A blue-capped barbarian untangles a speech problem

I like to attempt to learn foreign languages. I'm not very good at it, but sometimes my failures are more helpful than my successes.

In 1986 I lectured in China, in Jinan and Shanghai. I came back very sympathetic to the problems of Chinese students who had tried to learn English in a country where it had not been taught for many years. That sympathy, and my very few words of spoken Chinese, led me to try to help some of the Chinese computer-science students at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. One requirement for a master's degree in computer science here is the delivery of a seminar in acceptable oral English.

We had quite a few students from Wuhan, China, who seemed to have an unusual nasal "L" phoneme that I can't reproduce. It often led them to sound as if they were talking about "computer letworks" instead of "computer networks." My inability to master the phoneme didn't help. I'm a mathematician, not a linguist.

And then I met Xu Xin. He was invited to come and speak by the university's Jewish Studies program. Professor Xu teaches English in China, and his friendship with an American Fulbright scholar teaching in China had led him to put together book published in the United States as "Legends of the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng" (with Beverly Friend, KTAV Publishing, 1995).

The book contains stories of a group of Jews who arrived in China via the Silk Road about AD 900. They explained to the first emperor of the Sung Dynasty that there was a war in their homeland; it was no longer a good place to live. Could they raise their families in China?

After some discussions I won't recount here (I recommend the book), the emperor agreed that the Jews could settle in China on two conditions: They had to adopt Chinese names, and they could not prohibit their children from intermarrying. (Someone had told him what had happened once before, in Egypt.)

The Jews thrived in Kaifeng. A cemetery there has Hebrew inscriptions dating from the 900s to the 1900s. They were first noticed by Westerners in the 1600s, when Christian missionaries reported the existence of Chinese Jews to the Vatican.

There was a great controversy in Europe at the time: How accurately had the old Bible texts been copied, over the centuries? The Jews had arrived in Kaifeng with a handwritten Torah (the first five books of the Bible), and it had been hand copied, as it wore out, for 700 years, without a chance to check it against another copy. The Vatican sent an expert to China to compare the Kaifeng Torah to Torah scrolls in Europe - and found it agreed, letter for letter!

Some Muslims also settled in Kaifeng. Both groups were called by the locals hui-hui (pronounced as a rather guttural "kway-kway"), a word formed rather like the Greek bar-bar, imitative of the funny sounds made by non-Greek-speakers - barbarians. The two groups were distinguished by the color of their hats. The Muslims were the "white cap" barbarians, and the Jews were the "blue cap" barbarians, the nlai-mo hui-hui.

Nlai-mo - there at last was the troublesome N-L phoneme! I liked many things in Professor Xu's lecture, but now I was excited. "Wo shr nlai-mo hui-hui" ("I am a blue-cap barbarian!"). I don't know what Professor Xu thought of me after his lecture, as I kept asking about this odd Chinese regional idiom instead of about his excellent book.

I tried it out the next day on a Chinese student with a pronunciation problem. "Wo shr nlai-mo hui-hui," I said. That drew a complete blank. So I put on a blue skullcap and tried again. "Wo shr nlai-mo hui-hui."

The student laughed. "Oh, you mean nlai-mo! You mean a blue cap!" I tried again. Again I had it wrong. I couldn't say it. But suddenly the student understood why I was having trouble understanding "computer letworks." He worked back from "letwork" to "nletwork" to "network," bridging that very difficult (for a Chinese) gap.

I never have learned to pronounce "nlai-mo hui-hui" so that a Chinese can understand me - unless I put on my blue skullcap. But I've used my failed attempts to help a lot of students past the problem posed by "computer nletworks."

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