fully loaded. Peter has no internet connection at all and mine here at the cottage is on and off. If I don’t post later it’s because I can’t get on line.
During my childhood our family never had a dog. We had finches and guinea pigs^.
Upon finishing High School I headed off to Agricultural College and home became a relative’s farm. College kept me busy for several years before I started my job as Alpaca Stud Farm Manager.
I’ve always loved dogs. The farm dogs were great – and they responded well to me – but they weren’t mine. So once I had a job I decided that a dog was next on the list. The list of breeds to choose from of course is rather large so I narrowed down the choices by settling on that it had to be a working breed. Working with sheep preferably since that is the stock kept at home.
The end result – a Shetland Sheepdog^^ or “Sheltie” as they are commonly called.
My vet mentioned that just down the road from me (literally) there was a breeder of long standing that was very thorough with all the health checks etc etc. So I rang them up to have a chat. Then I went to their place to have a look^^^.
They had a new litter just born, sired by one of their (champion) dogs.
My request was simple: I wanted a bitch* and one that would grow on the large side for a Sheltie.
Several weeks later I came home with this:
The new pup was named “Gemma” (“Oh, isn’t she a gem.” Corny, but true.)
A couple of weeks later there was a slight accident, whilst playing in the garden, and my new-pup-owner’s heart was dealt a blow when she tumbled down a rock and broke her leg**.
But, being a young pup was in her favour and the enforced confinement certainly helped to make her very quiet and friendly. As well as missing the “Must Dig in The Garden” phase. Yes, I am looking on the bright side.
Despite this less-than-ideal start to farm life she recovered very well and she was then introduced to sheep work. Realistically she was never going to be a large paddock style dog. Her forte was in the sheep yards where her bark could move a mob of recalcitrant ewes faster than the offer of food. A ‘tough little cookie’ she gamely stood up to rough sheep and would dust herself off and leap back in if she was knocked over. Dogs twice her size can often be scared and refuse to work under such conditions.
Gemma’s nickname for many years has been “The Duchess” due to her ability to sit regally wherever she is. And the fact she swans about eliciting attention from anyone who decides to sit down…
Several years ago I came home to find her holding her leg in a rather painful fashion. Somehow, she had managed to rupture her Anterior Cruciate Ligament.
It certainly put an end to her sheep-working days.
So then Belle came on the scene. At first Gemma thought this uncouth little upstart was a visitor that would soon be leaving.
She finally warmed to the whole “adoring puppy” idea though.
Her retirement wasn’t complete though – once she recovered from a second bout of surgery*** she would still assist by guarding the house from rampaging sheep. That small task was eventually dispensed with though when she lost interest.
In Gemma’s world there are a couple of things that remain constant. Her love of food and attention from people. She is certainly a typical Sheltie in that she is a game little dog with a sweet and loyal character. And very smart. (Shelties are very close to Border Collies in the IQ ratings.)
As her arthritis started to have more of an impact I made the decision to let her stay inside during the winter (we don’t have extreme winters and it is not normal for farm dogs to be inside the house much in Australia.)
A special bed was made for her to rest upon:
Her patience was tested earlier this year though when her position of power (inside the house) was disturbed by Belle and the Puppy Saga. Gemma’s relief was almost palpable when Belle went to live outside again!
At nearly 14 years of age Gemma is, while I write this, fast asleep on her sheepskin bed. Her arthritis is progressively becoming worse and given her struggles with this winter I’m not sure how she will cope with next winter. As she hobbles around it is easy to get a little down while watching her. But when you call “Dinner!” you discover there is life in the old girl yet…. ;)
^ and never had a cat. That’s another story that will not be uttered…
^^ which is NOT a miniature Rough Collie!!!!!
^^^I did make it out alive. Although seriously wounded by the level of cute.
* to be spayed. At the time I wasn’t allowed to have an intact bitch at home and she was sold on the condition she be spayed anyway. And I wasn’t about to have a male dog. I can’t stand the whole “pee on anything that stands still” thing.
** took the growth plate off the head of the femur. Years later when the leg was X-rayed the vet said you couldn’t tell it had ever been broken.
*** She’s the 1 in a 1000 dogs that rejects the artificial ligament… Nearly 12 mths after the original operation she had another to remove the nylon that was literally being ejected from her leg.
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Technology is our friend.
Someone who works at ABC sent me this link: