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Cleaning up Chinglish

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  February 5, 2007 05:01 PM

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The Wall Street Journal has a story today (subscription, $) about Beijing officials' push to revise the city's mangled English signs in time for the 2008 Olympics:

Teams of linguistic monitors will patrol the city's parks, museums, subway stations and other public places searching for gaffes to fix.

Signs like "Green Grass Dreading Your Feet" -- i.e., Keep Off the Grass -- have their fans, who collect them online. But the locals aren't laughing.

"We cannot leave [these signs] up just for the amusement of foreigners," one Beijing businesswoman told the Journal.

A few years ago, when "all your base are belong to us" was the catchphrase of the moment, I wrote a column about such off-kilter translations. I can understand why they're funny, I said, when they produce a pun or an off-color joke: "The lift is being fixed -- we regret that you will be unbearable," or "Special cocktails for ladies with nuts."

It's not so obvious, though, why we're amused when the mistake is not a joke but a near miss -- when a non-native speaker says "I have a new for you" or "I like to go naked-foot." Are we feeling superior, or are we enjoying a small revelation about language, as we do when a toddler says "Where doggy go?" or "I haved it"?

There's no reason, after all, not to call one news item "a new" or use a regular past tense for "have"; we just don't. And when someone (accidentally) reveals that we could, it makes us smile. Do psycholinguists know why? And if so, could they please share the answer?

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