When I was young and naive, I used to think that as native speakers we automatically have full understanding of our language. Why wouldn’t we, after the long boring infant days (or nights for nocturnal babies) of deciphering meaningful signals from the chaotic and often not-so-meaningful conversations of adults (and other babies)? However, my confidence got crunched when I became a Mandopop (Mandarin popular music) fan, for not only do singers frequently create their own vocabulary, but even the ordinary language fragments also become difficult to grasp. For example, I heard (1) when I was 14.

(1) Ba  wo-de    xingyun-cao   zhongzai    ni-de             meng-tian.
—-BA I-POSS   lucky-grass      grow-at      you-POSS   dream-field
—“Grow my four-leaved clover in your dream field.” (‘Love’ by The Little Tigers)

This is the first time I have ever encountered the two-syllable string meng-tian. It doesn’t exist in my mental dictionary, and without knowing which characters are used to write it, it’s simply impossible to interpret, for each syllable has four possible tones, and each tone further has a number of homophones with different meanings. The chances of picking out the correct tones and combining them into the correct meanings are not very high!

Chinese characters for ‘dream-field’ [1]
The failure to recognize randomly coined words can leave you confused, but the failure to parse a sentence correctly can leave you with a very false interpretation of what the lyrics are saying. I remember wrongly parsing (3) and (4):

(3) a. Mimimama       shi  wo-de      zi-zun. (O = Original)
——-thickly dotted   is     I-POSS    self-esteem
——“Thickly dotted is my self-esteem.” (‘Growth Rings’ by Diamond Zhang)
—-b. Ni    mama   shuo  wo-de    zi-sun. (M = Mine)
——your mom     say      I-POSS  son-grandson
—–“Your mom says: ‘my sons and grandsons.’”

Well, I did wonder for a moment how likely my understanding could be correct – it doesn’t sound like a daily scenario after all. But as an open-minded person I decided to accept it, considering that the artistic world can be very dramatic. Google says many others have also misheard “thickly dotted” as “your mom”, and in my honest opinion, the original line doesn’t make much more sense.

(4) a. Ruguo…zai    jiao-hui        shi    neng   renzhu-le      jidong-de   linghun. (O)
——-if…be-at       cross-meet   time  can      refrain-ASP  excited        soul
——“If we could have refrained our excited souls when we met each other.”
(‘The Most Familiar Stranger’ by Elva Hsiao)
—-b. Ruguo…zai   jiaohui   shi   nan-ren          zhu-le                 jidu-de   linghun. (M)
——-if…be-at        church    be    male-person  dominate-ASP  Christ’s   soul
——“If it were the man that had dominated Christ’s soul in the church.”

When I realized I had been so wrong, I was both shocked and amazed, because my mind had successfully picked all the wrong tones/meanings and grouped them into wrong constituents, which is just as great an achievement as doing everything correctly! I guess what triggered my mistake is the singer’s vague pronunciation of neng. She pronounced [ɤ] in a quite open way (like [ʌ]). Then I wrongly grouped neng and ren together as nan-ren ‘male-person’, which in turn forced me to analyze zhu as a main verb zhu3 ‘dominate’ (it is an aspectual verb zhu4 in the original lyrics), leading to the subsequent parsing mistakes. How important it is to articulate clearly!

Four tones in Mandarin Chinese [2]

So, a major cause of the wild misunderstandings in Mandopop seems to be the masking of lexical tones and word boundaries by melody and rhythm. There are so many homophonous morphemes in Chinese that tones become a crucial part of lexical information, and there is so little morphological marking that prosodic properties become significant cues for successful parsing. Therefore, when these two sources of information are blurred, we are left quite helpless and can only rely on massive lexicon searching, guessing, and context matching, which work well for frequent items like jiao4hui4 ‘church’ but horribly for unfamiliar or even randomly coined items like jiao1-hui4 ‘cross-meet’ and meng4-tian2 ‘dream-field’.

Luckily, since the Chinese characters don’t rely on pronunciation to convey meaning, a single glance at the lyrics would help us achieve a 100% successful parsing rate in most cases, unless the sentence is inherently ambiguous, as in the following mobile phone commercial. I’m not even sure which reading would be more appreciated by customers!

(5) Mai3  shou3ji1    song4              lao3po2 !
—-buy    mobile      send as gift    wife
—“Intended: buy a mobile phone for your wife!”
—“Alternative: buy a mobile phone and we’ll send you a wife as gift!”

Not being able to efficiently parse what you hear can be tough, but from another perspective it can also be beneficial, because it gives you the interesting experience of imagining all sorts of possible meanings. Some images may be weird, but some may be aesthetically enchanting. I myself have been very satisfied with my misunderstanding of the following lyrics (obviously I’m a fan of Jay Chou).

(6) a. Wo zai       deng  mo-zhui,             huo-yan   tunshi  wu-ming-bei. (O)
——-I      be-at  wait   magic-pendant fire-flame devour no-name-stele
——“I’m waiting for the magic pendant; the fire is devouring the nameless stele.”
(“Dragon Rider” by Jay Chou)
—-b. Wo  zai      deng mo    zhui, huo-yan    tunshi   wo ming fei. (M)
——–I      be-at  wait devil  fall    fire-flame  devour  my  life     fly
——“I’m waiting for the devil‘s fall; the fire is devouring me and my life flows away.”

(7) a. Ju       yi-ba                yue,       shou   lan             huiyi        zenme   shui? (O)
——-hold    one-handful   moon,   hand   embrace  memory  how       sleep
—–“I hold a handful of moon (from the water); how can I sleep with memory embraced in my hands?”
(“Preface to Orchid Pavilion” by Jay Chou)
—-b. Ju                         yi          ba-yue,             shou   ran    huiyi         zenme   shui? (M)
——-chrysanthemum    already   eight-month,  hand   dye   memory  how       sleep
—–“The chrysanthemums are already August-like; how can I sleep with memory dyed into my hands.”

I listened to both songs when they first came out – both in the 2008 album Capricorn –­ without having access to the lyrics. So I made the effort to guess what the singer was singing, which is very difficult because of his famous ‘mumbling’ style. I wrote down what I thought I was hearing, and when I finally saw the lyrics, I realized I had written my own songs!

Nowadays I no longer have the time or patience to do lyrics guessing, but the parsing difficulty of Mandopop lyrics hasn’t changed a bit. Recently I’ve been listening to Jay Chou’s 2016 new album Jay Chou’s Bedtime Stories but haven’t bothered reading the lyrics, so maybe it’s time to pick up my old hobby. Let me know if you want to join me or simply want to know more about Mandopop! 🙂

Picture source: [1] http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/1033631-chinese-character-for-dream-meng-%E5%A4%A2/    http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/1133160-chinese-character-for-fields-tian-%E7%94%B0/  [2] http://www.kailindesign.com/sitone/