We Want Your Life!

I love chatting with Beijing taxi drivers — there's always something new and interesting about China or the Chinese language to learn. 

This morning, after the obligatory conversation opener (He: "Your Chinese is very good." Me: "No, it's barely passable."), my driver, whom I suspect maybe was a linguistics professor on the side commented to me that he'd noticed that foreigners who speak Chinese have a hard time with the tones, and thus often ended up saying things that they don't mean, and that, to Chinese people sound very strange.

I knew that I could keep him entertained all day with stories of my own experience of butchering Chinese tones, but I was curious to hear what examples he had in mind.

"Take the Chinese basketball player Y1o M0ng" he said. 

"His name is pronounced Y1o (1st tone, voice at a high flat pitch) M0ng (2nd tone, voice rising).  But when he plays basketball in America, the Americans all chant Y4o M=ng (2 4th tones, with voices falling). That sounds really strange."

When I asked him what y4o m=ng (with 2 4th tones) meant–what a Chinese person was actually hearing (or thinking he was hearing), he said "y4o means 'to want' and m=ng means 'life.' It means 'we want your life'," and as he said this he crossed his hand across his neck as if to signify an execution!

"You,'re right," I said, "that must sound strange!"