Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den (施氏食狮史)

I stumbled on this and simply love it. This story crafted by Chinese American linguist Chao Yuen Ren, can easily by understood by educated readers of Classical Chinese. Due to the evolution in the pronunciation of Chinese over the past two millennium; however, when spoken in Mandarin, it is a practically incomprehensible string of the Pinyin ‘shi’ in slightly altered tones. Spoken, then, the poem sounds something like this:

But written as follows:

《施氏食獅史》

石室诗士施氏,嗜狮,誓食十狮。
氏时时适市视狮。
十时,适十狮适市。
是时,适施氏适市。
氏视是十狮,恃矢势,使是十狮逝世。
氏拾是十狮尸,适石室。
石室湿,氏使侍拭石室。
石室拭,氏始试食是十狮尸。
食时,始识是十狮,实十石狮尸。
试释是事。

Means (according to Wikipedia) something like the following in English:

Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den
In a stone den was a poet called Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.
He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this matter.

Of course, Classical Chinese, as a written language is much different than spoken forms of Chinese and if such a story was relayed verbally, it would certainly not be told in this way. Thus this example may tend to give a false impression that it is impossible to express some ideas verbally in Chinese.

Still, I find this intensely fascinating, and while pondering it, I also noticed that punctuation can be extremely important as well. For example consider the difference between –

Lion-eating poet
(That’s Hemingway, incidentally.)

and

Lion, eating poet.

Here is an interesting example in English that is common used in linguistics classes. The somewhat amusing (though quite hard to decipher) grammatically valid English sentence in which all eight words are the same goes as follows:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

This sentence uses three meanings of ‘buffalo.’

Buffalo – A city in New York
buffalo – n. An animal
buffalo – v. To bully or intimidate

Even knowing this, though, the sentence is hard to decipher. Unlike the Lion-eating Poet, the written versions of these words are also indistinguishable (with the exception of the capitalization of ‘Buffalo.’) So it must be broken down. The sequence is as follows: city, animal, city, animal, verb, verb, city, animal. In other words, combine all of the ‘Buffalo buffalo’ to mean buffalo from Buffalo. Then you can decipher it to mean something like this:

(buffalo from Buffalo) [that other] (buffalo from Buffalo) buffalo [themselves] buffalo [other] (buffalo from Buffalo.)

Kind of like one of those stereograms. Once you see it, you see it. Until then, it’s just a bunch of noise.

Took me a few minutes…but I got it!!
I think that’s a buffalo on the left but on the right looks
like some kind of dinosaur.

Well…before I wrap it up, I would be remiss to follow-up the Shi, shi, shi… poem and Buffalo buffalo… phrase without rerunning this classic:

Why don’t you go outside and play “hide-and-go-fuck-yourself?” Classic.

jk

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