Thursday, December 21, 2006

Language and laughter

Yesterday, a piece by one of The Guardian's regular bloggers got me thinking seriously about language and linguistic issues (particularly the value of multi-lingualism versus mono-lingualism). Perhaps in reaction to all that serious thought, I've spent quite a bit of time since recalling linguistic experiences and situations which got me smiling, if not laughing. And since I've not previously written on this subject on this blog, I figure I might as well go ahead and share some of them with you today:-

1) Japan, 1982: Some twenty-four years ago, I paid my first visit to the Land of the Rising Sun in the company of a cousin and an uncle. Early on during the trip, our Japanese guide, who was familiar with Malaysians and Bahasa Malaysia (trans., "the language of Malaysia") cautioned us against uttering the Bahasa Malaysia words for ring and bowl while in Japan.

Our curiosity piqued, we couldn't help but enquire why. Turns out that cincin (pronounced as "chin-chin") just happens to be the word for the male reproductive organ in Japanese while mangkuk ("mung-koek"), in turn, is the Japanese word for the female reproductive organ! So just imagine what would happen, for example, if a Malaysian man were to go up to a Japanese individual and tell the said individual that "I've lost my cincin"!!!

2) Malaysia, sometime in the early 1980s: I had a friend over here in Penang who went off to boarding school in England a few years before me. Although she would return to Malaysia during the longer school holidays, it was pretty obvious from year to year that her Bahasa Malaysia was deteriorating as surely her English was improving.

Of course, she will forever maintain that the incident I'm going to detail here was merely caused by a slip of a tongue rather than any actual significant decline in her Bahasa Malaysia language skills. However, what is beyond doubt is that, one day, when trying to order a coconut drink, she asked a startled waiter not for kelapa (the Bahasa Malaysia word for "coconut") but, instead, kepala (that is, the Bahasa Malaysia word for the "head" -- as in "...of a person") ! :D

3) Tanzania, 1995: Having recently arrived in that East African country, a rather nervous moi went one morning to meet with the head of one of the institutions that I was looking to be attached to during my stay there. Upon my arrival at the guarded entrance to the institution, and anxious to be polite and ingratiate myself, I decided to speak in Kiswahili, the national language of Tanzania (along with neighboring Kenya), rather than English.

Stuttering a little, I uttered what I thought was the Kiswahili equivalent of "I would like to see Mr. Mbago"; only for the guard at the gate to look stunned and then very amused by what he had heard. For, as it turns out, instead of saying "Naomba kuona Bwana Mbago", I had said "Naomba -- and then because of a stutter and a bit of a pronounciation -- kununua Bwana -- again, another small (right?) slip -- Mboga."

In doing so, I thus stated in Kiswahili: "I would like to buy Mr. Vegetable"! (Needless to say, this story soon spread around the institution and thus it came to be that many of the hapless man's underlings got to wickedly plus delightedly calling Bwana Mboga behind his back...) ;(

4) Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2005 (or maybe a year earlier): A couple of pieces of contextualizing information are in order before telling this joke. Firstly, Cantonese is a tonal language; so shifts in tone change a word's meaning. Secondly, Kuala Lumpur is a city where a lot of Cantonese is spoken. Consequently, even a non-native Cantonese language speaker like myself is liable to feel obliged to try to speak some Cantonese while there.

Okay, now on with the story: which had me trying to order some chicken giblets to go with my rice and yummy sticky (caramel-like sauce slathered) char siew (Chinese roast pork) at a local eatery on one occasion. Only, when I said "kai kan", I got the tone of the second word wrong -- resulting in my apparently ordering "unnatural sex with a prostitute" (also partly on account of kai (i.e., "chicken") being the Cantonese slang term for "prostitute" as well as being the actual word for a type of feathered fowl)!!!

5) Zimbabwe, 1995: Having saved the longest -- and maybe best -- story for last...After close to a year in Tanzania, I decided that I should reward myself. So off I went to Zimbabwe -- the land of Great Zimbabwe as well as Mosi-oa-Tunya (AKA Victoria Falls); and one which was considerably more prosperous and less troubled then than it sadly is these days -- for a one-week vacation.

For the Great Zimbabwe leg of my visit, I was met at nearby Masvingo airport by a local guide who, shortly after we met, asked me where I was from. At that point in my stay in Africa, I was pretty tired of people not knowing where Malaysia is (or, for that matter, sometimes, what Malaysia was). So I told him that I had come from Tanzania -- something which was partly true since I had gone over to Zimbabwe from Tanzania.

Looking at me, of course my guide laughed. But he stopped laughing when he spoke a few words of Kiswahili to me and I replied back in Kiswahili (a language that I really don't think you can live in Tanzania without knowing some words of and which I had studied for two years before going to Tanzania in 1995).

Then, earnestly, he told me that he had been one of those Zimbabweans who had been a freedom fighter against Ian Smith's Rhodesian regime and trained in Tanzania, where he had learnt some Kiswahili. However, he hadn't had a chance to use his Kiswahili in years. So, he asked, could we speak in Kiswahili rather than English?

These days, I have to admit, my Kiswahili is no longer all that good. Back in 1995 though, I could accede to that Zimbabwean man's request. And so it was that we happily chatted in Kiswahili for the few days that he was my guide.

To bring the story towards its close: All too soon, the time came for us to part. Although he didn't have to, my guide escorted me all the way into the departure area of Masvingo's tiny airport whereupon we bade our formal farewells to each other. Then he took his leave. However, on his way out of the airport, another Zimbabwean man went up to my guide and spoke a few words to him that caused him to roar with laughter and return to where I stood to share the joke with me.

For, as it turned out, the other Zimbabwean man had seen and heard my guide and I conversing in Kiswahili, then proceeded to say to his fellow Zimbabwean -- no doubt on account of my physical features and the improbability of someone with them knowing an African language -- as he passed by: "I didn't know that you could speak Japanese..."!! :DD


Anonymous said...


Re "Kai Kan", being a Cantonese speaker, I understand it to normally refer to mean "raped by a gay" or "raping a gay". But the pronunciation of course is more like "gei kan" instead of "kai" as in chicken. So yeah, from my experience, the term "gei kan" is used more commonly and is generally meant to be that. :)

YTSL said...

Hi Hdoong --

Thanks for the "tip". And I can see even more clearly now how my attempt to say chicken giblets in Cantonese could turn out to sound like "gei kan" since "gei" (or "kei") is the Hokkien pronounciation of chicken (with "kien" being the Hokkien pronounciation of giblets) and somehow, my Hokkien pronounciation came through and seeped into my Cantonese attempt...

...In any event, I guess that Cantonese speakers are agreed that I most definitely didn't say "chicken giblets" in Cantonese...and I'm sure you can understand why I'm truly reluctant to attempt to order that dish in Cantonese anymore! :D