It’s All Chinese Whispers to Me

Posted on August 14, 2019


I’m Somewhere Where I Don’t Know Where I Am

I’ve lived abroad for fifteen years of my adult life, spent years studying foreign languages–both German and Chinese, and made international friends from all over. The memories are starting to blur together.

Do you remember the time
We were eating Italian food
After Chinese class
With that German friend
Who spoke English
With a Danish accent
And the Filipino waiter
Gave the bill to a French-kissing
Spanish couple
Who argued over going Dutch?
Where were we?

Chinese is a remarkably tough language. There are so many accents and dialects. Last week I attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland and met a Chinese woman who spoke a dialect I couldn’t understand.

Turned out to be Scottish.

The Telephone Game 2.0

In the United Kingdom kids play a game called Chinese Whispers, similar to the game American kids call telephone. The children form a line and the first child whispers a message to the second, and so on, and by the time the message reaches the end it’s usually become garbled.

Parents and teachers love the telephone game for the same reason they love the outdoors: they’re both free. Teachers play the game with students as a way to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of whispering. Quiet, indoor voices can lead to miscommunication and confusion, maybe even danger. What if you see smoke in the stairwell and use an indoor voice to tell your teacher and she hears, “There’s a joke in the snail mail”?

In a world of fake news and miscommunication children need to be trained to equate volume with civic responsibility: “If it’s worth saying it’s worth shouting.”

Besides Chinese Whispers and Telephone, the game has many names across countries. I’ve heard it called Russian scandal, whisper down the lane, operator, and messenger game.

Is it ironic that as the game passes between countries, the name keeps changing?

A: “What game are you kids playing?”
B: “Chinese whispers.”
A: “Russian whispers?”
C: “No, Chinese whispers down the lane.”
B: “Russian scandal?”

Since kids today rarely use a telephone I assume the name of the game will change again in a few years. How about “Autocorrect”? Or the version you can play with only two players: “Sorry, I was looking at my phone, could you repeat that?”



It’s All Chinese Whispers to Me

Historians trace the name Chinese whispers back to the 17th century when Europeans first began encountering the Chinese and genuinely believed Chinese was indecipherable.

I’m sure Germans held similar sentiments towards Chinese. When a German is telling you something you don’t understand it’s common for him to say, “Spreche ich chinesisch?” which means “Am I speaking Chinese?”

I do speak Chinese, and it’s genuinely confusing when a German stranger is explaining directions I don’t understand and asks me, “Am I speaking Chinese?” and for a split second I always think, “How does he know I speak Chinese?”

In English we have a similar idiom: “It’s all Greek to me.” Reputable scholars say the idiom originated with Shakespeare, and less reputable scholars say it started with an ill-advised medieval branding campaign by the Greece Tourism Board.

I found a page on Wikipedia that summarizes the equivalent idioms across languages and Chinese is far and away the most common language used as the benchmark for incomprehension:

So if everyone thinks Chinese is the benchmark for confusion, what do the Chinese say when confused?

“Is this written in ghost script?”

It makes sense the Chinese would reference ghosts over Greeks since the overwhelming majority of Chinese people believe in ghosts but I can’t remember a single Chinese person telling me they believed in Greeks.

This “ghost script” expression is often used used for poor handwriting and is probably deeply hurtful to ghosts who are already prone to use any slight as an excuse for passive-aggressive behavior: “Sure, fine, I apologize for my shaky handwriting. And I’m sorry if I get a little emotional and my hand shakes when I try and write out the circumstances surrounding my murder and a list of suspects. You try gripping a pencil without the benefit of a body and then you can brag about your steady, legible ghost script.”

The Chinese might also say, “Martian language” or “Sounds like bird language.” It’s genuinely confusing when I’m speaking to someone in Chinese and he answers, “Sounds like bird language,” and there’s always a split second when I think, “How does he know I speak bird language?”

Posted in: humor