Thursday, July 06, 2006

Wind and Water

My stint as a missionary for the Mormon church in Taiwan was--that's right!--among the most miserable 18 months of my life, but it did clarify a few valuable things for me:

1. The Mormon church is not, as it claims, "the only true and living church on the face of the earth"--more accurately, it's a load of horse shit

2. How to eat a pork chop with chopsticks

3. How to pronounce feng shui

I've been thinking about pronunciation of Chinese words lately, because I just read a book with a lot of references to Chinese places, people and ideas, most of which were romanized in Pinyin, the system used on the Mainland and not the system I learned. I learned to speak Mandarin via the Yale system of Romanization, which was designed by Americans to help other Americans learn to speak Mandarin, and is most effective at that task.

When westerners study oral Chinese, the most important thing they must learn is a consistent system for how to pronoun Chinese words in whatever dialect they are going to speak--written Chinese differs only slightly from place to place (Taiwan and the Mainland might occasionally use different vocabulary words, just as England the US do), but variations in pronunciation can be huge--Mandarin (the official language of the Mainland and Taiwan) sounds very different from Cantonese (which is spoken in Hong Kong).

I don't know much about systems for teaching spoken Cantonese, but as far as Mandarin goes, there are several such systems, and some of them are really goofy, the goofiest being Wade-Giles, the system by which Beijing was rendered Peking and Mao Ze Dong became Mao Tse Tung (or, as I would have rendered it in Yale, Mau Dz Dung) and dofu (which means, remarkbly enough, "soy bean curd") became tofu. Chiang Kai Shek, by the way, is a cantonese romanization, one of the few normalized in American usage--the guy himself spoke Mandarin, and would have said his name something more like Jyang Jye Shr.

But all of that is pretty esoteric and arcane, and not truly central to my project, which is to explain how to pronounce feng shui.

Feng shui, in case you don't know, is a mystical approach to architecture and decorating, and stresses that the elements of a space must be in harmony, or the well being of people who hang out there will be endangered. The character transliterated as feng means wind, and the character transliterated as shui means water.

I can live with all kinds of Mandarin mispronunciations that have been standardized into American usage--I used to say "dofu" instead of "tofu," because I never liked dofu when I thought of it as tofu, but I've quit bothering--it's just too fastidious a distinction for most people, and they don't know what I'm talking about.

But feng shui--oh, the ways people mangle that word drive me nuts! It's not "fung shwee"! It's not "fung shoo-ey"!

In Yale, it is romanized feng shwei, which is clearer I think than feng shui but still not ideal for explaining how to say it. So I'll try something else: The vowel is in "feng" is pretty close to the vowel in "phone"--just say "phone" and end it with a dipthong. The vowel in "shui" is a plain old long A, as in "hay." The consonant group is the same as in "Schwinn."

So the clearest way I can think of to romanize feng shui is fong schway. Say it with me, people: fong schway! And correct anyone you hear who says it wrong!

7 Comments:

Blogger mellowlee said...

You amaze me. Thanks for this post, it was great.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Bored Dominatrix said...

Very glad you liked it!

3:42 PM  
Blogger Saviour Onassis said...

I developed a similar system for arranging male genitalia in the underwear, it's called wang shui. If practiced properly, it can attract a mate and be quite comfortable as well.

But seriously, you are a generous genius. Thank you for teaching us all something useful! I will take the knowledge I have learned here and go out into the world, humiliating incorrect pronunciations wherever I find them!

4:15 PM  
Blogger Dale said...

Sort of like bombs away then is it Holly? Your posts always entertain and teach me something!

That's some big underwear you're wearing then Saviour. Never mind.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Bored Dominatrix said...

Well, now that you mention it, Dale, feng shui does sort of rhyme with "bombs away." You have a good ear.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Reese said...

Teacher Holly, but you didn't discuss the tones ;-) Probably very difficult to do in writing.

Kung Pao Chicken is another often mutilated word. It's actually "Gong Bao."

Later, Holly

5:52 PM  
Blogger Bored Dominatrix said...

Teacher Holly, but you didn't discuss the tones ;-) Probably very difficult to do in writing.

It's true: I didn't even raise the issue of tones--too confusing and difficult! I had to check a dictionary for the tones of feng shui: feng is a first tone, shui is a third tone.

And no, I'm not even going to explain what that means. Reese knows what I'm talking about, though.

8:44 PM  

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