One of the worst nightmares in speaking a foreign language is saying something really embarrassing. Tones are the typical reason this happens to non-native Chinese speakers. You can’t really fault the native speakers for giggling if you call your mother 媽媽(ma1 ma.) a horse 馬 (ma3) accidentally. There is some consolation in it being a common mistake. However, some words can be much more shocking and it is a thoughtful tutor who helps you avoid that.
My tutor made up a funny sentence using a lot of different “‘ma’s” in Chinese. It is the first one on the recording below. It is
(ma1 ma.) (ma4) [(ma2 fan.)(de.)] (ma3)
(mama, mom) (to scold) [(trouble)(adjective marker)] (horse)
Mama scolds the troublesome horse.
But getting back to the “to do’s” of Chinese – I was recently watching a video for practice between lessons. It gave two ways to ask, “What are you doing?”
(ni3) (zai4)(gan4) (shen2 me.)
(you) (indicates progressive tense of following verb)❶ (to do)❷ (what)
What are you doing?
(ni3) (zai4) (zuo4) (shen2 me.)
(you) (indicates progressive tense of following verb) (to do) (what)
What are you doing?
As I usually do, I sent the link to my tutor so she could guide me in understanding. Here is the video I watched, for your convenience:
In response to this video, my tutor reminded me why she almost always uses 做 (zuo4) for this question. This is because both the sound and the character 幹 (gan4) have unfortunately been corrupted into a very indecorous swear word. (She wouldn’t even say it out loud in the privacy of our lesson, but she gave me enough clues to know it is the Chinese equivalent of the “F” word.) A main difference is that there is no non-slang meaning for the English version of this word, so it is harder to say it accidentally.
She remembers being aware of this as a child in the 1960’s, so it is not a new problem. In fact, a person of political standing in Taiwan recently lost his position due to using this word in public media. Can you find the character in question in quotes in the second paragraph? It is emphatic.
She will use 幹 (gan4) sometimes, particularly in sentences where it is more clearly attached to another character to make its meaning clear. For instance,
(ni3) (hen3) (neng2 gan4)
(you) (very) (capable)❸
You are very capable.
(ni3) (shi4) (yi1 ge.) (gan4 cai2)
(you) (to be/are) (a/one) (capable)
You are a capable one/person.
But, overall, she avoids it.
When I was looking up 幹 (gan4) in the dictionary, to see if there was any clue for why it might be used as such a strong swear word, I saw that the 5th definition given was for a different slang usage, which means “to kill or eliminate a person.” My tutor confirms that this can be heard in Chinese TV or soap operas. Totally gangster. However, this is not connected to the other slang.
(wo3) (hui4) [(gan4) (diao4)] (ta1)
(I) (will) [(to kill) (adverbial particle indicating complete fulfillment of verb)] (him)
I will kill him!
I’ll probably make an effort to steer clear of such barbaric expression, if I can remember, but I am not going to worry about it too much if I mess up. One way or another, it will be a learning experience. At least, I probably won’t make the news or lose my government job like this man did.
Here is a short audio recording of my Chinese tutor saying the sentences from the blog:
Notes on things in this lesson:
❶ 在 (zai4) is a very common word in Chinese. It is used for its meanings of “at, in, on, up to” in many sentences, but its use in indicating progressive tense in a verb is also common. It can be thought of as putting the -ing suffix on a verb, even though it is used in front of the Chinese verb.
❷ This is the 4th possible meaning of 幹 (gan4) given in my Chinese-English dictionary, which is “to do, to attend to business, to manage.”
❸ The third definition of 幹 (gan4) given is “talents, capable, skillful.”