Emoji, language, and translation

A couple of days ago the New York Times ran a small piece, “How Emojis Find Their Way to Phones.” It contains the sort of nonsense about Chinese characters and language that often sets me off.

Fortunately, Victor Mair quickly posted something on this. J. Marshall Unger (Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning, The Fifth Generation Fallacy, and Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan) and S. Robert Ramsey (The Languages of China) quickly followed. But since those are in the comments to a Language Log post and thus may not be seen as much as they should be, I thought I’d link to them here.

The Language Log post itself is on Emoji Dick, which is billed as a translation of Moby Dick into emoji. As long as I’m writing, I might as well offer up a sample for you. See if you can determine the original English.


Did you try “Call me Ishmael”? Sorry. That’s not it. But if you guessed that I would choose the passage from Moby Dick that mentions Taiwan, give yourself bonus points.

Here’s what the above emoji supposedly translate:

Hereby the casks are sought to be kept damply tight; while by the changed character of the withdrawn water, the mariners readily detect any serious leakage in the precious cargo.

Now, from the South and West the Pequod was drawing nigh to Formosa and the Bashee Isles, between which lies one of the tropical outlets from the China waters into the Pacific.

Ah, of course. It’s all so clear now.

The next time you hear someone use “pictorial language,” “ideographs,” or the like in all seriousness, perhaps ask them for their own English translation of the above string of images.

Actually, Emoji Dick screwed this up some, as part belongs to the main text and part to a footnote.


Milk Shop

Here’s another in my series of photos of English with Chinese character(istic)s, that is Chinese characters being used to write English (sort of). I want to stress that these aren’t loan words, just an approximate phonetic rendering of the English.

Today’s entry — which was taken a few weeks ago in Xinzhu (usually spelled “Hsinchu”), Taiwan — is Mi2ke4 Xia4 (lit. “lost guest summer”).

sign for a drinks store, labeled 'milk shop' in English and 'mi ke xia' in Chinese characters


I tend to think of Hanzi being used to write English words as “Singlish,” after John DeFrancis’s classic spoof, “The Singlish Affair,” which is the opening chapter of his essential book The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. But these days the word is mainly used for Singaporean English. So now I usually go with something like “English with Chinese character(istic)s.”

For a few earlier examples, see the my photos of the dog and the butterfly businesses.

Today’s example is “Crunchy,” written as ke3 lang3 qi2 (can bright strange). Kelangqi, however, isn’t how to say “crunchy” in Mandarin (cui4 de is); it’s just an attempt to render the English word using Chinese characters, probably in an attempt to look different and cool.

Sign advertising a store named 'Crunchy' in English and 'ke lang qi' (in Chinese characters) in Mandarin

Crunchy, which is now out of business, was just a block away from the Dog (dou4 ge2) store, which is still around.

Xin Tang 10

I’ve just added to Pinyin.info the tenth and final issue (December 1989) of the seminal journal Xin Tang. I strongly encourage everyone to take a look at it and some of the other issues. Copies of this journal are extremely rare; but their importance is such that I’ll be putting all of them online here over the years.

cover of Xin Tang no. 10

Xin Tang 10

Although I’m giving the table of contents in English, the articles themselves are in Mandarin and written in Pinyin.

    • ZHOU YOUGUANG: The Next Step of Language Modernization
    • CHEN ENQUAN: Experiments Should Be Carried Out on the Phoneticization of Chinese Characters
    • LI YUAN: Romanized Chinese Must Be Finalized
    • LI PING: To Be a Promoter of Script Reform
    • ZHENG LINXI: Wu Yuzhang and Chinese Phonetic Spelling
    • ZHANG LIQING: How Should the Tones of Chinese Spelling Be Indicated?
    • LIQING: Elephants
    • CHEN XUANYOU (Tang Period): The Wandering Soul
    • WU JINGZI (Qing Period): Third Daughter Wang
    • LU XUN: On the Collapse of Thunder Peak Pagoda
    • RUI LUOBIN: The Adventures of Chunmei and Mimi
    • COMIC DIALOGUES: Toad Drums
    • WEI YIJIN: Dreams at Twenty
    • DIAO KE: In Praise o f the Spirit of Bees
    • GE XIAOLING: A Song to the Disabled Children
    • YBY: The Story of the Magic Square
    • DIAN EWEN: Interesting Tidbits about Script Reform Abroad
    • LI YUAN: A Few Statistics on Tones Notations in Romanized Chinese
    • Asking the Way
    • Farewell to Our Readers

Xin Tang 9

The ninth issue of Xin Tang is now available here on Pinyin.info. The journal, which was published in the 1980s, is in and about romanization. By this point in its publication most everything in it was written in Hanyu Pinyin (as opposed to Gwoyeu Romatzyh or another system). Xin Tang is interesting not just as a forum in which one can read original content in Pinyin. It’s also important for the history of Pinyin itself. Over the course of its nearly decade-long run, one can see its authors (including many top people in romanization) working out Pinyin as a real script.

Xin Tang no. 9 (December 1988)

xin tang 9

Here’s an English version of the table of contents. Note that the articles themselves are, for the most part, in Mandarin.

  • Articles
    • Wang Jun: Perfecting Hanyu Pinyin and Broadening Its Use
    • Wang Naican: “Established at Age Thirty,but the Task is Heavy and the Way is Long”
    • Apollo Wu: China Needs an Alphabetical Script
    • Zhang Liqing: Must Written Chinese Have Tones Indicated?
    • Qian Yuzhi, Li Shuo: Research on Alphabetical Spelling of Tones
    • Victor H. Mair: A Letter Concerning the Compilation of an Alphabetically Ordered Dictionary
  • Pinyin and Computers
    • Guo Xiao, Chen Zhiqiang: Welcoming the Era of the Popularization of Word Processors- An Interview with Professor Zhou Youguang
    • Yin Binyong: Pinyin Computers Force People to Change Their Writing Styles
    • Wu Yue: Using a Computerized Chinese Typewriter to Help in Creative Writing
    • Jin Huishu: Few Special Spellings Are Required for “Automatic Conversion from Pinyin to Chinese Characters”
    • It Is Not Difficult to Master Pinyin Computers (report from Henan)
    • International Computer Conference Held in Toronto in 1988 (report from Canada)
  • Children’s Corner: Literature
    • Little Xie’s Long Trunk,
    • The Adventures of Chunmei and Mimi (illustrated serial by Rui Luobin),
    • Encounter beneath the Lighthouse,
    • The Oriole and the Eagle (Liqing),
    • The Fig Tree (Xu Hongxin)
  • Classical Chinese Selection
    • A Passage from the Zhuangzi
  • Learning Mandarin
    • Lesson 1: in Peking
  • Letters from Readers
  • News
    • Commemoration of the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Scheme for Hanyu Pinyin Official
    • Promulgation of the Basic Orthographical Rules for Hanyu Pinyin
    • The Bilingual Pedagogical Experiment of Zhang Zhigong
    • Hangzhou Experiments with a New Pedagogy Using Pinyin
    • Announcement of a New Book: “Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography”

Remembering Y.R. Chao: 1892-1982

Y.R. Chao

Y.R. Chao
November 3, 1892 – February 25, 1982

Today, the thirtieth anniversary of the death of the brilliant linguist and all-around interesting guy Y.R. Chao (Zhao Yuanren / Zhào Yuánrèn / ??? / ???), I’m remembering him by rereading some of his work. (Chao died twenty years and one day after his good friend Hu Shih.)

Here are some readings here on Pinyin.info by or about Y.R. Chao that you may wish to review:

New database of cross-strait differences in Mandarin goes online

Last week, on the same day President Ma Ying-jeou accepted the resignation of a minister who made some drunken lewd remarks at a w?iyá (year-end office party), Ma was joking to the media about blow jobs.


screenshot from a video of a news story on this

But it was all for a good cause, of course. You see, the Mandarin expression chu? l?ba, when not referring to the literal playing of a trumpet, is usually taken in Taiwan to refer to a blow job. But in China, Ma explained, chu? l?ba means the same thing as the idiom p?i m?pì (pat/kiss the horse’s ass — i.e., flatter). And now that we have the handy-dandy Zh?nghuá Y?wén Zh?shikù (Chinese Language Database), which Ma was announcing, we can look up how Mandarin differs in Taiwan and China, and thus not get tripped up by such misunderstandings. Or at least that’s supposed to be the idea.

The database, which is the result of cross-strait cooperation, can be accessed via two sites: one in Taiwan, the other in China.

It’s clear that a lot of money has been spent on this. For example, many entries are accompanied by well-documented, precise explanations by distinguished lexicographers. Ha! Just kidding! Many entries are really accompanied by videos — some two hundred of them — of cutesy puppets gabbing about cross-strait differences in Mandarin expressions. But if there’s a video in there of the panda in the skirt explaining to the sheep in the vest that a useful skill for getting ahead in Chinese society is chu? l?ba, I haven’t found it yet. Will NMA will take up the challenge?

Much of the site emphasizes not so much language as Chinese characters. For example, another expensively produced video feeds the ideographic myth by showing off obscure Hanzi, such as the one for ch?ng.

WARNING: The screenshot below links to a video that contains scenes with intense wawa-ing and thus may not be suitable for anyone who thinks it’s not really cute for grown women to try to sound like they’re only thwee-and-a-half years old.


In a welcome bit of synchronicity, Victor Mair posted on Language Log earlier the same week on the unpredictability of Chinese character formation and pronunciation, briefly discussing just such patterns of duplication, triplication, etc.

Mair notes:

Most of these characters are of relatively low frequency and, except for a few of them, neither their meanings nor their pronunciations are known by persons of average literacy.

Many more such characters consisting or two, three, or four repetitions of the same character exist, and their sounds and meanings are in most cases equally or more opaque.

The Hanzi for ch?ng (which looks like ??? run together as one character) in the video above is sufficiently obscure that it likely won’t be shown correctly in many browsers on most systems when written in real text: ????. But never fear: It’s already in Unicode and so should be appearing one of these years in a massively bloated system font.

Further reinforcing the impression that the focus is on Chinese characters, Liú Zhàoxuán, who is the head of the association in charge of the project on the Taiwan side, equated traditional Chinese characters with Chinese culture itself and declared that getting the masses in China to recognize them is an important mission. (Liu really needs to read Lü Shuxiang’s “Comparing Chinese Characters and a Chinese Spelling Script — an evening conversation on the reform of Chinese characters.”)

Then he went on about how Chinese characters are a great system because, supposedly, they have a one-to-one correspondence with language that other scripts cannot match and people can know what they mean by looking at them (!) and that they therefore have a high degree of artistic quality (g?odù de yìshùxìng). Basically, the person in charge of this project seems to have a bad case of the Like Wow syndrome, which is not a reassuring trait for someone in charge of producing a dictionary.

The same cooperation that built the Web sites led to a new book, Li?ng’àn M?irì Y? Cí (???????? / Roughly: Cross-Strait Term-a-Day Book), which was also touted at the press conference.

The book contains Hanyu Pinyin, as well as zhuyin fuhao. But, alas, the book makes the Pinyin look ugly and fails completely at the first rule of Pinyin: use word parsing. (In the online images from the book, such as the one below, all of the words are se pa ra ted in to syl la bles.)

The Web site also has ugly Pinyin, with the CSS file for the Taiwan site calling for Pinyin to be shown in SimSun, which is one of the fonts it’s better not to use for Pinyin. But the word parsing on the Web site is at least not always wrong. Here are a few examples.

  • “???” is given as p?oshénr (good).
  • And apostrophes appear to be used correctly: e.g., fàn’?n (??), ch?n’?n (??), and f?i’?n (??).
  • But “???” is run together as “dìèrch?n” (no hyphen) rather than as shown correctly as dì-èr ch?n.
  • And “??????” is given as yí?e tóu li?n??e dà (for Taiwan) and y??e tóu li?n??e dà (for China). But ge is supposed to be written separately. (The variation of tone for yi is in this case useful.)

Still, my general impression from this is that we should not expect the forthcoming cross-strait dictionary to be very good.

Further reading:

Early instances of misunderstandings of biblical proportions

old-style Hanzi for ?From time to time I come across references by the credulous to the supposed biblical roots of some Chinese characters. I was surprised to learn, however, that that manner of interpretation has been around for many years.

In his 1902 book China and the Chinese, Herbert A. Giles (of Wade-Giles fame) pointed out the flaw he had seen in some earlier work.

Even the early Jesuit Fathers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to whom we owe so much for pioneer work in the domain of Sinology, were not without occasional lapses of the kind, due no doubt to a laudable if excessive zeal. Finding the character ?, which is the common word for “a ship,” as indicated by ?, the earlier picture-character for “boat” seen on the left-hand side, one ingenious Father proceeded to analyse it as follows: —

? “ship,” ? “eight,” ? “mouth” = eight mouths on a ship—“the Ark.”

But the right-hand portion is merely the phonetic of the character; it was originally ? “lead,” which gave the sound required; then the indicator “boat” was substituted for “metal.”

So with the word ? “to prohibit.” Because it could be analysed into two ?? “trees” and ? “a divine proclamation,” an allusion was discovered therein to the two trees and the proclamation of the Garden of Eden; whereas again the proper analysis is into indicator and phonetic.

Nor is such misplaced ingenuity confined to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1892 a Protestant missionary published and circulated broadcast what he said was “evidence in favour of the Gospels,” being nothing less than a prophecy of Christ’s coming hidden in the Chinese character ? “to come.” He pointed out that this was composed of “a cross,” with two ?? ‘men,’ one on each side, and a ‘greater man’ ? in the middle.

That analysis is all very well for the character as it stands now; but before the Christian era this same character was written and was a picture, not of men and of a cross, but of a sheaf of corn. It came to mean “come,” says the Chinese etymologist, “because corn comes from heaven.”

Even if all the character etymologies Giles cites are not necessarily in keeping with modern scholarship, his principles here are correct.