Self-expression in different tongues

Self-expression in different tongues

As a lover of languages, the next- most fascinating thing for me after Anthony Chen's shock win at Taipei's Golden Horse Awards was watching the dazed Singapore boy make off-the-cuff, fluent thank-you speeches in Mandarin.

The 29-year-old spoke with a perceptible Taiwanese drawl, pitched slightly higher and a little more nasal and sing-song compared to Singaporean Mandarin. The latter is choppier and flatter, like its Singlish equivalent.

Watching the recent live telecast of Chinese cinema's version of the Oscars, I wondered if Chen's being au fait with the language came from his SAP school background, steady diet of arthouse Taiwanese films or Xiamen-born wife (people from Taiwan and Xiamen have Hokkien roots and a similar accent).

Whatever it was, it made one look at the typically English-speaking Singaporean director anew, and was an interesting case study in how a different language and accent might modulate one's personality.

"Deng yi xia ma (Wait a minute)," the director of Ilo Ilo implored in the dying minutes of the award show, as the background music rose to cut off his speech. The "ma" particle at the end, said with a feminine-sounding, upward drag, is quite girly and distinctively Taiwanese.

At one point, he even bowed deeply on stage as a gesture of respect to the four heavyweight directors he beat to the Best Feature Film prize - Hong Kong's Wong Kar Wai and Johnnie To, China's Jia Zhangke and Malaysian-born Tsai Ming-liang.

The bow - "ju gong" in Mandarin - would have been completely overwrought and out of place had Chen been speaking in English at the Oscars in Los Angeles.

However, as with other Confucian-influenced tongues like Japanese and Korean, the Chinese language is intimately conscious of one's place in the social order and the debt owed to one's forerunners. Speaking in Mandarin and all emotional at having beaten his cinematic heroes, Chen came across as polite and ardently respectful. The same speech in English would either have sounded weirdly self-effacing or just star-struck, even obsequious.

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