Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Chinese construction of English

I think I've already mentioned several times that many examples of  so-called Chinglish,  usually presented for our educational  enlightenment or entertainment,  don't often seem like Chinglish to me. In some cases, the opposite can happen as well.

 Here's an example that I came across when I was in Beijing last month. In the English newspaper Beijing Today, there's a column which focuses on Chinese English mistakes. People who know me will know that I don't think this is necessarily the greatest use of column inches, but this particular example is interesting.

This column is an amusing story about a middle-aged Chinese man who cannot understand the idiom  “to drive one's pigs to market.”  You know,  that really common idiom that native speakers use all the time. What's that? You don't use it all the time? You've never heard of it?

Indeed. In fact, if you do a Google search for the phrase "drive one's pigs to market" you will pretty much  only find Chinese websites; deeper digging reveals this to be an obscure and long-abandoned reference to snoring.  A blog called “obsolete word of the day” gives an explanation of the phrase as an 18th-century regionalism from England.

As a native speaker, I want to chuckle at what I see as a misguided attempt  to improve language learning and explain a useful idiom.  That's not the only thing that's going on here, however.  The fact that mostly only Chinese English-learning websites use this phrase nowadays  suggests that it has been repurposed; resurrected, even. In the Chinese newspaper, the story of the older man not being familiar with an "English" term is used as  a rhetorical device to almost shame people into studying English.  “I must study English harder," the man says at the end of the article. What was once an obscure metaphor has been given a new life  as a motivational language learning tool.

On the other hand, I pity the poor college student who will someday use this phrase with his host family in England,  only to be met with blank stares.


bemertonparish said...

Do you know of a high-frequency idiom list? My students have to depend on my intuitions as to the importance of an idiom. I hope that they're better informed than the columnist's.... But then, given the clout of Chinese users of English, my intuitions may need to be re-educated.

Joel said...

That's a great idea...sounds like a PhD project to me!

I don't know of any such list (and am not quite sure how it could be compiled via corpus linguistics. I came across this book which could be one possible example of undertaking such a project:

I wonder if the Longman dictionary of idioms would help: