Thursday, February 26, 2009

Vocabulary

I'm trying to plan a summer research trip to China, and thinking about transportation. Coincidentally, we saw an episode of "Modern Marvels" the other night which was about highways and the technology used to build them. It had the obligatory section on China's nascent highway system and the number of years until it outstrips the US interstate system in length.

Shanghai is ringed by two beltways built on extraordinarily high elevated piers, the older of which was under preliminary construction when I lived there in 1992. It was nowhere near finished by the time I left, so I never rode on it. This was true of many things that year in Shanghai, after former mayor Zhu Rongji became minister of finance (or something like that) and finally began redirecting funds back toward Shanghai for public works, rather than simply siphoning off the city's extraordinary economic power for the impoverished interior. In 1992 most people living in Shanghai's Old City (the fifteenth-century walled fishing town that predated the foreign concessions in Shanghai and its status as a treaty port) had no plumbing in their houses, and nightsoil buckets (马桶 or "horse buckets") were collected every morning at curbside. The subway system was also under construction (although I didn't know at the time that that was why such a big swath of Renmin Park was roped off), and Pudong was just a big hole full of dirt, with the bizarre Oriental Pearl Tower just beginning to rise out of the ground. Pile drivers on the Bund (waterfront) could be heard as far away as the campus of Fudan University (several miles away), but we thought they were simply reinforcing the silty riverbank and the sinking delta city.

It wasn't until I returned to China around 1995 that I first heard the word gaosu gong lu (高速公路) -- Highway. It literally means "high-speed public road" but the meaning was immediately obvious when I heard it used. But it was the first time I'd heard the word, after ten years of speaking Chinese, because before that time there were no highways in China. All long-distance travel and shipping was done by rail, and the reasons were obvious when it took us six hours to drive the 180 km between Chengdu and Leshan in 1988, not counting the flat tire. Meanwhile, I returned to Shanghai in 2001 and found it utterly unrecognizable (but very easy to get around).

And this made me wonder whether it wouldn't be possible, in theory, to track my Chinese vocabulary from 1985 (when I started learning it) to the present, and how it would reflect the changes in China over that time through changes in knowledge and usage. When did I first learn the word for "Internet" (互联网)? For "ethernet card" (网卡)? For "shopping mall" (商城)? "Beeper" (delightfully, BB 机) entered my vocabulary around 1990 and fell out of usage seven or eight years later. By contrast, I haven't used the word "ration coupon" (油票 or 粮票 or analogous terms, depending on the commodity being rationed) since my first trip to China in 1988, but I was still asking around for the "grain distribution office" (粮站) in Shanghai in 1993, as, despite the proliferation of "supermarkets" (超级市场) in the neighborhood, it was still the only place I could buy flour to make tortillas.

There would, of course, be some weird outliers created by my degrees in archaeology and art history and my ability to read classical Chinese, which explains why, for example, I know that it was Duke She and not Duke Ye who loved dragons (from the proverb 叶公好龙, which uses an archaic pronunciation of the family name Ye), and can parse the common proverb 莫名其妙 (used to mean "incomprehensible" but actually a classical phrase meaning literally, "There's no naming its miraculousness") which makes no actual sense in modern Chinese. Some bits of my Chinese vocabulary have nothing to do with the twentieth century.

But I'd love to be able to compare the vocabulary I've accumulated over the years (some of which reflects various people's educational impressions of what I might need to know) with the vocabulary I've actually had cause to use. I did once read an archaeology journal article, published in 1954, which began 宗教是群众的鸦片 ("Religion is the opiate of the masses"), which was not up till then a piece of knowledge I thought would ever pay off. On the other hand, and contrary to the position apparently taken by my favorite Chinese-English dictionary, I have never had any use for my ability to talk intelligibly about the dictatorship of the proletariat (无产阶级专政).

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