The recent third wave of surging COVID-19 confirmed cases caused Hong Kong to tighten up the city’s social-distancing measures, and the sales of masks have gone up. As I was watching news in both Chinese and English, I found it interesting that, comparing to English, how precise Chinese is to express the term.
I have read in many places commenting that Chinese is not a very precise language. For example, in Chinese, there are no verb conjugations and therefore it is difficult to determine whether an action is happening now, or happened already. (Although Chinese language has no tenses, many people still try to hang on to the idea of “past tense”, “future tense”, and so on. For your information, 了does not indicate past tense in Chinese.)
This is all true. In many aspects, Chinese is not very precise. However, in some other aspects, Chinese is extremely precise. How to say “mask” in Chinese is one of the instances.
As I walk around, I see nearly everyone is wearing a mask in Hong Kong, even those joggers. It has been like that since early February. So the sentence “人们戴口罩” would be quite sufficient to describe what I have seen. Even if I don’t give any background information about this sentence, there would be no misunderstanding of what people are wearing. In Chinese, 口罩 means one thing only, the piece of fabric covering one’s mouth.
But the same sentence, if expressed in English, “people wear masks” could be very ambiguous without further explanations, because in English, “mask” can refer to many different things. It could the kind of mask people wear during carnivals in Venice, or the kind of rubber products which will disguise one’s real look such as in Mission Impossible movies, or the piece of fabric to cover one’s mouth to prevent the transmission of droplets. Therefore, more information must be given to explain “people wear masks”. Is it during a contagious pandemic? Or is it during a carnival? Or is it a scene in Mission Impossible?
Now let’s see how to say “people wear masks” in Chinese in these different situations.
In a contagious pandemic: 人们戴口罩
In a carnival: 人们戴假面
In Mission Impossible: 人们戴面具
Definitely more precise!
If you are interested in learning more words and expressions related to the current COVID-19 pandemic, read here: How to say coronavirus in Chinese.
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