On the tip of my pyramid

Last night I spoke quite a bit of Mandarin with some people from China, and while I was able to have a good conversation with them, though there were some things I couldn’t remember or didn’t know how to say. Usually when this happens I try to find another way to express the same idea, or if the people I’m talking to speak English, as was the case last night, I might say whatever it is in English and ask them how to say it in Mandarin. When they tell me, I often realise that I did know the words, but they just wouldn’t come to mind.

It’s likely that there’ll be gaps in your vocabulary, both in languages you’re learning, and in your native language, unless you memorise dictionaries. If the gaps are things you talk about frequently, it certainly helps to learn the words for them, but for other things you could use paraphrases. For example, one of the words that came up last night was pyramid. I didn’t know how to say it in Mandarin, but one of the Chinese guys did. After I got home I thought of a way to express the idea of a pyramid in Mandarin: 人造的小山,在埃及可看到的 (rénzhào de xiǎoshān, zài āijí kĕ kàndào de) – “man-made little hills that can be seen in Egypt” – not perfect perhaps, but it should get the message across.

In case you’re wondering, the Mandarin for pyramid is 金字塔 (jīn​zì​tǎ​), which could be glossed as “tower shaped like the character 金”.

This entry was posted in Chinese, English, Language, Words and phrases.

14 Responses to On the tip of my pyramid

  1. Petréa Mitchell says:

    Interestingly it appears that Japanese uses the same series of characters, pronounced kinjitō.

    This gets me wondering– what’s the Egyptian (ancient or modern) word for pyramid?

  2. fiosachd says:

    In hieroglyphic Egyptian ‘pyramid’ or ‘tomb’ is mr written with the following four characters:

    1. chisel (U23) (biliteral phonetic mr)
    2. owl (G17) (uniliteral phonetic complement m)
    3. mouth (D21) (uniliteral phonetic complement r)
    4. pyramid (O24) (determinative)

  3. Yenlit says:

    I would’ve thought the word pyramid would be one of those ‘universal words’ easily recognised in different languages like ‘taxi’, ‘hotel’ etc. or at least a pan-European word if you take a quick look at ‘pyramid’ translations: pirámide, piramidë, pyramide, pirâmide, piramit, pyramyd etc. I’m sure there must be some exceptions and oddities, I know Arabic has ‘haram’ for pyramid which I thought was the opposite of ‘halal’?

  4. I think that the ability to use other words to describe a concept that you don’t have the vocabulary for is one sign of having become comfortable with a language. In my experience, many language learners freeze up when they’re speaking and realize that they don’t have the right word. To me, that shows that they’re still thinking in their mother tongue and translating into the target language in their head, which always makes for awkward language. When you try to describe a word or concept in the target language, however, then it shows that you’re grasping that concept in the target language itself, and once you learn the actual word for what you’re describing, you’ll never forget it.

    Also, aside from older forms of Mandarin, they generally don’t use “可” or “可以” to mean “able to,” but rather “may.” In the sentence you have above, you’re speaking specifically of the physical ability to see the pyramids, in which case you’d say 看得到 or, less formally, 能看到.

  5. Edwin says:

    It is not really surprising that the Japanese and Chinese words for ‘pyramid’ sound similar. A lot of Japanese words came from Chinese and they sound very similar to their Chinese origins.

  6. Simon says:

    The hieroglyphs for pyramid are:

    From: Hieroglyphs.net

  7. Petréa Mitchell says:

    Neat! Thanks, fiosachd and Simon!

  8. lukas says:

    Yenlit, pyramid is هَرَم (haram), forbidden/sacred is حَرَام (ḥarām). They only look the same when transliterated loosely.

  9. Christopher Miller says:

    Lukas – I hadn’t even thought of that until you mentioned the fact; I should have remembered from the name of Egypt’s flagship newspaper Al-Ahram:


  10. Yenlit says:

    A ‘loosely transliterated’ shúkran to you Luka for the info!
    Has anyone checked out what the Coptic word for ‘pyramid’ is?

  11. Andrew says:

    Oh well this sort of problem is precisely what gets fixed when you practice speaking with natives, which is why you do that. You can memorize all the vocab in the world, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to use it when and how you need to, that can only be learned through actually speaking with people.


  12. fiosachd says:

    Has anyone checked out what the Coptic word for ‘pyramid’ is?

    I can’t find any Coptic word meaning ‘pyramid’ as opposed to ‘tomb’, but there are two Egypto-Coptic words that do mean ‘tomb’ – mhaau (both as ‘cavern’ and ‘monument’) and šfō – as well as the Graeco-Coptic word taphos, also meaning ‘tomb’.

  13. Creative approach to memory gaps, experiencing the same when speaking English. Sometimes the right words do not come to mind when needed, even though I have spent ages memorizing them.

  14. Formiko says:

    ⲑⲟⲩⲟϯ is pyramid in Coptic