Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Lion Eating Poet; a Quick Background: 
 Chinese is a tonal language. Which means that each sound can be pronounced in a number of different ways depending upon the inflection the speaker places on the syllable. A upward, downward, peaked or even inflection can change the word entirely. Unlike English where homonyms (words pronounced the same but spelled differently) like “flower” and “flour” are about as creative as it gets, Chinese is also very contextual, the word’s can change meaning depending on what precedes and follows them, so much more variation can be derived from the same base sounds.

Using some creative linguistic flexibility Yuen Ren Chao wrote this fantastic poem that describes the bizarre tale of a lion-eating poet, reportedly to spoof the idea of converting Chinese characters into a phonetic Latin alphabet equivalent. The 93 word essay is composed of the same repeated sound only varying in tone (so it is unreadable in other dialects like Cantonese). Remarkable from a linguistic standing, the poem shows just how difficult it can be to translate from one language to another.

I must say I am impressed as the only English equivalent I have come across is the sentence “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” which means “Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community, also happen to intimidate other bison in their community”. Not quite the same flare as the Lion eating poet, but i’ll chalk that up to a limitation of our language.

Frank says: This is really amazing for a language buff like me. I would really like to find a Chinese speaking person who would read this for me. It's kind of hard to believe really but then again language is a pretty incredible thing, isn't it?
Wait! I live in the 21st century... I will see if a machine can convince me that the story really is all SHE's cracked up to be ! 
I found the characters in copyable form here:
and then pasted them into and clicked the little speaker to have the text pronounced for me. Try it!!
I will paste the characters here too if I can...

Here's another strange language puzzle, in English. If done correctly, the same word appears 11 times in a row. Not as cool as Chinese, but English is cool in other ways, isn't it?
Can you punctuate this sentence so it makes sense?
"James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher".

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