The Tower of Babel: An Instructive Guide

The Gods Must Be CrazyFor those fans of the Old Testament and/or Brad Pitt, you may be familiar with the story of The Tower of Babel. As the story goes, near the beginning of time, mankind united and, in its infinite wisdom, attempted to build a tower to the heavens. This of course was a bit too ambitious and full of hubris, so God, in his infinite wisdom, decided that he wanted to control the real estate market in “towers to heaven” (consider this my revisionist version of the story), so to punish mankind he first considered closing all the Starbucks, but, well frankly, there were entirely too many to deal with, so he decided it would be much easier to separate all of mankind into groups, spread them around the world and teach each group a different language so that they could not communicate and thus not open any more Starbucks…err….I mean, build any more “towers to heaven.”

So, the point of the story is: It worked. (Though any hope on that Starbucks endeavor, clearly has failed.)

One of the most difficult things for me so far in traveling is dealing with the language barriers at times, and it has been fortunate for me that English is the langua franca of the world. And I’ve come to realize how essential knowing English is to being able to operate globally. For example, in Hong Kong, you can always count on an English speaker maning the counter at Starbucks, cause how in the world do you say “venti drip vanilla double soy espresso macchiato with room con pana” in Chinese? (actually I don’t even know what I just said in English?)

Cantonese is the main language spoken here in Southern China, though English is very prevalent in Hong Kong (all street signs, subway info, most shops, and many menus are in English) so it hasn’t much prevented exploring the city, though my spoken English has had to be simplified a bit. This leads to my attempt to learn Cantonese and Mandarin, an endeavor which has proved to be quite difficult. Chinese (and its numerous dialects) is based on a tonal system, which means that the same word, depending on if your voice rises, falls, stays level, etc, as you say it, can mean entirely different things.

For example, the word in Mandarin for the number “four,” (pronounced like “si” with your voice falling as you say it), if mispronounced (as “si,” with a tone that goes down and comes back up) can instead mean, death. This of course means, that in a restaurant when flirting with the cute waitress and attempting to give her your phone number, you may instead, inadvertently, tell her to die—–which is frankly, a slightly awkward social situation to put yourself in (trust me).

Interestingly this also makes 4 an unlucky number in China, as are many numbers that end in 4, which, if also said incorrectly, can sound close to some other not so lucky phrases including: 14 (‘must die’) and 24 (‘easy to die’). This leads to people avoiding the number 4 when giving gifts, the removal of the fourth floor in many buildings (not all too different than American’s removal of the 13 floor), and incredibly cheap prices on mobile phone numbers involving multiple number 4′s. (9461 4444 for example). Though in reverse, mobile numbers, license plates and addresses containing lucky numbers like 8 are often auctioned off for thousands of dollars. So when speaking Chinese, it is very important to pay attention to your tones, which has been very difficult for me (and I imagine most people whose 1st language is not so tonal), and I have struggled greatly. But I am reminded that Chinese is not the most difficult language in the world, one of which I recently learned more about from a friend.

From an email from my friend Eric McDermott, who is living in Wema, South Africa and who is learning the local language of siSwati (aka Swazi or Swati) and some Zulu, which involves “clicks” among other sounds. He writes:

“To make the sound of the letter c in siSwati, you stick your tongue to the top of your mouth and then release it (kind of like the sound my Grandpa Burke would make if he was shaking his head back and forth in response to something really unfortunate happening). Zulu has the same c but also has x and q. The q is the clicking sound made by popping your tongue off the top of your mouth (that’d be what most people get from watching [the movie] The Gods Must Be Crazy – which I watched with my first family.)The x is more similar to the sound you might make to get a horse to move faster- but with more of a click to it. The ‘hle’ sound is similar to how you would pronounce an s in Spain. ‘th’ and ‘ph’ are just like p or t. All of these sounds are reasonably simple (and I like the fact that I can at least properly execute the sound on its own, since I can’t with the double-r in Spanish), but put one or two of them in the middle of a word and it gets trickier…”

Thus, if I were to order a ‘venti drip vanilla double soy espresso macchiato with room con pana’ in a Chinese owned Starbucks in Wema, South Africa, it might be easier to just ask for the #4, or, um, order a water.

Truly the Gods must be crazy.

(If you have your own language story to share, send it my way or post in the comment section below.)

One Response to “The Tower of Babel: An Instructive Guide”

  1. Gary Pacha Says:

    What a treat to read about your adventures! Don’t forget IC Noon Rotary when and if you finally get back here. Many would like you to share.

    All the best and safe travels,

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