Chinese names on QI


In this episode of QI, Steven Fry gives everyone their “Chinese name” and then
“translates” it into English. Interestingly, he gives two translations
for each person.

How he arrived at their Chinese names seems to be as follows: He first
cuts up everyone’s name into monosyllables. Then for each syllable
finds the closest matching one in Chinese, where “closest” is probably
determined by Fry’s own (probably not so accurate) intuitions about
Chinese phonology.

The first name he does is “Alan Davies”, which comes out as “Al Lan Da
Ves”.

This is surely the wrong “translation”. Syllables in Chinese (and I’m
assuming Fry means Mandarin) can only end in the consonants /m,n,N/.
There are no Chinese words which end in /s/ and there haven’t been for
a few hundred years actually, so that last syllable of “Davies”
doesn’t work. Intead it would probably be “de vi si” or just “da vi”.

Following this, Fry gives the “translation”: Lazy great slave child.
There is appropriate laughter. Then Fry says “or, rather bizarely, two
dozen blue cones”. Billy Baily is “shabby plum shellfish texture” or
“low hedge sad hedge”. And so on.

Why would Fry find this bizare? He is essentially looking up random
words in a dictionary (these English syllables weren’t put together
with Chinese syntax in mind), so of course it’s going to sound weird.

One may also wonder how it’s possible to get two completely different
translations out of each name. This is because Chinese is a tone
language.

A tone language is a language where the pitch of individual syllables
matters to the meaning of that syllable. Mandarin has four tones:
high, rising, falling, falling-then-rising. The syllable “ma” can mean
horse, mother, flax, or to swear depending on the tone. Mandarin is
also rife with homophones, so there are often more than 4 meanings
associated with a given syllable.

English is not a tone language. Instead, English employs pitch at the
level of sentence to vary meaning. Rising pitch, for instance,
indicates a question. But there are no individual words which differ
by tone. Saying “chair” with a falling tone and “chair” with a high
tone won’t change the basic meaning of “chair”.

It is notoriously hard for speakers of non-tone languages to learn
tone ones. This is the basis for a lot of cheap gags in movies set in
Asia. Inevitably, the dumb Western characters will try out some words
in Chinese and end up saying something completely weird or wrong.

When Steven Fry attempts to say the Chinese names the tones are
totally unclear, and he only says each name once (I’m dubious about
the “research on Chinese” he claims to have done). Although there was
a youtube comment, briefly a the top one, that had worked out some of
the written characters, so I guess it wasn’t totally incomprehensible
to a real speaker of Chinese.

That said, I do think the bit is actually funny. There’s something
especially ridiculous about a British accent reading out a string of
nonsense words. This reminds me a little bit of Fry’s General
character in Black Adder and some of the silly military jargon he
would use.

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