Last Sunday, Rebecca Fu went to a Cantonese restaurant called Xǐ yùn lái dà jiǔdiàn 喜運來大酒店 (Happy Fortune Arrives Grand Hotel — actually a modest establisment) in Manhattan's Chinatown. When she saw the following entry on the menu, she had no idea what it was: xiāngjiān shìde 香煎士的. The xiāngjiān 香煎 was not a problem; it means simply "fried" or "pan fried". But, even though she's a graduate of Peking University, Rebecca drew a complete blank on shìde 士的. The characters seem to mean "scholar's", but "fried scholar's" just doesn't make sense. It was only when Rebecca asked the waiter how to pronounce 士的 in Cantonese — whereupon he said "si6 dik1″– that she understood what 士的 meant.
The usual way to say "steak" in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) is niúpái 牛排, and that expression is also used in Cantonese, where it is pronounced ngau4 paai4. But si6 dik1 士的 ("steak") is also used very commonly in speech and even, as on restaurant menus, in writing. This is a good example of how a parallel vocabulary develops in Cantonese and other Sinitic languages: one based on indigenous morphemes, and one on loanwords.
Cantonese has been especially prolific in borrowing words from other languages, and many of these words (I'll mention a few of them below) have entered the standard MSM lexicon. Shanghainese has also borrowed many foreign words directly via their sounds ("clamp," "captain," "last car," etc.), and these too have often passed into the MSM lexicon. The same is true of other topolects that are not normally written (or are not wholly writable) in Chinese characters. In contrast, MSM is more apt to create loan translations for new terms and ideas that enter the language from abroad through calquing or through recycling (by redefinition) of old words (e.g., the MSM words for "philosophy", "religion", "economics", "literature", and so forth). When the latter (recycled and redefined words) pass through Japan (China –> Japan [where the redefinition takes place] –> China), we may refer to such loans as "round-trip words".
It is curious that, if we reverse the order of the characters for si6 dik1 士的 ("steak"), we get dik1 si6 的士 ("taxi"), one of the most successful Cantonese borrowings in the entire Sinitic lexicon. In MSM, 的士 is pronounced díshì (doesn't sound much like "taxi"), but people know what it means, and they even use it comfortably and flexibly in expressions such as dǎ dì 打的 ("strike [i.e., take] a taxi"), dígē 的哥 ("male taxi driver"), and díjiě 的姐 ("female taxi driver"). In fact, díshì 的士 ("taxi") prevails over the clunky trisyllabic neologisms based on native morphemes, chūzū chē 出租車 (lit., "vehicle for rental" — mainland usage) and jìchéngchē 計程車 ("vehicle that computes / calculates [the distance of a] journey" — Taiwan usage).
Another very successful Cantonese loan that is almost as ubiquitous as dik1 si6 的士 ("taxi") is baa1 si2 巴士 ("bus"), pronounced bāshì in MSM. This contrasts with clumsy quadrisyllabic neologisms based on native morphemes, gōnggòng qìchē 公共汽車 (lit., "public automobile") and chángtú qìchē 長途汽車 (lit., "long distance automobile" — also often translated into English as "coach"). I still remember back in the early 1970s struggling to get the tones right on both of these monsters.
Finally, to close this blog, I will relate a personal anecdote. This happened to me when I was teaching at the University of Hong Kong in 2002-2003. On the ground level of the beautiful apartment building in which we lived, I was intrigued by a door that had the following sign on it: shìduōfáng 士多房. Well, that seemed pretty clearly to mean "a house / room with lots of scholars", so I thought that I'd go in and join the club. When I opened the door and entered, all that I saw was a bunch of janitor's cleaning materials! Feeling really silly, I asked around and soon found out that this was the si6 do1 fong4 ("storeroom") for the building.
Once again, the priority of spoken sound over apparent written meaning was brought home powerfully to me. In modern Sinitic languages as in Classical Chinese (Literary Sinitic), if something doesn't make sense when you try to interpret it according to the surface signification of the characters, read it out loud (in the appropriate topolectal pronunciation or historical reconstruction, if you happen to know what that is likely to be) and you might be able to get a hint of what the author really intended.
[Thanks to Alan Chin for assistance with the Cantonese and to Jing Wen and Zhao Lu for Beijing usages]