Monday, February 2, 2009

Chun - A Quail of a Tale

The last of the common poultry I'm going to mention is quail. Not because it's common of itself (I've never actually come across it in a restaurant) but because the eggs are pretty common. More on eggs soon.

I'm also going to use quail to illustrate an interesting element of spoken Mandarin Chinese -- every word is one syllable. And that's limiting, even when you have four musical tones to add meaning. There are a whole lot of homonyms in Chinese. (Homonyms are words that sound exactly alike but mean very different things). If you go to Mandarin Tools and search their dictionary for "ji" (chicken), you will find 142 entries. Yikes!

Luckily for us, the written version is quite clear, because different meanings use different characters. So if you look at their 142 entries, you will see that only words with closely related meanings have the same character. But even though it's clear when you read it, it's not clear when you speak it, so the Chinese will often use two words together to clarify what they mean. (They also use a lot of puns and metaphors, because, after all, everything you say could refer to something else.)

This is why beef is "cow meat" 牛肉. And it's why with some poultry and most seafood, you will see a lot of repetition. So...

I've most often seen quail as the character at the head of this post: Chun 鶉. But you might see it as An Chun 鵪鶉 - and both characters mean "quail."

How to remember: Well, it's got the bird radical, and it isn't chicken or duck. Soon you will learn a character that will help you remember Chun at least. The left side of Chun is a character that means "enjoy" 享. The top is the same top as for "palace" and "capital city" - a lid over a box. But the bottom half is what might help you remember quail: it's zi 子 (pronounced "dzuh") and it's the word for "little thing". It's an important food word, and we'll get to that before we even get to eggs. It helps us remember quail because quail are little things.

The pinyin spellings for quail is ān or an1 (first tone), and chún or chun2 (second tone).

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