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Priceless Words

From the series Effective Language and Culture Acquisition

From a Chinese English major’s paper on “English Ambiguity in Social Intercourse”:

Unintentional ambiguity may cause obstacles in intercourse activities, and it needs to be avoided and removed; while using intentional ambiguity ingeniously can get special results in intercourse.


The student was totally innocent in writing this, and the teacher elected not to correct her, knowing that she would have a huge loss of face if she knew the connotations of what she wrote. After all, Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary gives the lead definition for “intercourse” as “dealings or connection (as in common affairs, civilities, or business) between persons, organizations, or nations.” The student had apparently looked up the word in her Chinese-English dictionary and noted that its closest denotative meaning was what she wanted to say. Unfortunately, the dictionary did not tell her about word connotations, connotation being “the wide array of positive and negative associations that most words naturally carry with them.”1

This raises the whole question of semantics in cross-linguistic communication. First, there are a few cross-linguistic semantic fields that are basically congruent, most notably science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

One summer in the late 1970s I was contracted to be escort interpreter for a technical delegation from China. One day we visited Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ. In one laboratory, scientists were measuring the excitability of molecules when hit by a laser beam. In another, researchers were testing the electrical conductivity of various materials at near-absolute zero (Kelvin) temperatures.

While I had done a reasonably good interpreting job to that point, I was completely lost at Bell Labs. As researchers described their work, I stood embarrassingly mute. After an agonizing half-day there, I apologized to the Chinese visitors for letting them down. The leader smiled and said, “No problem. We’ve read their research papers in Chinese and know exactly what they were talking about!” Interestingly, STEM subjects have the most unambiguous equivalents from one language to another, without connotative overtones.

For practically all other genres, there are areas of noncongruence between equivalent semantic fields. Words and expressions may carry cultural content, reflect literary antecedents, or be borrowed from other languages. Greatest cross-linguistic difficulties arise with slang, idioms, poetry, and humor.

Take slang, for instance. “Earn some money” may be in a memorized dialogue, but Chinese students may hear “make a buck” outside the classroom. Slang-filled English is like another foreign language to them, and typically, newly arrived Chinese students have more trouble understanding American roommates than professors lecturing in class. Slang has its own niche in semantic fields.

Merriam-Webster defines idiom as “an expression established in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in grammatical construction … or in having a meaning that cannot be derived as a whole from the conjoined meanings of its elements.” Every language has idioms, but Chinese has myriads of them, and Chinese people love to use them. A few have meanings similar to English idioms, such as 走马看花 (ride a horse to see the flowers), which is almost exactly equivalent to “whirlwind visit.” But many idioms do not have cross-linguistic equivalencies. Learning idioms is a lifelong endeavor, best done by picking them up in conversation or reading classical texts which give context to storied phrases.

Poetry is impossible to fully replicate in translation. Rhyme, meter, the lilt and connotations of words are almost all lost in cross-linguistic rendering of verse. One of the most celebrated poetic forms is regulated verse, “a form of Chinese poetry that flourished in the Tang dynasty (618–907). It consists of eight lines of five or seven syllables, each line set down in accordance with strict tonal patterns.”2 There are many translations of this poetry, but even the best renderings in English are denotative meanings of the poems. Much of their priceless artistry is lost in translation. What a pity! Still, the serious student of Chinese should learn some classical poetry in the original language because it provides historical and cultural context. Besides, Chinese people learn ancient poems in school and a foreigner’s ability to recite some poetry creates an instant bond.

And then there is humor, a semantic field which has little cross-linguistic congruence. A joke almost never goes over in translation. What’s funny in one language is almost invariably a dull, meaningless story in another language. Puns only work in one language, impossible to replicate in another language. “Cross-talk” (相声) is a popular cultural humor medium in China. There are a few examples in English, the best-known being Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First.” But to master Chinese cross-talk is very difficult because of the denotative meanings and the cultural connotations in the rapid-fire exchanges between the two participants.

One day many years ago my wife, four-year-old daughter, and I were walking along Shanghai’s Bund. An older man came up to us, smiled broadly, bent over, lightly patted our daughter’s head, and said, “You are sooo naughty! You are sooo naughty!” But strangely, the man was gentle and friendly, not scolding her at all. My wife and I looked at each other in bewilderment. What had our daughter done wrong? She definitely wasn’t being unmanageable. What a strange encounter!

Subsequently we learned that a Chinese-English dictionary definition of 调皮 is “naughty.” However, while Chinese connotations of 调皮, the closest Chinese equivalent, may be playful, active, or fun-loving, “naughty” in English has connotations of disobedient, recalcitrant, or incorrigible. On the one hand, denotative meaning gives semantic equivalents between the two languages. On the other hand, connotative meanings are as different as good and bad.

In the end, between two languages, semantic fields of equivalent expressions are seldom entirely congruent. Learning language and culture is a life-long exercise. As the Chinese say, “You live to an old age, you learn to an old age, and there’s still three-tenths you don’t know” (活到老,学到老,还有三分学不到).

Author’s note: This essay concludes a series on language and culture in the Chinese context. I hope it has been instructive and entertaining. More importantly, I hope these blogs have enabled the reader to more meaningfully enter and function in the Chinese world. Immanuel!


  1. “Connotation and Denotation” by Jo Anna Bashforth, California State University at Northridge, 2015,
  2. “Lüshi” by editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica,
Image credit: Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Mark Newland

Mark Newland (pseudonym) lived in Taiwan for a decade and since then has lived and worked for extended periods in the People's Republic of China. His PhD is in General Linguistics, reflecting his deep interest in language and culture. He has been involved in a wide variety of pursuits in …View Full Bio

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