Category Archives: Chinese

Accented Chinese Characters

How does one convey accent in written Chinese? Is it even possible to do that in Chinese?

Over at LL (I promise I do read other sites) there’s a discussion going about ‘Trainspotting‘* voices in Chinese. Would it be possible to write Trainspotting – with its multiple accents, voices, idiolects – in Chinese? The original post mentions Lao She and that he ‘used to complain that it was impossible for him to write many of his favorite Pekingese expressions in Chinese characters’. Some commenters have given examples, but they all seem to be *lexical* items unique to certain areas or dialects and not ways to actually express phonetic characteristics of dialects.

I noticed that my wife likes to *type* Sichuanese with her friends. What’s most interesting is that they use characters expressly for their phonetic value and ignore their semantic value. A character with a  phonetic value (in Mandarin) similar to Sichuanese  is used, regardless of its semantic value, to express Sichuanese. That is a rather unwieldy sentence, but rather than parse it (or me rewrite it), it’s probably easier to look at some examples.

Character            Pron. in Mandarin                 target meaning

切                                qie                                               去

老                                lao                                               了

黑                                hei                                                很

逗是                           dzou si                                         就是

(也                             ye                                                耶)

(三                              sa/a                                            啊 special to CD)

Examples: 我要切耍                 我要去‘耍’ 玩

走老                                                       走了

There’s many more examples, and that’s not even mentioning the lexical differences, e.g. 杂个,浪个,莫 etc etc.

I find it interesting that my wife’s generation (early 30s) seem to think of Chinese characters as intrinsically Mandarin. That is, the characters’ REAL pronunciation is standard Mandarin, and Sichuanese has no writing system.

Returning to the original question: Sichuanese speakers (probably below a certain age) would understand what 我切老 means, but would someone from Shandong or Suzhou or anywhere else?

Lost or Stolen? What’s the difference?

Well, it has always felt a bit like blaming the victim, but whenver something is stolen one uses the word 丢 diu, ‘lost’. I read something by an eccentric who wishes the comment to remain anonymous * that has helped me understand the phrasing and one aspect of life in general here in the developing world:

It’s tacitly assumed that if you care about your stuff, then you’ll do whatever it takes to hang onto it. If it gets stolen, then it’s your fault for not taking proper care, and if you report the theft, you will be considered a fool.

I think I’ll leave it at that lest this turns into a long, meandering tract of rubbish with disconnected chunks of Whorf, iconicity, and relativism.

*probably until he sells the rights to his memoir

Crisis pun?

Everybody knows that Danger + Opportunity ≠ Crisis.

So it struck me as interesting when I saw this headline on CCTV2’s 第一时间:*


Weiji haishi shangji?

Crisis or Business opportunity?

As detailed in the above link, many have wrongly assumed that Crisis weiji is a compound of the words for danger and opportunity, but that’s a false etymology. However, in this headline it is quite clearly being contrasted  – semantically as well as phonologically – with shangji which IS comprised of the character for business and opportunity. What’s going on here? Is it possible that the writers at CCTV also think that the 机 ji in weiji means opportunity?

Unfortunately, I don’t know. I do know that the headline turns up 1.69 MILLION hits on Baidu and 2.3 MILLION hits on Google. And, besides being used as ‘machine’ in words like 机器 jiqi ‘machine’ and 手机 shouji ‘mobile phone’, the character 机 ji is used most often in modern Mandarin to mean ‘opportunity’. Interesting.

*第一时间 is the news roundup show with beautiful (byoot iful) announcers, but this may have come from the part where the bald guy summarises some stories from local newspapers then recites a poem about them. Don’t remember.

Happy New Year 兔 You!

Two years ago it was “Happy 牛 Year” and now we’ve got Happy New Year 兔  You”.

As explained in the Language Log link above, 2009 was the year of the cow 牛 (niu), and – for native speakers of Mandarin – the pronunciation of 牛 (niu) is quite similar to the pronunciation of ‘new’.

This year is the year of the rabbit 兔, tu, and someone has figured out how to incoporate that into the English salutation, ‘Happy New Year to You’. Again, without getting mired in phonology, the pronunciation of 兔 is a lot like English ‘to’. Thus, Happy New Year 兔 You!

Paolo 父 Dicanio

In truth, it’s been a while, but recently I noticed a wave of contacts on Facebook with 父 fu4 between their first and last names. This left me absolutely perplexed because I knew that none of these people had any idea that 父 is ‘father’ in Chinese. What, then, could explain why these people all had 父, father, in their Facebook names?

Random example of the 父

I tried to think of possible reasons. It it for Father’s Day? No, that was long one. Are they all fathers? Well, no, there was one guy I knew didn’t have any kids, and I think I even saw one woman with this in her name. Then it hit me.


The source of my confusion

They’re all West Ham fans like me. The 父 looked like the crossed hammers to them; 父 had absolutely nothing to do with fu4 or fatherhood.

I never said that I was quick.


Develop of Road

发之道I noticed this hair salon one day while on the bus and had to get off to snap a picture.

Chinese characters haven’t undergone that much change since the Qin dynasty (est. 221BC) but there were a couple rounds of ‘modernisation’ or simplification in the 20th century. The mistranslation into English of this shop is the unfortunate consequence of the simplification of two Chinese characters.

As seen here the character on the left, 发, has TWO complex or traditional forms:and 髮. The first, fa1, means ‘issue, send out, utter, happen’ and when combined with another character 展zhan means ‘develop’. The second, fa4, is related semantically as well as phonetically and means ‘hair’, or something that shoots out from the body. Perhaps because of this semantic and phonetic similarity, these two characters were merged into one: 发.

This merging of two characters is perhaps not explained in the run-of-the-mill Chinese-English dictionary, thus leading to the strange name of this salon. The salon owner wanted 发 to mean ‘hair’ and not ‘develop’. So, the name of the shop should be ‘Hair of Road’? Not quite.

There’s still the matter of the second and third characters. The second character, 之, does mean ‘of’ (in modern Chinese), but typically X 之 Y is translated as ‘the Y of X’. And the third character, 道 dao4, does often mean road or way, but also means Dao or Tao, as in Taoism.

Finally, translating 发 as hair and 道 as Tao, then putting them in the right order leads us to what was probably the owner’s original intent: The Tao of Hair; what I’m sure everyone would agree is a much better name for a salon.

A not quite so sexy foreign accent

I didn’t start studying Mandarin until I was 19 years-old. Even then, I didn’t really start studying until I was about 22 years-old, so I never had any silly dreams of speaking just like a native speaker. Now, more than ten years later, I know exactly which phonemes and syntactic structures I struggle with and have come to accept those as just being the defining part of my accent.

And so it has struck me as quite odd that three different people here in the Northeast have told me that I sound like a southern Chinese person when I speak Chinese. I’ve spoken to people on the telephone, and when we meet they express shock that I’m not Chinese.

What’s really interesting, though, is that Chinese people who often speak with foreigners can tell immediately that I’m a foreigner. They start to notice the different pronunciation, intonation, etc. that are unique to non-native speakers of Mandarin whereas people who don’t speak with foreigners probably just assume that it’s some accent from another part of the country.