Daily Archives: December 1, 2010

English chengyu

One of the distinctive features of the Chinese language is the use of what are called chengyu (成語), fixed idiomatic expressions which consist of four characters and are usually telegraphic to the point of being ungrammatical — for example 孟母三遷 “Mencius mother three moves,” which expresses the importance of finding a good environment in which to raise children (because the philosopher’s mother moved three times in order to find such a place), but which is hardly grammatical Chinese. There are thousands of such expressions, and they are very common. Japanese also has these, having borrowed them from the Chinese. English idioms, on the other hand, are almost always fully grammatical, often making them much longer than their Chinese counterparts. For instance, where English has “to kill two birds with one stone,” a grammatical verb phrase which can only be used if you conjugate it and put it in a sentence, the Chinese equivalent is the telegraphic 一石二鳥 — “one stone, two bird.” (I’ve translated it as “bird” instead of “birds” to give some idea of just how ungrammatical it is in Chinese. In any other context, “two birds” would have to be 兩隻鳥. The character 二 is used only for counting; with a noun, you have to use 兩 plus the appropriate classifier.) My Chinese-speaking students are often surprised at the wordiness of English idioms, and I have to explain that we don’t really have anything like chengyu in English — or do we? There’s “long time no see,” but that’s a bit of a special case, being a deliberate imitation of American Indians’ broken English or perhaps even a calque of the Chinese chengyu 好久不見. Once I started thinking about it, though, I came up with several other expressions that could be considered English chengyu:

  • Like father, like son.
  • Another day, another dollar.
  • Monkey see, monkey do.
  • First come, first serve(d).
  • Same shit, different day.
  • Two Jews, three opinions.
  • Garbage in, garbage out.

This kind of thing obviously isn’t as common as in Chinese, but the list is long enough to show a pattern. What intrigues me is the fact that, just as in Chinese, ungrammatical idioms tend to be four words long. It seems unlikely that this would be due to the direct influence of Chinese, so I wonder if it’s a pattern that comes naturally to people and turns up in many different languages.

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