Wednesday, June 12, 2013

On the fat road

Like many Malay words, the word fat in English is bi-categorical in terms of grammar. This means that fat may be considered as an adjective as well as a noun. The examples to illustrate the adjectival and nominal status of fat are as follows:

Her second husband is a very fat man vs. There is plenty of fat in this piece of fried chicken.

Interestingly, the word fat may become metaphorical in the following phrases:
Metaphorical Meaning
Fat cheque
A draft worth plenty of money issuable by the bank
Fat chance
Fat hope
Wishful thinking
A fat lot of good use
Neither good nor useful at all
It’s not over until the fat lady sings
The outcome of a situation is not yet final

In comparison, the word jalan in Malay may refer to the verb walk as well as the noun road. Here is a contrastive comparison of jalan as verb and noun in separate syntactic contexts:
Rumah itu di tepi jalan besar         vs.   Jangan jalan ke hadapan lagi
(That house is by the main road)           (Don’t walk forward any more)

Along the vein of non-literal expression, /jalan/ may be metaphorical in these Malay constructions:
Jalan (road) buntu (deadlocked)
Dead end (mental block) vs. jalan mati [die] (dead end )
Jalan (road) pendek (short)
Shortcut / cutting corner
Jalan (road) cerita (story)            
Jalan (road) belakang (back)
Unorthodox way
Jalan (road) damai (peace)
Solution for peace
Jalan (road) serong (slanted)
Unscrupulous approach

It is obvious why many people would want a fat bank account but a fat-free diet, indicating that we are constantly in a love-hate relationship with fat. Similarly, in the Malay world, everybody would like to find their path to attaining success although sometimes one may be tempted to select the shorter route as there is certainly more than one road to Rome, as the Chinese saying would have it. By comparison, the English expression is that all roads lead to Rome, putting a different slant on the meaning.
This article suggests that words are always inbuilt with a potential to generate many types of references offering a variety of meanings for the speakers to select and combine in verbal communication. It is because of the versatility of each word in producing different types of reference that we are spared the trouble of creating a new word for every single denotation, keeping the linguistic stock within a manageable mental portfolio for expression and interaction.

Jyh Wee Sew
Centre for Language Studies
Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
National University of Singapore


Choppy T said...

Heheheh! Fatty fatty fat fat!

Jyh Sew said...

In line with multiple meaning potentials, the word for fat in Cantonese is polysemous. It may describe the size quality similar to the English fat; as well as oiliness hence referring to the slippery quality of a texture.

In comparison, the Mandarin word for fat can only describe the state of a size but not the state of a texture. As such, it is inaccurate to consider dialects as subservient to the so-called Standard language.

In fact, if one speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin, the person would be able to see these two Chinese languages as separate systems with some overlapping syntax.


Julia Miller said...

That's fascinating, Jyh. I hadn't realised there was such a big difference between Cantonese and Mandarin. Thanks for explaining.

Jyh Sew said...

Hi Julia

One common difference is the use of intensifier whereby one may say

'how nice', or how fun' in Cantonese but it should be 'very nice', or 'very fun' in Mandarin.

The intentional use of 'how nice' in Mandarin becomes a marked feature often times invoked by Mandarin-speaking comedians on stage to enact a localized role in identification with the audience who speaks the colloquial version.