Friday, March 13, 2009

Off-color Chinese pun: The grass-mud horse

The New York Times today is reporting how Chinese people are using nigh homophones to say things that would otherwise be censored. The thing about some of these homophones is that they're patently vulgar and demonstrate one of my rules of language learning: learn profanities.

Why learn profanities? Surely civilized society has no need for such vulgarity. Well, that may indeed be true, but it doesn't change one basic fact about profanities: people use them, and hardly infrequently. For instance, according to this word frequency list showing the top 1,000 words in English, the f-bomb is the 605th most common word in the English language. That list is created from TV and movie scripts, so I'm guessing that puts it higher up in the rankings than it would otherwise be, but even if you drop it to 2000th place, that's still within the range of words you'll need to learn to be reasonably fluent in a language. So, while it may not be necessary for you to be able to spew vile invective in your target language, you should at least be prepared to understand it.

And the Chinese grass-mud horse is a case in point. Be ready for some profanity, after the jump.

China has recently been cracking down on smut on the internet. Among such smut are vulgarities. A well-known though seldom-invoked curse in China is cāo nǐ mā 操你妈, which means "fuck your mom". The phrase cǎo ní mǎ 草泥马, on the other hand, is a nigh homophone which means "grass-mud horse". These only differ by the tones, but, when sung, tones are gone or much less noticeable. This has unsurprisingly led to a bunch of grass-mud horse songs videos. It has also promulgated a bunch of tongue-in-cheek "nature videos" about the grass-mud horse. And the grass-mud horse is only one of the puns used in these videos. Others are either vulgar, politically subversive, or both. I'll leave you to dig through and find the rest, as I'm sure there are some that I didn't even get.

To bring this back to language learning, where would you have been without knowing profanities in this case? Knowing them, it's clear this is a joke. Without knowing them, you might come to think that you just learned that the Chinese call an alpaca (the animal used to depict the grass-mud horse) a grass-mud horse, and you might end up embarrassingly asking a friend, "Why are songs about the cǎo ní mǎ so popular lately?" By understanding it, you'll at least be able to avoid a situation like this.

So learn your profanities.

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