Amy Tan, The Hundred Senses,
London, Flamingo, 1985.

Deepsouth v.4 n.1 (Autumn 1998)
Copyright (c) 1998 by
Jyh Wee Sew - University of Otago, Department of Linguistics
  All rights reserved.

"There are traces of reduplication which is an Asian linguistic feature in communication such as those in Chapter 7: The Hundred Secret Senses, in which there are phrases like 'very-very', 'yes-yes', 'no-no', and 'welcome-wlecome'. "


This is a linguistic review of a literary work. I personally find it very refreshing as a text for teaching English especially to Chinese students. The author's fame and Chinese background would draw a closer distance between the learner and the text. (By the way the author has a MA in linguistics from San Jose University). The Sinitic setting foregrounded in the book is an additional plus to enable an intermediate Chinese learner to strike a common ground with the text much more easily. Among the tenets of applied linguistics applicable to this book are as follows:

a) Crosscultural pragmatic comparison between English and Chinese speakers b) Articulalatory phonetics of non-native speakers of English c) Morphological interface between English and Chinese d) Lexical import into English by means of ethno- and cultural-
e) Simplified English syntax by non-native speakers f) Error analysis.

The text provides an understanding of the Chinese mind and the contrastive linguistic make-up in learning English. This is best exemplified by Kwan, Olivia's half-sister. She shares the same father with Olivia the protagonist of the story. Kwan, is born in China and she speaks Chinese English and thinks English in a Chinese mind frame. Olivia, on the other hand, was born and brought up in California. She always provides the American counterpart in thinking. This contrast could provide pedagogical insights to English teachers providing the possible typical error patterns, prone to be made by Chinese students while learning English. Consequently the book provides a base for English lesson planning.

Take for instance when Kwan was fascinated by a barf, she asked Olivia for the fruit's name, she then tried to pronounce it as "bar-a-fa, bar-a-fa" and said. "Wah! What a clumsy word for such a delicate taste...(p.12)". I suspect a typical Chinese-educated student, for instance, would call it "balafa" as the trill is always a difficult phoneme to Chinese articulation. The lateral is always employed as a phonetic substitute. The same applies to many Japanese. For those who advocate world English the vernacular Chinese-English spoken by Kwan could also be a rich source for sociolinguistic research. Other such examples include Yingle Bells for Jingle Bells, wunerful for wonderful, yoke for joke (p.97).

From the 'barf' example one would realise that English is a stress-timed language whereas Chinese in its spoken form is a syllable-timed language. Each spoken syllable is actually a meaningful Chinese character in its own right. As such for an elementary reading program an English teacher would like to use more words which have salient peaks. It is easier to learnt words which have the basic peaked syllable (CV$C-: water) rather than a heavy onset syllable or word such as (CCCVC#: strap) at the elementary level.

There are traces of reduplication which is an Asian linguistic feature in communication such as those in Chapter 7: The Hundred Secret Senses, in which there are phrases like 'very-very', 'many-many', 'yes-yes', 'no-no' and 'welcome-welcome'. There are also humorous excepts which could be useful tools for teaching listening and speaking skills. These examples are good samples to illuminate miscomprehension of words and phrases in communication which could range from funny slip of tongues to costly miscommunication. Among some lighter anecdotes found in the book are as follows:

She shook her head then asked, "How this person die?" "A skiing accident in Utah. Avalanche. It's like drowning." "Ah!__waterski affa lunch! Stomach too full, no wonder drown." "I didn't say after lunch. I said__"
"No lunch? Then why she drown? Cannot swim?" "She didn't drown! She was buried in the snow." "Snow!" Kwan frowned. "Then why you say she drown?" I sighed, about to go insane (emphases provided, p. 101).

"...Oh, okay. She saying her family die long time ago, because auto in ditch." "Auschwitz'" I said.
"No-no. Auto in ditch. Yes-yes. I right, auto go in ditch, turn over, crash!" Kwan cupped her right ear (p.105).

The second conversation is about Kwan's communicative blunder with Elza, Simon's deceased girl friend through her yin eyes of which enabled Kwan to see ghosts. Elza is of Polish-Jewish origin and her ascendants had died in the Auschwitz camp.

From the Cantonese's morphological point of view one might like to test the definition of affix defined as bound and independent forms attached to either the beginnings or the ends of the morphemes in Matthews and Yip (1994:31) in which a- is regarded as prefix used with names and kinship terms such as these terms (ibid.:32):

a-màh (grandmother)
a-go (elder brother)
a-yi (aunt)

In this book we noticed that /-ah/ is used at the ends of names. The protagonist is always called "Libby-ah" which has a suffix of /-ah/, Miss Banner is called "Miss Banner-ah" (p.47) and Simon is called "Simon-ah" (p.105). Again the familiarity is the primary pragmatic function inherent in the suffix /-ah/. I believe it is the same /a-/ in Matthews and Yip (1994). This /-ah/ is found in spoken Cantonese but it is not mentioned in Matthews and Yip (1994). Two questions arise here. Is /-ah/ a new suffix in Cantonese and Mandarin (both has -ah) or is it a reflex of /a-/ in an opposite distribution. Is there any difference in the semantics and pragmatics of these particles?

The word Libby-ah is the truncated form for Olivia. The /v/ is replaced by /b/ both are [+ bilabial]. Again this is another contrastive phonological phenomenon to be noted by English teachers who deal with elementary Chinese students.

Cultural-wise one can see the typical Chinese sound symbolic belief in numbers. Many Chinese in Hong Kong, as pointed out by Matthews and Yip (1994), Malaysia, Singapore as well as those mentioned in the author's book, believe that there is a close relatedness between sound and meaning, "Eight-eight-eight-eight-eight. Lucky numbers, bad watch (p.17)".

'Eight' has a spoken resemblance to the word 'prosper' in Cantonese and Mandarin. Therefore many Chinese like the number and the 8-prosper sound symbolic belief has reached a normal status supported by the fact that drivers tend to buy a car plate with number 8 and the more 8s there are the more expenssive one needs to pay. In deciding to give monetary offers for 'red occasions' (auspicious occasions, cf. Sew 1996) 8 is always a save bet compared to 4 which is also similar to the sound of 'die'. (When my father told my grandaunt his friend's car plate is 4045, my grandaunt replied in dismay, "How unlucky").

One could also trace the usage of non-English words in the book like kuli (p.39) which is actually coolie. Such Sino-English words would be another plus factor in making the book an interesting reading material to Chinese students.

Apart from the languacultural aspects, this books also contains many excepts on Chinese history especially on the Hakka origin. Though no historian will take them as authentic material the language teacher can again applied them to the learning of English especially to those who already know the facts. The teacher could capitalise on the new linguistic make-up of these fact coined in a different grammatical mold. By reading and understanding or revivifying linguistically the facts one could learn stylistic, diction and grammar.

Another point as to why this book is a good learning tool is the existence of many ungrammatical paragraph blurted out by Kwan and other Chinese characters in Kwan's hallucination. Some of the paragraphs are then reformulated in good English. A teacher can first use the faulty passages as exercise for students. The passages in the book would be most interesting to Chinese learners of English. The answers or the reformulated texts would be another good pedagogical base to enhance writing skills and creativity for students to write compositions.

Unfortunately, I have not done any justice to the novel from the literary angle in this review but from the linguistic point of view this is a very usable text to aid teaching. As such it is worth the money as the book provides reading pleasure and at the same time makes a good pedagogical material. Many aspects of the book could be linguistically and pedagogically exploited though I am sure the author has no such intention when she wrote the book.


Matthews, Stephen and Virginia Yip. 1994. Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar. London: Routledge.

Sew, Jyh Wee. 1996 A review of Y. Ning and Y. Ning Chinese Personal Names . Onomastica Canadiana 78:1, 36-40