Music of the Knights (And More Musical Curiosities)

April 2, 2010

Photo from Flickr page of Haags Uitburo, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

While the term 爵士 is the formal Chinese title for a British knight—爵士 is placed after names of knighted individuals in Chinese just as Sir is placed before the same names in English, with the exception that 爵士 is used with full or surnames only while Sir is used with full and given names only; yay for grammar—the term 爵士樂 (樂 meaning “music”) actually refers to jazz music. The term doesn’t come from the “fact” that British knights are frequently into jazz music. It’s really only because 爵士 sounding a whole lot like “jazz” when it is pronounced by a Chinese tongue. The fact that 爵士 normally refers to a highly elevated and Western thing does not hurt either.

When I think jazz, I think of trumpets. As I promised in a previous post on diarrhea medicine, let’s talk about trumpets. In that post I mentioned that 喇叭 is Chinese for trumpet. Except that if you actually looked up “trumpet” in a dictionary—especially one that is in simplified Chinese—you would get 小號 instead. What’s the difference?

Let’s start with 喇叭. I do not believe that there is a simplified Chinese equivalent for this word since it is not used in mainland China. 喇叭 is really Cantonese slang pronounced “la ba”. Except it really sounds like “la” and “ba” are a major third apart; in standard solfege (or the more-familiar-to-me shape notes) “la” would be “fa” and “ba” would be “la”. The point is that 喇叭 sounds like a trumpet. Or something like that. So in Cantonese a trumpet is called a 喇叭. Actually, 喇叭 also is a common term for sound amplifiers, i.e., speakers.

The term 小號 can be most literally translated as “little number” as 小 means “small” and 號 usually means “number” when used by itself. However, here 號 refers to “signal”. Why would a trumpet be called a “small signal”? Well, when you want to signal the arrival of an important person or an invasion, what do you use? A bugle (號角, or “signal point/corner”) or a trumpet.

Many brass instruments’ Chinese names include the word 號 along with a somewhat descriptive prefix. Let’s see how many of these you can figure out:

小號 (small signal [wait didn’t we do this already?])
短號 (short signal)
柔音號 (soft note signal)
中音圓號 (mid-note member [as in marching band member] signal)
長號 (long signal)
粗管上低音號 (thick tube upper low note signal)
大號 (big signal)

And the real English names, in order from top to bottom: trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, mellophone, trombone, euphonium and tuba.

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