On my way home yesterday, I heard a girl was humming a Chinese song called “辣妹子 (là mèi zi)” which means “Spicy Girls” in English. This is a famous Chinese song by the folk singer 宋祖英 (sòng zǔ yīng). Of course, I’m very familiar with the melody. But this time, I was attracted by the words of song. Well, it’s kind of tricky and amazing. Let’s see the following lines:
辣妹子从小辣不怕 (là mèi zi cóng xiǎo là bú pà): Spicy girls love red peppers as children
辣妹子长大不怕辣 (là mèi zi zhǎng dà bú pà là): Spicy girls still love them when grown up
辣妹子嫁人怕不辣 (là mèi zi jià rén pà bù là): Spicy girls will marry men loving peppers
辣妹子从来辣不怕 (là mèi zi cóng lái là bú pà): Spicy girls always love red peppers
辣妹子生性不怕辣 (là mèi zi shēng xìng bú pà là): Spicy girls love red peppers from their hearts
辣妹子出门怕不辣 (là mèi zi chū mén pà bù là): Spicy girls are warm-hearted to everyone
There’re “不bù”, ”怕 pà” and ”辣 là” in all these lines, but they are put in different order. The three phrases “不怕辣 (bú pà là)”, “辣不怕 (là bú pà)” and “怕不辣 (pà bù là)” seems to indicate the same meaning – do not fear of spice - at the first glance. But there’s actually slight difference. See,
- “不怕辣 (bú pà là)” means “do not fear of spicy food”;
- “辣不怕 (là bú pà)” is saying that “the spicy girls do not fear no matter how spicy it is”;
- “怕不辣 (pà bù là)” is indicating that “the spicy girls cannot do without spicy food”.
The feeling towards spicy food is actually increasing.
It’s interesting that with different word orders, we can express different meanings. The above-mentioned examples carry similar meanings. But in some other phrases or sentences, different orders of words may indicate completely different meanings. For example,
- 奶牛 (nǎi niú): cow vs. 牛奶 (niú nǎi): milk
- 现实 (xiàn shí): reality (n.), real (adj.) vs. 实现 (shíxiàn): realize/achieve (v.), realization (n.)
- 不很好 (bù hěn hǎo): not very good vs. 很不好 (hěn bù hǎo): very bad
There’re numerous examples of this in Chinese. With all these examples, learners can get a rough impression of word order in Chinese. I’m emphasizing on the word order because it is something that can be easily ignored in learning the Chinese language, especially when learners learn Chinese online, and with typos. Word order is not only important in speaking Chinese, writing Chinese, but also in English Chinese translation. With the right order, you may figure out a concise and precise translation without a superfluous word.