Electric Shadows

“Words” in English are a nice construct, when you think about it. Every word I’m writing here has a distinct meaning, separated from the next with a nice spacebar to tell the world ‘new-word-coming-now!’. In Chinese, very few characters translate as one word in English, and what we call a ‘word’ (something in a dictionary) is almost exclusively more than one character. But the upside of this is that this means words have to be formed from lots of elements which hint at the meaning, which create some easy words to guess…!

Take a little family of words about technology – this might include 电话 (phone), 电影 (film), 电视 (TV), 电脑 (computer) and 电力 (electricity). There’s a really nice pattern in here which creates some weird literal translations – they all include 电, which means ‘electrical’ – including the strangely ominous ‘电影’ (film) translating directly as ‘electric shadows’.

Yet even though it’s not as obvious in English, we have almost exactly the same patterns hidden inside our words. 电视 translates as ‘electric’ and ‘vision’ – almost identical to our own word ‘tele-vision’. 电话, ‘electric words’ is similar to ‘tele’ (electric) ‘phone’ (originally meant ‘voice’, according to wiktionary). We stole our ‘tele’ from Greek, Chinese has actually been more original than us by creating their very own word (which, to be fair Japanese then promptly stole.)


When doing a bit of research for this post, I naively typed ‘movie etiquette’, to be promptly greeted by ‘Good one. There is none’. People talk, people eat, people smoke, people phone, people text. People film the screen, get called out, and carry on filming. For all the carefully nuanced levels of society and respect in other elements of Chinese culture, a cinema has none of that. I’ve found that most TV shows and films have subtitles for everything (useful for a Chinese learner who can pause for 5 minutes to work out what’s being said!) and therefore there’s less incentive to listen to the dialogue, when you can read it on the screen just as well.

Things I’ve learned this week:

  • Words are nice. Don’t take them for granted
  • We steal from Greek, Japanese steals from Chinese. There’s a food chain here.
  • Etiquette? Not today. Check out some other posts.

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4 thoughts on “Electric Shadows

  1. Ching says:

    Well observed and nicely written!
    I am a native Mandarin and Cantonese speaker, and perhaps that gave me a little bit of “authority” here to say well done for this post!
    Looking forward to reading more and happy to answer any questions if there is any:-)
    Keep up the good job!

    Liked by 1 person

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