Friday, January 21, 2011

Why Rush Limbaugh is Right about the Chinese Language!

Rush Limbaugh says all Chinese sounds the same, and do you know what? He's right! (Pretty much.)

Here's how Rush Limbaugh mimics Hu Jintao's Chinese, with lots of  S- and Z- and SH- and CHING CHONG sounds. (Embedded video from Colbert.) Limbaugh's now-infamous rendering of Chinese, introduced by "it sounds like all the same word," starts one minute in.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Rush Limbaugh Speaks Chinese
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My first impression while studying Chinese was exactly like Rush's -- that Chinese syllables all sound the same. Why did Rush Limbaugh get that impression, and why did I? It's possible that he and I took different paths toward that conclusion. Mine was based on linguistics, and here's a summary of the linguistic answer I wrote about in my book, Dreaming in Chinese: 

Words in Chinese are drawn from an inventory of only about 400 syllables -- mostly short little consonant-vowel syllables like hu, ta, shi, ma, zhe, xi, hao, or those ending with an -N or -NG sound, like zhong or shan. Nearly all Chinese words are made from either one syllable, or two of these short syllables glued together. Compare this with English, which has about 4000 syllables to work with -- ten times as many -- and a great number of them very long and clumsy and very, very different from each other,  like "stretched" or  "glimpse" or "crabs". (Chinese does not have "consonant clusters" in its syllables, like the "gl" and "mps" of "glimpse.")

There are so many possible combinations in English that it's not a matter of cultural insensitivity, but of simple phonetics and phonology, to say that English words don't "sound the same." (For the classic rendering of how English sounds if you don't understand it, there is this famous Italian music video, "Prisencolinensinainciusol.") But with so very few simple syllables to work with in Chinese, it's no wonder that Chinese words seem to all sound the same to us! Even if you're trying harder than Rush Limbaugh may have been.

To compound the problem, the Chinese sound system leans heavily on the family of S and Z sounds; Chinese has lots of variations of the consonant sounds of s, z, sh, ch, zh, x, ts, and other similar ones. English is missing a lot of these particularly Chinese sounds, so they sound alien to us, and we have a hard time hearing the differences among them. English speakers think that Chinese has even fewer different sounds than the small number it actually has, because the differences between a lot of them are ones we just don't hear.

So -- and I didn't imagine myself saying this --  in this case, Rush Limbaugh is right. To our English ears Chinese words all "sound the same."


  1. Why is it so much less offensive to hear you say it than to hear Rush say it?

  2. Some questions/comments
    1) If Chinese has so few syllables, why the post-49 trend in China to give babies two-syllable instead of three-syllable names? Given China's burgeoning population, doesn't this lead to more kids having the same name?
    2) A corollary to this is: Do Chinese schoolteachers have any easier time with their roll sheets than, say, Russian teachers? (I believe that Russian teachers aren't required to memorize their students' patroynymics).
    3) What are the implications of this for voice-recognition software?
    Ben Huang
    p.s. I usually correspond with Jim, so it's a delight to have the chance to correspond with you as well....(oh, and a question for Jim...Why aren't Supreme Court Justices invited to White House dinners?)

  3. Weighing in from the other side of the household:
    - Very good question by tsingher! One of the virtues of Ms. Dreaming in Chinese is that she is able to say things that would seem, I dunno, "pushy" if they came from Rush etc but that, from her, I feel obliged to comply with. She seemed to have that effect in Chinese too - -I think she describes in her book the heroic moment when, in Chinese, she convinced a Shanghai cab driver than he had to give us a 100 RMB refund!

    - To Tingkun55, good questions, and I look forward to what Deb can say about them. On the last item, au contraire! Stephen Breyer was there.

  4. Chinese names are really different from Western names. For starters, 85% of the population share the same 100 family names. How many people named Wang do you know? We know lots!
    As for first names, most names are not "names" as we know them, like Ben or Jim or Susan. They are words or phrases already in use in the language, more like Apple, or Rain. During the Cultural Revolution, loyal names became all the rage, phrases like Yonghong (forever red) or Jiango (build the country).
    You often hear people called by their full name, like "Hello, Huang Ben.") That practice helps reduce the confusion.
    Knowing all this, how would you answer your own #3?

  5. Well, I suppose with a fewer number of syllables and an equal number of meanings to convey, more weight is put on each syllable—a circumstance which is partly compensated by the tones. Voice recognition would therefore depend a lot on tone recognition—rendering it a steep challenge to both non-native speakers and non-native speaking computers.

    The ability for Chinese speakers to differentiate English words also leads to confusion, of course. My mother, who worked for years in Sterling Library at Yale, once told me about a visiting scholar in the 1980s who confided in her about her distress about her American roommate. This woman told her that her roommate said she ate a lot of greens because she was “dying.” Upon reflection, my mother realized that the woman had mistaken “dieting” for “dying” and corrected her. The poor woman had been in fear for weeks that she was going to have a corpse on her hands! (Although of course, as we all know, dieting and dying do share some similarities!).

    Another question: Did you ever figure out when one changes from being called "Young (surname)" to "Old (surname)"? Is there a gender difference here? Does it depend on marital status?

    And thank you Jim for answering the Supreme Court guest question. I’m sorry that you have decided to take a break from blogging for awhile—my morning coffee just won’t be the same!


  6. I think one of the reasons Limbaugh was so offensive was his tone. He wasn't just making the "Ching Chong" sounds, he was making them in a threatening, angry tone, and he kept at it for a long time.

  7. You may be right linguistically. But as someone who was cruelly teased with "ching chong" noises as a child, it pained me to see you offer a rational explanation for Limbaugh without acknowledging the racist history of this very type of taunt. As John G said, Limbaugh's intent was not good. Like so many other ignoramuses, he ridicules the language in order to underscore that Asians are "the other."

  8. I really won't try to hijack my wife's (great) site. But since I live more in the world of politics than she does, let me address the Shintzer and John G points. OF COURSE Limbaugh's tone and approach were offensive. OF COURSE he is a vehicle for hatred and incivility, as he has been about minorities for a very long time -- in a stretch from Donovan McNabb to Barack Obama to, now, Hu Jintao.

    When Deb said in her original item that she had gotten to her conclusion by a different path from Limbaugh's, she obviously was making the point that in this case a linguistic analysis took you to the destination that Limbaugh had come to from his simple closed-mindedness. I'm sure she didn't think she had to pound the point home with a mallet! But for the record, I know from long experience that OF COURSE she's not in favor of intent like Limbaugh's. She was assuming that would be obvious.

    Now I will bow out! But defense of one's spouse is a powerful instinct.

  9. Don't get me wrong, I didn't think she was in favor of Limbaugh's intent. I just would have been more comfortable had there been more acknowledgment of it and the really hurtful nature of that type of racist ridicule. It's not only something I experienced as a child. I still experience it today, like when a guy yelled ching-chong noises at me from a car on a street in Los Angeles, in broad daylight. After dark, fueled by alcohol -- that's the beginning of a hate crime.

    Most stereotypes are grounded in some truth. Blacks in the rural south probably did grow and eat watermelons. But we don't write a historical treatise on watermelon-consuming habits to show that a racist wielder of the stereotype is partially correct.

    Deborah's point was interesting and worth making. But to Asian Americans, ching-chong noises are synonymous with racism, and it's jarring for me to read something that doesn't make more note of that. Well-educated white Americans are not aware of the ubiquity of the behavior, because it's not something you'd ever think of doing yourselves.

  10. Dear Shintzer, As someone who is also ethnically Chinese, I have also been subject to the same taunts. But clearly Deborah is being ironic -- her heading is the equivalent of saying, say, "Why Sarah Palin is right about using targets on her website"-- the statement assumes the opposite of what it seems to claim. BH

  11. p.s. As for Rush Limbaugh, we don't have to worry about him-- we can always sic Amy Chua on him!

  12. I think Tingkun55 has exactly understood the point and tone here.

    Now, I actually will turn this back to Deb!

  13. Where is the the discussion about tones here? Chinese syllables DON'T sound the same to native Chinese speakers because they are trained to hear distinctions in tones.

  14. Jujube is right, of course. But this is a discussion about just one piece of the sound system of Chinese -- the phonetics of the syllable. Tones are another part of it. For those interested in tones, there is plenty of ink spilled in my book about tones, and some blog entries, like the previous one to this.

  15. One of my mom's cousins once told me that people in China may have started shortening their names to two characters to obscure their family connections. The fear was of being arrested purely for having a last name and middle character similar to that of a known criminal. Since the middle character of one's name is the common character amonst siblings, it can suggest that family relationship. To proactively stop criminal activities, the police would arrest any known siblings as well.

    I'm saying middle character in this case, but I think it can also be the 3rd character that is common amongst siblings. Not sure how that works. Anyhow, has anyone else heard this explanation?

  16. One of my mom's cousins once told me that people in China may have started shortening their names to two characters to obscure their family connections. The fear was of being arrested purely for having a last name and middle character similar to that of a known criminal. Since the middle character of one's name is the common character amonst siblings, it can suggest that family relationship. To proactively stop criminal activities, the police would arrest any known siblings as well.

    That is simply fiction...

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