Monday, July 20, 2015

Strange Phonemes

The other day I was walking home, reviewing some Chinese with an app on my iPad. The app was trying to teach me to say "Rìyǔ," which means "the Japanese language." The problem was, even though it clearly starts with an R, the app certainly sounded like it was saying "ZHR."

I decided to take advantage of the fact that my school's campus is lousy with guards (I was approaching a group of three of them), and I showed them what the app showed (日语) and asked, "ZHR-you? R-you?" They all nodded. I tried again, holding up one finger and saying, "ZHR-you," then holding up two fingers and saying, "R-you." They all nodded. When they could tell that I wasn't satisfied, they called over another guard (who must have a reputation among his colleagues for speaking English) who said, "Japanese." Finally, I prevailed on one of the guards that I was making two different noises, and he gave "R-you" a thumbs up.

I suspected the thumbs up was equally likely to mean "You said that correctly" as to mean "What do I have to do to get you to stop making weird noises at me?" Unsatisfied, I decided to try again on my elevator lady. She also thought I was just making the same sound twice in a row. I said to her, "Yī, ZHR. Èr, R." She said, "Yī, èr, sān, sì, wǔ, liù," like I was just trying to count for her.

So I'm not going to talk about Japanese to anybody while I'm here.

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