Mandarin is a beautiful language. It’s not conventionally sexy, like the suaveness of the Spanish and French languages. Rarely do you hear about non-native speakers being seduced by the sounds of Mandarin. To the contrary, Mandarin’s artistic appeal comes from the wordplay that’s available to it. Mandarin has an unexpectedly wide possibility for wordplay, due to its homophones and use of different tones to distinguish words from one another.
I have a friend who is Taiwanese and sometimes I watch Taiwanese drama as a way to learn more about her and Taiwan itself. I of course have to read English subtitles. However, sometimes the translators provide a kindness to non-native speakers by including footnotes that explain any kind of jokes that wouldn’t be picked up by a non-native viewer otherwise. Much to my surprise, a majority of these footnotes are about the wordplay that is made by the characters in the drama.
Here is an example of a translator’s footnote. Without it, most non-native speakers would probably have thought of it as some simple, silly insult. This is from the Taiwanese drama Bull Fighting.
My realization of Mandarin’s beauty has made me think more about how languages can be beautiful in their own right. The Romance languages, including Spanish and French, have an understandable reputation for being elegant, as their vowels make their words roll off the tongue very nicely. On the other hand, English and Mandarin have a less obvious gorgeousness that becomes apparent when clever users of those languages demonstrate the possibilities for wordplay.
Now I wonder what other languages are like English and Mandarin in that right?