Spot the Difference between these Identical Phrases

One of our star teachers at AllSet Learning recently shared this with me:

大學裏有兩種人不談戀愛:一種是誰都看不上,另一種是誰都看不上。

大學裏有兩種人最容易被甩:一種人不知道什麼叫做愛,一種人不知道什麼叫做愛。

這些人都是原先喜歡一個人,後來喜歡一個人。

網友評論:壯哉我大中文!!外國人絕對看不懂~!

This is definitely a tricky one, and you’re not likely to be able to appreciate it if you’re not at least the intermediate level. So forgive me for not providing pinyin and translations for everything.

Like many jokes, this joke relies on ambiguity. Understanding the different sentences requires some understanding of semantic ambiguity, syntactic ambiguity, and lexical ambiguity.

Here’s what’s going on:

大學裏有兩種人不談戀愛:一種是誰都看不上,另一種是誰都看不上。

誰都看不上 can be interpreted as either“doesn’t like anyone” or “isn’t liked by anyone.” You’re not normally going to see both meanings used in one sentence!

大學裏有兩種人最容易被甩:一種人不知道什麼叫做愛,一種人不知道什麼叫做愛。

This is a parsing issue, and revolves around the word 叫做 being a synonym for 叫:“叫做 爱” (“to be called love”) vs. “叫 做爱” (“to be called making love”). In spoken Chinese, you would definitely pause to verbally insert the“space”that I have typed above.

這些人都是原先喜歡一個人,後來喜歡一個人。

So 一個人 can be interpreted as both“a person” and “[to be] alone.”

網友評論:壯哉我大中文!!外國人絕對看不懂~!

You can’t really praise Chinese for having ambiguity; every language does. And what one human mind can encode, another can decode (native speaker or not!).

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Most interesting, thank you ! Fascinating how Chinese can be so subtle with only a few 漢字。

  2. Graham Bond Says: March 14, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    Nice post, John. A fine job in elucidating some of the fascinating ambiguities of Chinese–a language so profound that even 60 years of insidious Communist Newspeak hasn’t poisoned its every extremity. You also do a valuable job in rejecting the lazy (and slightly’19th century’, if I may say so) notion that ambiguity represents something exotic, and mystical, and unique. Good stuff.

  3. Nice post. There are about 700 million Chinese people who also wouldn’t understand it…

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