MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Monday, August 10th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Here’s World commentator Kim Henderson on the trials of marital communication.
KIM HENDERSON, COMMENTATOR: I have this sister-in-law who can hold her own in four languages. She would insist it’s really only three (one’s a different dialect of her native Chinese), but I know better. After all, it’s those tonal languages that linguists say are the hardest to learn. The kind in which a single syllable can have several different meanings based on the rising and falling pitch of the speaker’s voice.
For example, a simple two letters, M-A, can be pronounced as maah, maah?, maah (deep), or maah!, with each sound having a different meaning. Mix them up and you could end up saying “the speckled mother scolds the horse.”
Easy peasy, right?
Evidently the translation difficulty works both ways. Here’s a message I recently received from an eBay seller based in the Eastern Hemisphere:
Hope everything goes fine with you This e-mail probably disturb you, But I’m concerning about your package status . As the shipping is free and realize it’s international mail post send by economy option Hope you could really understand this . when you are receiving good conditional leave us positive feedback in Real 5 ★★★★★ stars
Now, that’s about as funny as some of the research papers I’ve graded. But not all tonal language issues are humorous. Case in point: the tonal language used by the most curious of all people groups—spouses. In no sub-section of the human species is the use of rising and falling pitch more pronounced—or more readily translatable—than among husbands and wives.
Here’s a transcript from a closet conversation between two spouses who shall remain nameless. Each time it’s the same sentence, exact same words. But notice the importance of accent marks in Spouse Speak.
“You want me to wear my blue jacket ?” Translation: It doesn’t say business casual on the invitation.
Or this one:
“You want me to wear my blue jacket?” Translation: I prefer the brown tweed.
“You want me to wear my blue jacket?” Translation: You owe me.
That’s why in closets and other tight spots couples really have to watch it—the derogatory use of diphthongs or whatever else is in their linguistic arsenal—because Miss Communication, the mother of all translation barriers, will come right on in without even knocking.
So in the lingo of lovers, as in overseas eBay correspondence, it’s all about semantics. Who knows? Maybe that Rosetta Stone company will eventually put Spouse Speak and eBayese in its teaching line up along with Farsi.
Until then, blue jacket wearers and online buyers will simply have to keep struggling. Blame it on that incident at Babel.
And while you’re at it, watch your tone.
I’m Kim Henderson.