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 Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Rush Limbaugh Speaks Chinese|
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."