April 07, 2007

Vitally worst: "Chinese" sounds like "to tear you to die"

[This is a guest post by Victor Mair about English transcribed in Chinese characters.]

Tuesday's Washington Post, page A3 has a barely comprehensible bilingual ad in Chinese and English, appearing over the name of Mr. Yen Pei Ai of Fuvillage Industry Co., Ltd. The English-language segment begins like this:

(An image of the entire ad can be found here.)

I do not intend to enter into a discussion of the cultural assertiveness that pervades the ad (e.g., “the Chinese people stand out among all”). Nor do I wish to correct the historical, phonological, and other errors perpetuated in the ad (e.g., “the original sound of the words spoken from our ancestors for thousands of years to the foreigners”). I simply want to point out that Mr. Yen’s basic modus operandi in this ad is premised upon a linguistic fallacy. Namely, he takes literally the meanings of Chinese characters that are used for the purpose of transcription.

It seems that Mr. Yen, who sponsored the ad, wants us to say “Zhong Guo” (i.e., “Zhongguo” [“Central Kingdom”]) in English because "Vitally worst, 'China' sounds like 'To tear-na' in Mandarin," and "'China's' sounds like 'To tear-na to die,' " and so forth. You can find a host of similar proposals from Mr. Yen at these websites:

http://www.seasunshine.com/ and http://www.longtime.us/.

One of his favorites is “Long Time”®, which he is so fond of that he has marked it with an “R” inside of a circle, just as I have here. He translates “Long Time”® into Mandarin as LONG2 DE SHI2DAI4 (“Time of the Dragon” or “Dragon Time”), and that also rates an ®. Supposedly, he has legally registered these expressions and no one else may use them without his permission. (I wonder about that, though.)

This is all really pathetic. Let us take Mr. Yen’s explanation of his transcription of the word “China”: CHAI1 (= "Chi-") means "tear" in Mandarin. If Mr. Yen wanted to be really clever, he could have added that NA4 (= "-na[-]) means "that" in Mandarin. As for his "to die" component, it's because SI3 ("-'s"), to him, means "to die" in Mandarin.

My wife’s maternal great-uncle used to record English expressions in Chinese characters. One that I remember vividly is GOU3TOU2 MAO1LING2 (“dog’s-head cat’s-bell”) for “good morning.” (He meant to say NING2 for the last syllable, but apparently his variety of Shandong speech does not distinguish between N and L [this is quite common in Sinitic topolects].)

One of my most prized possessions is a little handbook of some 240 pages that was published in Xi’an, Shaanxi in 1993. The contents of the book are made up of commonly used expressions and sentences written, first, in Chinese characters. The next line is an English translation of the Mandarin expression or sentence. The third line is a transcription in Chinese characters of the English translation. As an example, please look at the bottom sentence on page 64: “Would you please speak slowlier [sic] (faster)?”. I will now render the Chinese transcription in pinyin and, in the manner of Mr. Yen, translate the individual characters into English (I give only one English meaning per character, whereas most of them are highly polysemous):


WU1		crow
DE 		possessive signifier

YOU2 	oil

PU3		universal
LI4		advantage
SI1		this

SI1		this
PI1		comment
KE4		overcome

SI1		this
LOU2		storied building
LEI2		heap
ER2		child

FA1		emit
SI1		this
TE4		special
ER2		child

It is obvious that one should not attempt to make sense of the haphazard concatenation of meanings of the characters used to transcribe the English sentence. I should also note that Mr. Yen is being perverse when he chooses SI3 (“die”) to render the “–‘s” of “China’s,” since there are scores of other characters pronounced SI in one or another tone. And, as a matter of fact, SI1 (“this”) functions informally as a widespread transcriptional form of English “s.” It certainly has the advantage of being semantically more neutral (or innocuous) than SI3 (“die”). Similarly, Mr. Yen is being froward when he insists on rendering the “Chi-“ of as CHAI1 (“tear”). He could have chosen other characters pronounced CHAI (in one or another of the four tones) that mean “hairpin,” “errand,” “fellows,” “firewood,” “jackal,” “the root of Dahurian angelica,” “ground beans or maize,” “a kind of scorpion,” “recover (from an illness),” and so on and so forth. In any event, when one transcribes English with Chinese characters, one shouldn’t be thinking overly much about their meanings, since it is the sounds that one wants to get across.

As for why we shouldn’t feel bad about calling China “China,” the name in all likelihood derives from Qin (pronounced roughly as “chin”), the first dynasty (221-206 BC) to unify the East Asian Heartland as a bureaucratic state. In contrast, no political entity in East Asia was ever referred to as ZHONGGUO until modern (post-imperial) times.

Incidentally, most speakers of Sinitic languages – under the influence of the two characters used to write the name – automatically think of Taiwan as meaning “Terrace Bay.” In actuality, “Taiwan” is but the distorted pronunciation of the name of one of the aboriginal tribes encountered by mainlanders who started visiting there sometime around the middle of the last millennium.

Anyway, before Mr. Yen goes on in this fashion much longer, he ought to be asked to deconstruct the tens of thousands of Mandarin names for foreign persons, places, and things that are nonsensical or offensive when translated into English.

N.B.: I wish to thank Dan Milton for calling my attention to the WaPo ad.

[Guest post by Victor Mair.]

[Note by myl: I see that the inverse of Mr. Yen's thinking, namely concern about the associations evoked by the Chinese characters used to transliterate foreign (brand) names, is common. The novelty here is a sort of virtualized version of this idea -- worrying about what might happen if ordinary English words (like Chinese) were transliterated back into Putonghua, with the most perverse possible choice of characters to implement the transliteration.]

[Randy Alexander wrote from Changchun in China to suggest that if negative cross-language sound associations must be avoided, some very basic parts of the Chinese vocabulary might need replacement:

For example:

Yes = shi4 (sounds like "shit")
No = bu2 shi4 (sounds like "bullshit")

I had never thought about those words like that until I was on a tour bus (in China in 1993) with some non-Chinese doctors, and one of them said to me that she thought her ten-year-old son should study Chinese. I told her I thought it was a great idea, having started studying it myself. She asked me how to say "yes" and "no", and then quickly changed her mind.

For other concerns of this kind, see " Interlingual taboos", 3/12/2007.]

[RP, who is a patent lawyer, wrote:

I am so glad someone wrote about that ad. I found it fascinating and was wondering if LL would address it and the odd linguistic claims. I know just enough Chinese to have seen that it was pretty bogus, but I was glad to see a more nuanced explanation of how bogus.

I notice that Prof.. Mair questions the trademark status of LONG TIME (as did I when reading the ad). It turns out that Fuvilliage Industry of Taiwan does indeed have a registration for LONG TIME in conjunction with the characters long de shi dai. The registration is for clocks, watches, etc. and also for clothing. Unfortunately, links to the USPTO trademark database don't work due to the nature of the search interface, so I can't point you to it directly. If you would like to confirm, the search facility is fairly easy to use (www.uspto.gov; select "Trademarks", then "Search Trademarks" and I think the searching will be intuitive from there). Fuvilliage also has SEA SUNSHINE for eyeglass lenses by the way.

Further on the subject of the Washington Post, we corresponded before on the page three Wordplay letters. I think I mentioned at the time that the Post also had an outlet for grammar hammers in the Free For All section every Saturday. You might have already seen this week's complaints on page three that included this funny letter (excerpted) "Finally, please, please, please keep those annoying English language psychopaths confined in their cage on the Free For All page of the Saturday edition. They'll ruin Page Three. Keep it warm and fuzzy all the way. Goodness knows -- especially here in D.C. -- we need all we can get."


Posted by Mark Liberman at April 7, 2007 12:40 PM