Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Immediately on Top

Year 2014 is the year of the horse in the Chinese Zodiac. One word that revolves around the concept of horse in Chinese, English and Malay is horsepower. As a specific value, horsepower is a common unit of measurement for mechanical power. The horse notion is iconically prevalent in horsepower in some other languages, such as /马力; mǎ (horse) lì (power)/ in Mandarin, or /kuasa [power] kuda [horse]/ in Malay. A short discussion on iconicity is available in Sew (2005).
                                     image taken from http://thedesigninspiration.com/photos/horsepower/

Cataloging lexical compounds between Chinese, English and Malay for a contrast of morphosyntactic variation makes a typical comparison. The morpheme horse is at the initial position of the English and Chinese lexical composition in contrast to the final position of the Malay compound. In terms of lexical combination, the Malay bipartite compound kuasa kuda  exists in an opposite combinatory to horsepower and /马力/ in Mandarin. 

In the remainderof this blog post, the focus is on the Chinese characters horse and top. / shàng/, which initially denote on top of a running horse, is currently an adverb meaning immediately. Jim Gibney (2011), who teaches English in China, observes that /mashang/, which literally means 'at horse speed', turns out to be 'eventually' when it comes to getting repair work done for his building.

In the visual representation below, the idiomatic /mashang/ combines with two other Chinese characters have 有 and presents 礼 to denote a wish that is synonymous to receive gift immediately. From a semiotic viewpoint, the visual representation depicts a gift (written with the character fortune) sitting on top of equine as the main component of /mashang/. If iconic symbolization may be part of cultural semiotics (Sew, 2005), the red paper cutting represents an original aspect of /mashang/.

In Chinese culture, apart from material objects, gift as a cultural concept may refer to the money offered to the host of a wedding or birthday banquet (see the Mandarin skit illustrating the plight of a married Chinese couple who hatched a plan for throwing a 10th anniversary wedding banquet as a strategy to make some quick money in Chun Wan 2014, http://www.chun-wan.com/). Receiving gifts is a double-edged sword, as it may be interpreted as bribery, although it is a cultural practice in many parts of the Chinese-speaking world for establishing guang 关 shi系 (relationship), or networking in a cultural-specific corporate world. The delivery of hampers among business associates normally peaks during the month before Chinese New Year in Singapore and Malaysia.

                                      Image taken from http://www.fudan.org.cn/archives/20119/mashang

Interestingly, there is a reversal of meaning change in the pragmatics of /mashang/. Diachronically, the horse character // and top character // undergo the process of semantic bleaching becoming less equine- and top-like in //. Semantic bleaching is related to grammaticalization - a process in which a lexical word loses its original meaning in time. In terms of diachronic grammar, many claim that grammaticalization is unilateral, i.e. a one way development in which a full lexical word becomes more grammatical gradually. There are others who do not subscribe to the unilateral direction of grammaticalization. This post merely recounts a usage-based situation in which a grammaticalized word regains its original lexical meaning.
For illustration and comparison of Chinese wishes in the real world  that begin with /mashang/, Table 1 contains two types of wish shared verbally during Chinese New Year in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore and Malaysia. The first type is the immediately-have-thing wish such as immediately own money, house, and car. The second category, in contrast, is the immediately-be-in-a-state wish including immediately be prosperous, immediately be lucky, and immediately be happy.

Mandarin wishes
Hanyu Pinyin
ma shang you qian 
(Tho, 2014)
Get rich immediately (Tho, 2014)
ma shang you fang
(Tho, 2014)
Own a house immediately
(Tho, 2014)
ma shang you che [hao] (Tho, 2014, brackets mine)
Obtain a car [licence plate] immediately (Tho, 2014, brackets mine)
ma shang cái
Strike a fortune immediately
ma shang hǎo yùn
Become lucky immediately
ma shang xin
Blessed with happiness immediately

Table 1: Select Chinese New Year Greetings in Mandarin

The year 2014 offers an immediate opportunity for the horse and top characters to spring into life, as it were, via a zodiac-based fortification in the semantics of wishing repertoire invoked as a face-to-face cultural practice. Both characters /mashang/ reverberate an on-top-of-the-horse meaning because the immediately-wishes in Table 1 are not commonly shared with each other in Chinese New Year yet become relevant and popular in conjunction with the ushering in of the year of the horse.

After knowing that /mashang/ is used to wish for something immediately, or get into a wonderful state immediately, we may append many things or states that are desirable for listeners in our verbal interaction. A well-tailored wish in the year of the horse will definitely enhance one's CQ (cultural intelligence) immediately, so to speak. The scope that follows the immediately-wish is definitely diverse ranging from good health, youthfulness, longevity, pregnancy, daughter, son, or promotion for everybody in accordance to one's preference(s).

Data base and work consulted
Gibney, Jim. (2011). What ma shang really means. Chinadaily.com.cn  http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/mychinastory/2011-12/26/content_14327802.htm
Sew, Jyh Wee. (2005). Iconicity. In P. Strazny (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Linguistics (pp. 487-488). New York: Routledge.
__________. (2014). Spring in other dialect. Grammar Gang. http://thegrammargang.blogspot.sg/2014/01/spring-in-other-dialect.html
Tho, Sin Yi (2014). Cheeky equine greetings of the Horse 2014. Rightways: Sowing the seeds to success. http://rightwayssuccess.blogspot.sg/2014/01/cheeky-equine-greetings-of-horse-2014.html

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


Gideon Tong said...

Ummm.... the Chinese word for horse.... that's the simplified version. I believe that the tradition version is more common. :)

Jyh Sew said...

Both versions are in use currently with China adopting the simplified version as can be seen in the red paper cutting and Taiwan using the traditional version.

Simplified version is the preferred version in Singapore for ease of learning.