"Good good study, day day up"

English is an amazingly adaptable language, and for a non-native speaker, it can be extremely forgiving and fun to use.

The first time I heard the phrase “to make a mountain out of molehill”, I didn’t know what “molehill” was, so it morphed into “moth ball” in my mind. To make a mountain out of moth ball, well, besides a good laugh, the locals still got my gist.

The other memorable phrase I learned in my early days in Australia was “to whine like a two bob watch”. It contained all the words I knew (not necessarily understood), but didn’t quite follow the grammar I knew, so I modified it to “to whine like a two-watch Bob”, thus turned a cheap watch into a person named Bob who only had two watches. Made perfect sense in my mind, and gained more laughs from the natives.

Chinese grammar is pretty loose when it comes to making up new words. One can combine different characters to create brand new concepts and meanings. It’s no surprise that they would try to apply the same principle in English, which saw words like “smilence” (smile + silence: just smile, but don’t say anything, 笑而不语), “Chinsumer” (Chinese + consumer: used to describe the luxury goods consumers in China), and jokalist (joke + journalist: the kind of journalists that don’t report facts) became very popular and widely used in Chinese “netizens” (net + citizens). The adaptable nature of English makes it easy to accept this kind of construct. In fact, many English words were created this way, such as: smog (smoke + fog), Banoffee (banana + toffee) pie, and of course Chinglish!

The other popular use (or should I say abuse) of English is the word by word literal translation of Chinese. The famous example is “long time no see” which is a literal translation of a Chinese phrase “好久不见”. Not sure how long it took to get this unconventional phrase accepted into the English norm. Given time, another Chinese phrase might make its way into acceptance: “good good study, day day up” (好好学习,天天向上), meaning to study diligently and make progress daily. It’s understood by most Chinese who just began to learn English, but pretty much violated every known English grammatical rule. The attraction of literal translation is to preserve the symmetrical beauty in original Chinese constructs, though the result of the conversion doesn’t quite make sense in the target language.

Language fascinates me. The better I understand a pair of languages, the more hesitant I become where translation is concerned. There is an element of impossibility in translation. To translate is like to recreate a pencil drawing in oil painting or watercolor. The theme or rough meaning may be intact, but the art is lost. Could English become so adaptable that it will continue to tolerate and absorb words and structures from all foreign tongues? If that is the case, who is to say we won’t end up “hard hard study, day day confused” 😉

2 thoughts on “"Good good study, day day up"

  1. Hey awesome post – I’ve always been fascinated by the phrase “good good study day day up”. I even made a T-shirt out of it. You break tense agreement once: “but pretty much violated ” should read “pretty much violates”. The subject of your sentence is introduced in the present tense 🙂

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