Occupation: Freelance translator and editor
Date of Performance/Collection: April 9th, 2014
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English, Taiwanese
Information about the Informant
My informant is a freelance editor and translator living in Taiwan. She was born in Taiwan and has lived there essentially her whole life, except for a few years in America. I asked her specifically about this proverb that I’d heard my grandma tell me when I was young as I’d never really understood it, and she told me the origin of the proverb and how it became the version that I heard as a child.
“‘Having a crow’s mouth.’ Because we Chinese believe—no, not believe, Chinese always claim that crows are bad luck. The story’s very simple. It’s just…we feel the crow—because it’s black, so it’s bad luck. So when it—and other people say…uh…most of the time, it’s just that we believe, it may go against biology, but we believe that most of the time, crows don’t speak. That they don’t go, ‘Wah, wah, wah, wah.’ So when they do speak, it’s that bad things are about to happen. That it’s kind of like…a…prophet, can predict, can tell you that bad luck or bad things are coming. So, so, when they speak, they just…they tell you that you will have misfortune—not necessarily you, not you specifically, just somewhere around there or Taiwan or something. Just that there’ll be misfortune.
So then people started saying ‘having a crow’s mouth,’ became like ‘you’re acting like…a crow.’ That is to say, what you say, after you say this thing, it’ll actually happen. So they’ll say you have ‘a crow’s mouth.’ But if…if a person says something and then it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t count as ‘crow’s mouth.’
Collector: “But you…you—when you say someone has the ‘mouth of a crow,’ you don’t know yet if the thing will happen. Just, as soon as they say, ‘Oh, this bad thing might happen,’ then you need to say, ‘CROW’S MOUTH.’
Collector: So you haven’t even checked, to see if it’s really happened.
‘Yes. And, when it—when it first started, ‘crow’s mouth,’ this term was…was…changed—it was that the thing the person said, if it really happened, then we would berate him, saying, “It was you having a crow’s mouth.” That is, for instance, uh, we at NTCH [informant’s work place], each of us wishes…wishes that our boss won’t, won’t do a certain thing. And then a person then, then says, ‘Oh!’—never mind, if we, let me give an example, for instance, we have our first day off, we just had, let me see, Memorial Day. And the day before we get Memorial Day off, someone says, ‘Let’s hope that…after the holiday ends, the first day we come back to work, we don’t get called to a…kind of…meeting…that starts at 8 in the morning and lasts till 7 in the evening kind of meeting.’ I’ve heard that the person who likes our English writings, that boss has that kind of meeting a lot. And then…and then—because everyone thought he was just kidding, ‘No, no, no, that won’t happen,’ and then, yeah, the first day back at work, it actually happens that there’s a meeting from 8 in the morning, as soon as you get to the office, you get called to the meeting, lasting until the afternoon, 7 o’clock, getting home at 7 pm. And then people will yell at the person who said it, ‘You have a crow’s mouth.’ However, if it was this person, it happens that every thing he says like that always has this kind of effect, that is, whenever he says something, it always has this effect, for instance, he eats lunch, that one, that one, at that place that [a coworker of hers] took you to eat once, and then, the dish that they like to eat, they say, ‘I hope they’ll have that dish today,’ and then that person says again, ‘They won’t have that dish today because it’s that…um…that—lately that dish has been going up in price. They definitely won’t use that dish.’ And then when they go, they really don’t have that dish, they’ll say, ‘You had a crow’s mouth!’ And then…um…in the future, when he talks, people will say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth,’ to stop him first. So when he’s prepared to—before he, um, starts to talk, you have to say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth.’ But then, that is, nowadays, um—actually, Taiwanese people are becoming more and more superstitious. Because we’re having more and more bad luck. Don’t we say a lot that we are a bad luck family? The whole country, it has more and more of a workload, things like that. Less and less money. Then everyone starts to become really nervous, whenever someone starts to say something, they say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth!’ Meaning in case, meaning if you say it, then it’ll become a bad thing. So, this phrase became a sort of ‘stop someone from becoming’—it’s superstitious, in case what they say becomes a thing that, um, comes true.”
The meaning behind the proverb and how it became a preemptive warning instead of a way to blame someone after a misfortune is pretty clear in the transcript. I do agree with her that this change from a comment or exclamation after the fact to a warning (and the time I remember hearing my grandmother tell me the proverb, she did sound pretty horrified and frantic) does reflect a change in the culture of Taiwan. I don’t believe necessarily that it is due directly to a sort of economic crisis or “bad luck” for the whole island, but it does seem to at least reflect a change in behavior from a more relaxed one where such prophecies were not welcome but tolerated, to one that actively tries to prevent these prophecies from ever being made in the first place.
“「烏鴉嘴」[pronouciation: wu-ya-zui，meaning: crow’s tongue]，因為Chinese 是，我們Chinese believe 說，no，不是believe， Chinese always claim烏鴉是bad luck，那個故事很simple，就是說我們覺得那個，crows因為是黑色，所以是bad luck，所以當他，然後又有人說，most of the time，就是我們believe，maybe this is against biology，就是我們believe most of the time 烏鴉不會叫。就是不會叫wah, wah, wah。他叫的時候就是一定是bad thing要，就是他有點像那種，prophet，他會predict，會告訴你，bad luck或bad thing要來了。然後所以說，就是他叫的時候，就是，就是告訴你說：「你會有一個misfortune happen。」不一定是你，是somewhere along，或是Taiwan，anyway，就是有misfortune。所以人家就開始講「烏鴉嘴」，就是變成「你像烏鴉的那個crow一樣」。意思說「你講了以後呢，就是你講了以後，真的happen了，所以說你是烏鴉嘴。」就是如果是，如果有一些人講一些事情沒有happen，那個人就不能count他是烏鴉嘴。可是「烏鴉嘴」”
“Yes，本來一開始，大家用「烏鴉嘴」這個term的時候，便是這個人講一件事情真的發生的時候，才開始罵「你是烏鴉嘴」。就是說，erh，譬如說，我們在NTCH，我們一群人要，要那個，就是，在講不想要，希望我們的boss不要做一些什麼事情。阿有一個人就講說：「喔…」沒有，我給一個example說：「我們第一天放一個假，譬如說我們現在才過了，我看我們這次過什麼，Memorial Day，阿我們要放Memorial Day的前一天，有人就說希望我們holiday完了以後，回來第一天上班的時候，不要被叫去開一個那種要從早上8點開到晚上7點的會。聽說那個很喜歡我們兩個寫的English的boss就是專門常常開這樣子的會那樣。」然後結果，就是大家本來覺得他是在kidding，就說「不會啦！不會啦！不會」。然後那個，什麼阿！好，第一天來上班，真的從早上8點進辦公室，就被叫去開會開到下午7點 [laughs]，才能回家。然後就罵那個講的人：「你是烏鴉嘴」。可是，如果是這個人happen，每一次他這樣講的時候，那種事情就有這種的effect，就是他講什麼事都有這種effect的時候，譬如說，他吃lunch，我們那時候，就是秋琴阿姨帶你去吃的那個，他們喜歡吃什麼菜，大家就說希望今天有那個菜。那個人就說：「今天不會有那個菜，因為那個是，那個什麼的，就是那個，最近那個菜都在漲價了，人家不會用那個菜。」結果去了以後，真的沒有那個菜。他們就會說：「你是烏鴉嘴」。對，然後就是那個，他以後呢，他講話的時候，人家就會說：「不要烏鴉嘴」。也就是先stop他，就是他準備要，before他，就是開始講一件事，先說：「不要烏鴉嘴」。那樣子，可是現在，就是說，Actually Taiwanese people現在愈來愈superstitious，因為我們的bad luck愈來愈多。就是不是我們說我們是bad luck family，整個whole country的那種，workload愈來愈多，錢愈來愈少。所以大家就會開始那種，變得很nervous。有人要開始講什麼的時候，就說「不要烏鴉嘴」。就是不要講那個怎樣，變成壞事情。就是說這個字就變成那種，super superstitious，免得講的話變成那種，turn true。”