Sunday, September 11, 2005

Don't Use That Tone With Me!

Ever since crossing into Thailand from Malaysia I've been struggling with tonal languages. What are tonal languages? Well, when languages began to develop the first words were monosyllabic (no need complicating things from the outset). Then, as more and more ideas needed to be expressed, some languages (Latin, Greek and their descendants, for example) decided that they would simply make the words longer, thereby allowing more combinations of sounds. The tonal languages, however, insisted on keeping each word down to a syllable and instead introduced different tonal inflections with which to differentiate the same syllable (e.g. a flat tone, a rising tone, a falling tone and even a falling-then-rising tone). A famous example in Chinese is "ma ma ma ma", which, depending on how you say it, can mean "did Mum scold the horse?"; or in Thai "ma ma ma ma ma" can be "mother, new wood burns, doesn't it?" But the one that takes the biscuit for me are the two Thai words klai and klai. The first one means near whilst the latter is far (or is it the other way round?). Chinese isn't too bad actually as it only has 4 tones. Thai/Lao has 5 and Vietnamese has 6! Anyway, being completely tone deaf I can hardly tell the difference either way. This poses problems when I try and say something in Chinese (or Viet or Thai for that matter) because I can never get the tones right, and that makes a great difference to the meaning of what you say. Plus, people here don't seem to be able to extrapolate what I'm trying to say or make allowances for the fact I'm foreign, and often just don't bother to make the effort to try and understand me, which can be very frustrating as I feel I'm really making an effort. I also find it hard not to raise my tone when I'm asking questions or inquiring about something. Still, it must be even more difficult for Australians who can't stop asking questions.

Anyway, today's stop is Suzhou. Known throughout the (horticultural) world for its traditional, landscaped gardens; complete with babbling brooks, lotus ponds, rockeries galore and plenty of pagodas. Although they are unarguably pretty they just aren't my cup of tea. I just find them too contrived and pretentious, as even the smallest gardens have about a hundred little nooks and crannies with the most preposterous of names (as a rule of thumb, the more unassuming the niche the more elaborate the name): "listening to maples pavilion", "rustling aroma island" or "hall of the 19 petunias". At least, because they are dotted around all over the city, they're nice to relax in (or would be if you didn't keep thinking about the entry fee). I may sound scathing but Suzhou is actually quite a cozy city with plenty of little canals criss-crossing the backstreets and ornate, arched bridges spanning them. Plus it's a very good place to pick up some cheap silk products, as it's the centre of the Chinese sericulture, and has been for the past 1000 years.

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