Saturday, October 11, 2014

Oh, Shi, He's On The Loose

I presume at some point you've heard of the sentence "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo". It uses the various meanings of the word 'buffalo'- the animal, the city, and the action of bullying- to create a grammatically valid, if nonsensical-sounding, sentence. It, along with its cousin "James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher", are presented as examples of how utterly weird the English language is. And this is not in argument. English is a strange frickin' language.

But have you heard about the Chinese poem that pulls the same stunt?

You see, Chinese, as anyone who's ever attempted to learn it could tell you, contains a lot of homophones. There are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, but a lot of those characters, when spoken, sound alike. In modern pinyin, this site figures there are only 413 syllables in common use. They are spelled differently, they're said in different tones and stresses, but they're all the same syllable. There are enough of them that it is possible not just to write a sentence that uses only one of those syllables, but an entire story. A story that, when translated to something that isn't Chinese, loses the syllable but makes it, well, legible.

There are several versions of Chinese- the modern Mandarin, the more historic Classical- and most such pieces are done using Classical, but we won't really get into that.

In 'Lion-Eating Poet In The Stone Den', the one I'm able to find actually properly translated to English as opposed to leaving you to the vagaries of Google Translate, the Chinese syllable is 'shi'. If you were speaking Chinese, you would be saying shi over and over to express this, but since we're writing in English, here's what you get:

In a stone den was a poet called Shi Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.
He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this matter.

Er, okay, poem. Shi Shi is an idiot who can't tell stone from flesh as well as being unable to tell how commerce works. Because I don't see anything in here about him paying for the lions or getting permission to shoot them, which, by the way, this man is also heavily armed and dangerous. Approach with caution.

One wonders what he thinks the walls of his den are made of. On second thought, no, don't wonder that, aack, I'll be up all night now.

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