Aiyo! OED fails to use Pinyin for some new entries

The Oxford English Dictionary has just added some new entries, including several from Sinitic languages.

A lot of these come by way of Singapore and so reflect the Hokkien language. For example, among the new entries is “ang pow,” which is Hokkien’s equivalent of Mandarin’s “hongbao,” which also made the list.

A few of the entries, however, come from Mandarin, for example two common interjections for surprise. Oddly, though, the OED uses “aiyoh” and “aiyah” instead of their proper Pinyin spellings of “aiyo” and “aiya.”

“Ah,” you say, “but maybe the aiyoh and aiyah spellings are more common in English.”


Even in Singapore domains (.sg), the Pinyin spellings are more common than those the OED calls for. As the tables below show, in every instance the Pinyin spellings are also more common in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. Throughout the world, the Pinyin spellings are more common — the vast majority of the time by a factor of at least two.

Google search results for “aiyo” (Pinyin) and “aiyoh” (spelling used in the OED)

  aiyo aiyoh
.sg 12,200 5,680
.hk 2,570 187
.cn 6,040 984
.tw 4,690 196
all domains 1,250,000 137,000
all domains  + “chinese” 97,700 77,100
all domains  + “mandarin” 51,800 14,100

Google search results for “aiya” (Pinyin) and “aiyah” (spelling used in the OED)

  aiya aiyah
.sg 17,600 8,310
.hk 6,400 2,360
.cn 13,200 1,860
.tw 5,910 1,710
all domains 3,370,000 332,000
all domains  + “chinese” 238,000 63,200
all domains  + “mandarin” 36,500 22,800

Searching Google Books also reveals that the Pinyin forms are more common.

In short, I do not see any good reason for the OED to have adopted ad hoc spellings rather than the Pinyin standard. They must have their reasons, but it looks like they botched this.

Biscriptal butt texting

Now there’s a headline you don’t see every day.

I’ve had mobile phones for years but never butt-dialed or butt-texted anyone … until a couple of months ago, when I seemed to make up for lost time by sending off a series of messages and Line calls to one of my wife’s relatives. To make matters worse, this relative is in the States, where it was then after midnight.

Anyway, the messages start off in nonsense English and then switch mainly to nonsense Mandarin.

Most of the Chinese characters are isolated and have no semantic relationship to those around them. Predictably, most of the characters are for few simple sounds

  • 凹 [āo] — concave
  • 鞥 [ēng] — quite rare: leading rein (of a horse)

But there are a few instances of at least two characters working together:

  • 偶爾 ǒu’ěr (“occasionally”)
  • 怨偶 yuàn’ǒu (“unhappy couple”)
  • 鱷魚 èyú (“crocodile”)
  • So just in case anyone has ever wondered what butt texting in Chinese characters looks like, here you go. People whose phones have different methods for inputting Chinese characters will likely see somewhat different results.

    composite screenshot of a series of text messages sent in garbage English and garbage Mandarin Chinese (in Chinese characters)

I took several screenshots and stitched them together in Photoshop.

Shanghai considers deleting Pinyin from street signs

The Shanghai Road Administration Bureau is considering removing Hanyu Pinyin from street signs in the city.

Typically, the bureau’s division chief, Wang Weifeng, seems to be confused about the difference between Pinyin and English. He also justifies the move by claiming that larger Chinese characters would benefit Chinese citizens, ignoring the high number of people in China who are largely illiterate.

“Of course we will keep the English-Chinese traffic signs around some special areas, such as the tourism spots, CBD areas and some transport hubs,” Wang said.

A German newspaper article notes:

Ob sie die Umschrift wortwörtlich „aus dem Verkehr“ zieht, will Schanghai angeblich von einer „Umfrage“ unter „Anwohnern“ abhängig machen, ebenso vom Urteil nicht näher genannter „Experten“. Dies ist eine gängige Formulierung, wenn chinesische Regierungsstellen ihren einsamen Entscheidungen einen basisdemokratischen Anstrich geben wollen.

[Google Translate: Whether they literally “out of circulation” pulls the inscription, Shanghai will supposedly make a “survey” of “residents” depends, as of indeterminate sentence from “experts”. This is a common formulation, when Chinese authorities want to give their lonely decisions a grassroots paint.]

This is a situation all too common in Taiwan as well, such as in Taipei’s misguided move to apply nicknumbering to subway stops. “Experts” — ha!

Shanghai’s survey on Pinyin use and signage is of course in Mandarin only, with no English. The poll ends on August 30 (next week!), so add your views to that soon.

So far, public opinion seems to be largely against removing Hanyu Pinyin from signs. But that doesn’t mean this might not happen anyway. After all: Shanghai has its “experts” on the case. Heh.

If Shanghai really wanted to help the legibility of its signs, it should consider using word parsing even with text in Chinese characters. For example:

  • use 陕西 南路, not 陕西南路
  • use 斜土 路, not 斜土路
  • use 建国 西路, not 建国西路

That would also permit the use of superscript on the generic parts of names (e.g., “南路”) to save space. This could also be done with the Pinyin/English, with the Pinyin in large letters and the English “Rd” etc. in superscript.

Thanks to Michael Cannings for the tip.


Pinyin writing contest — cash prizes

This is big news. I am thrilled to help announce the Li-ching Chang Memorial Pinyin Literature Contest.

A total of more than US$13,000 will be awarded to the winners. Prizes will be given to the top three winners in each of the following categories:

  • novella
  • short story
  • essay
  • poem

You need not be a native speaker of Mandarin to enter. But keep in mind that this is a literature contest: Entries should be aimed at an audience of adult, fluent speakers of Mandarin. Entries should not be written at a level for children or those learning Mandarin.

Furthermore, entries should be composed in Hanyu Pinyin, not in Chinese characters and then converted. This is crucial, as the style associated with Chinese characters is often not compatible with Mandarin as it is spoken. So here’s a chance to let the real Mandarin language shine through in writing — and for writers to win some money.

Please spread the word around.

For further details, see the contest’s FAQ.

Mind the line

Line breaks are an interesting but little-discussed aspect of typography. That’s a shame, because they can matter, especially in signage.

Book covers are another place where line breaks can matter. I’m especially concerned with those because I’m involved in a company that publishes books about Taiwan, China, and other places in East Asia. I wish I could take credit for Camphor Press’s book covers; alas, though, I have no talent in that area.

Here’s a good example of a line break making a difference in a sign. This ends up being not unlike a typographical crash blossom. I took this photo last week at a Costco in metropolitan Taipei.

sign in a Costco seafood section that reads 'HOKKAIDO COOKED HAIR [line break] CRAB'

For those who are curious, NT$987 is about US$29.60.

Anyway, here’s the Mandarin text:
Běihǎidào shú dòng máoxiè (lěngdòng)

(I don’t know what that first “dòng” is doing there, given that this ends with “lěngdòng.”)

For maoxie, the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary gives “small crab; baby crab.” But I’m not sure that’s quite right.

If the translator had gone with the more common form of “hairy crab” instead of “hair crab,” the adjective would have alerted readers that they needed to keep going. On the other hand, use of another common translation, “mitten crab,” wouldn’t have helped much, though I suppose that


is slightly more palatable sounding than


And at least they didn’t use the sometimes seen translation of “hair crabs,” which could conjure up altogether the wrong image. in the Wall Street Journal

Victor Mair’s terrific essay “Danger + Opportunity ≠ Crisis: How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray,” which was written for this site, is featured this week in the Wall Street Journal‘s Notable & Quotable section.

Mair has done more than anyone else to help drive a stake through the heart of this myth. I’m glad the WSJ is helping spread the word.

source: “Notable & Quotable: Lost in Mistranslation“, Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2016

Languages, scripts, and signs: a walk around Taipei’s Shixin University

Recently I took some trails through the mountains in Taipei and ended up at Shih Hsin University (Shìxīn Dàxué / 世新大學). Near the school are some interesting signs. Rather than giving individual posts for each of these, I’m keeping the signs together in this one, as this is better testimony to the increasing and often playful diversity of languages and scripts in Taiwan.

Cǎo Chuàn

Here’s a restaurant whose name is given in Pinyin with tone marks! That’s quite a rarity here, though I suspect we’ll be seeing more of this in the future. The name in Chinese characters (草串) can be found, much smaller, on a separate sign below.



Right by Cao Chuan is Èrgē de Niúròumiàn (Second Brother’s Beef Noodle Soup). Note the use of the Japanese の rather than Mandarin’s 的; this is quite common in Taiwan.



This store has an ㄟ, which serves as a marker of the Taiwanese language. Here, ㄟ is the equivalent of 的 — and of の.

Bālè ei diàn

A’Woo Tea Bar


I couldn’t find a name in Chinese characters for this place. The name is probably onomatopoeia, as in “Werewolves of London — awoo!”

Shit happens

Mandarin’s word for laboratory is shíyànshì (實驗室). The Hakka word, however, sounds different, of course.

When a school in Taiwan’s Xinzhu (Hsinchu) County, an area with many Hakka, put up some signs in romanization, some were quick to notice that the Hakka word contained what looked like the English word “shit.” That this was at an elementary school didn’t help matters. People there got a bit tired of explaining that this wasn’t obscene English but instead perfectly proper Hakka. The popular option now seems to be to spell the final syllable shid.

sign on a classroom wall reading '(?) ging ui sik / (?) gin vui shit'

Táiwān tuīdòng Kèjiā wénhuà, yě ràng Kèyǔ chéngwéi yuèláiyuè duōguānxīn jiāodiǎn, dàn yǒu mínzhòng dào Xīnzhú Dōngyuán Guó-xiǎo, fāxiànjiàoshì de Kèyǔ pīnyīn zěnme kànqilai guài guài de, shì zhègè zì yòng shì t, rúguǒ yòng Yīngwén niàn sìhū bù tài wényǎ, hòulái cái fāxiàn, yuánláiyòng Tōngyòng Pīnyīn, pīn qǐlái jiù shì shì t, suǒyǐ mínzhòng qiānwàn biéxiǎng wāi.

Láidào Xīnzhú Dōngyuán Guó-xiǎo, wàitou jǐngwèishì, yǒu Yīngwén pīnyīn hái yǒu Táiyǔ、 Kèyǔ pīnyīn, zhǐshì nín zhùyìdàole ma? Kèyǔ pīnyīn dezuìhòu yī gè zì shit, zhè bù shì màrén de huà ma? Shì bu shì pīncuò le a, zài dào xiàonèi kàn, bùguǎn jiàoshì háishi xiàoshǐ shì, shènzhì shìxiàozhǎng shì, zhǐyào shì shì jiéwěi de dōu shì zhèyàng pīn.

Měi cì yǒu rén wèn jiù yào jiěshì gè lǎobàntiān, yuánlái tānkāi Kèjiā yǔpīnyīn, xiàngshì jiàoshì de shì、 shìhé de shì、 zhīshi de shí, tōngtōngdōu pīn chéng shit, suǒyǐ méi wèntí de la, dàn yǒu xǔduō xiǎopéngyou kàndào, yī kāishǐ háishi juéde guài guài de, qíshí zhè shì cǎiyòng Tōngyòng Pīnyīn yǐjīng yòngle 10 nián, dàn xiànzài wèile bìmiǎn kùnrǎo, yào gǎichéng Táiwān Kèyǔ pīnyīn, shit jiù biànchéngle shid, huòxǔ jiù bù huì zài ràngrén wùhuì la.
每次有人問就要解釋個老半天,原來攤開客家語拼音,像是教室的室、適合的適、知識的識,通通都拼成shit,所以沒問題的啦,但有許多小朋友看到,一開始還是覺得怪怪的,其實這是採用通用拼音已經用了10年,但現在為了避免困擾,要改成台灣客語拼音,shit 就變成了 shid,或許就不會再讓人誤會啦。

source: Guó-xiǎo fānyì cǎi Kèyǔ pīnyīn jiāo「 shì」 biàn 「shit」 (國小翻譯採客語拼音 教「室」變 「shit」), Dongsen News, December 9, 2011 (Yes, the year is correct. I just didn’t get around to finishing the post back then.)