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Pidgin English

Did you know your favorite sayings “no pain, no gain,” “long time,...


Did you know your favorite sayings “no pain, no gain,” “long time, no see” and “no can do” are all actually mixtures of Chinese and English? These phrases—and many more—were originally spoken by Chinese workers and European merchants. They were speaking something called Chinese Pidgin English, which originated in Canton or Guangdong in the 18th century, with phrases like “How muchee cash?”

Hardly a first language to anybody, this pidgin dialect came into use as neither the British nor the Chinese wanted to take the time to learn the other’s language! But business must go on. Chinese dock workers, porters and servants all needed to communicate with their European traders; a linguistic middle ground had to be established. Bits and pieces were pulled from both English and Cantonese to produce a functional jargon that anyone working in Canton had to understand.

This union of tongues spawned expressions where English words were put in Chinese sentence structures like “have got raining come down,” “tomorrow my no can come” and “my no have catch basket” (I didn’t bring a basket). Likewise the expressions “no pain, no gain,” “long time, no see” and “no can do,” were all derived from the same phenomenon.

In fact, Chinese Pidgin English became so useful in Canton that there were even instructive textbooks printed, with controversial titles like “Language used by the Red Hairs” (《红毛通用番语》 Hung4 mou4 tung1 jung6 faan1 jyu5/Hóngmáo tōngyòng fānyǔ, using the nickname for foreigners). That book recommends instead of selling something, to try and “sellum” it; in Cantonese, the characters “些林 (se1 lam4/xiēlín)” sound just the same.

The language later traveled up to the Yangtze River Delta, spoken by traders, merchants and tourists in and around Shanghai. It absorbed influences from the Shanghai and Ningbo dialects, and, while it faded away in Canton by the end of the century, the pidgin language lived on in Shanghai for decades to come.?If you needed a wash, you might try shouting, “My wanchee bath!” If you were a little confused, you wouldn’t ask “What do you mean by that?” but “What fashion?”

A unique hybrid grammar evolved as measure words were added, tenses were dropped, and plurals were changed to singulars. “Three books,” for example, took its cue from “san ben shu,” and morphed into “three piece book.” Another example of pidgin that’s become so familiar its odd grammar doesn’t even seem out of place? “Chicken fried rice.”

Shanghai’s pidgin was such a cross-cultural phenomenon that it spawned a whole genre of poetry and jokes. One turn-of-the-century thigh-slapper, as reprinted in Graham Earnshaw’s “Tales of Old Shanghai” (see “Good Reads” section), reads:

A coolie who was thrown off a horse, on arising from the ground, said, “My wanchee go topside he; he wanchee got topside my.”

So the next time you’re chowing down on a bowl of greasy chicken fried rice, and promising your body to make amends later on the treadmill with a “no pain no gain” attitude, keep in mind that it’s not only your dinner that comes from China—your mantra was first spoken by traders and coolies years ago, who were making a few bucks in Shanghai’s bustling ports.

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