March 07, 2008


[Victor Mair sent me this more than a week ago. Apologies to all for my delay in getting it ready to post on his behalf.]

The Chinese have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the birth of Hanyu Pinyin, the official Romanization of the People's Republic of China. Even the foreign media are aware of this important milestone for the PRC's alphabetical writing system, part of what I call the "emerging digraphia" composed of HANZI (characters) and HANYU PINYIN (romanization) in China.

I was delighted to come across a video of my 102-year-old friend, Zhou Youguang, who is hailed as "the father of pinyin," though in the video he begins with a polite disclaimer by styling himself "the son of pinyin." ("Helping China learn to read", Guardian, 2/29/2008.)

Then, on an exciting new blog called Beijing Sounds, I was directed this 30-minute video of Zhou Youguang holding forth (in Mandarin) on the virtues of pinyin ("Don't take away our pinyin", 2/22/2008). The Beijing Sounds blog will surely be attractive to all who are interested in the niceties of Beijing colloquial, particularly its most endearing phonetic aspects. The blog also covers the welcome rebirth of Manchu, Tianjin speech peculiarities, and all manner of other intriguing linguistic and cultural information about China today.

What I want to do here, however, is comment on the name of the video sharing service that brings Zhou Youguang's video to us, which is blatantly a take-off on YouTube. The Pakistanis and Stanford Daily columnist Nat Hilliard (see Arnold Zwicky's post "Doomed by Poor Spelling and Rampant Racism etc.", 2/ 29/2008) may have bid YouTube good riddance, but the Chinese welcome it with open arms.

The name to which I am referring is YouKu 优酷.

What to make of this hybrid appellation? If we read it according to the surface signification of the characters, it means:

YOU1 excellent; ample, well-off; give preferential treatment; ancient term for an actor or actress. (This pinyin syllable should be pronounced to sound something like the first syllable of "yeoman" or South Philadelphia "yo!" but with a high, level tone.)

KU4 cruel, savage, ruthless; extremely, very. (This pinyin syllable sounds like "coo" with a falling tone.)

Of course, there's no way you can make any sense out of the name by relying on the meaning of its two component characters in Chinese. The creators of this ersatz YouTube have christened their video sharing service with two English words written in Chinese characters, "you" and "cool." The first relies on a pinyin-English faux ami and the second on a not-so-near-homophonous sinographic transcription of an English word. Mandarin KU4 = English "cool" has a very high frequency among youth, despite the fact that the character chosen to represent the English sound is not exactly what one would consider the semantically most appropriate choice.

YouKu 优酷 is a good example of what may be called "Sino-English," which I predict will become increasingly evident in the years to come, until Chinese and English experience a kind of blending (a veritable Mischsprache?) which is the theme of an unpublished, futuristic novel called China Babel that I wrote about 15 years ago. It's not so unlikely as one might think: Japanese has well over sixty thousand gairaigo (lexical borrowings, the vast majority from English), and the number continues to grow daily, so that in some contexts, one seems to hear an English word in almost every other Japanese sentence that is uttered.

[Above is a guest post by Victor Mair.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 7, 2008 08:23 AM