Pinyin, US trademark law, and myths about Chinese characters

芝麻 vs. ZHIMA

The Mandarin word for “sesame” is zhīma (written “芝麻” in Chinese characters). That’s all the Mandarin anyone will need to know for this post. But if any of you non-Mandarin speakers are curious, an approximate pronunciation would be the je in jerk + ma (with the a as in father).

OK, let’s get into it now.

Everyone knows open sesame from the story of Ali Baba and the forty thieves, thought Jack Ma, when he was deciding upon a name for his new company. Alibaba Group Holding Limited is now one of China’s and indeed one of the world’s largest companies. So it’s no surprise that “open sesame” and just plain ol’ “sesame” are still very much associated with the company. And yet the company was acting as if this were not so, at least when it comes to Pinyin.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board recently ruled finally against a trademark application by Advanced New Technologies Co. (hereafter “Applicant”), which was acting on behalf of Alibaba. The mark applied for was “ZHIMA” (as such). The application (serial no. 86832288) was originally filed on November 25, 2015; Applicant requested reconsideration after earlier rejections.

The trademark office has a longstanding rule that trademark applications must, “if the mark includes non-English wording,” include “an English translation of that wording.” But Alibaba didn’t want to do that. The U.S. trademark board ruling lists some of the claims put forth by those arguing for Alibaba.

Applicant refused to submit the required statement for the following reasons:

  1. There are no Chinese characters (or other non-Latin characters) in Applicant’s Mark;
  2. A purported meaning of Chinese characters (or any nonLatin characters of even designs or stylizations) cannot be attached to a mark that does not contain such characters);
  3. Even if similar lettering is used as a transliteration of Chinese characters, Applicant’s Mark, ZHIMA – the only wording at issue – is not a transliteration of Chinese characters;
  4. Applicant’s Mark ZHIMA is not a translation of Chinese characters;
  5. Applicant’s Mark does not mean “sesame” in English;
  6. There is no logical or acceptable reason to ascribe the meaning of any Chinese characters to Applicant’s Mark. Applicant’s Latin-character Mark is a coined word with no translation in a foreign language or meaning which can be attributed.

Applicant concludes that ZHIMA is a coined term, not a foreign word; therefore, a translation/transliteration statement is not necessary.

Although I’m not a lawyer, I do know a thing or two about Pinyin, Chinese characters, and the difference between languages (e.g., Mandarin, English, Swahili, Hebrew) and scripts (the means of writing those languages, e.g., Chinese characters, the Roman alphabet, the Hebrew alphabet). So I feel confident in stating that Alibaba’s claims were risible.

The ruling also quotes the Applicant as claiming that “it is the Chinese characters which translate to ‘sesame’ and that ‘zhima’ is merely a transliteration/pronunciation of these Chinese characters.”

The ruling sums that up as follows: “In other words, according to Applicant the Chinese characters 芝麻 pronounced ZHIMA mean ‘sesame,’ but ‘Zhima’ itself has no meaning.” Elsewhere in the ruling there is this:

Applicant argues, in essence, that while the Chinese characters pronounced ZHIMA means “sesame,” ZHIMA, in and of itself, has no meaning. This is because “the Latin characters ‘zhima’ or ‘zhi ma’ merely represent the transliteration/sounds of particular Chinese characters that are not part of the mark as filed” (i.e., ZHIMA). Without the Chinese characters, ZHIMA has no meaning.

I believe most people would have no trouble laughing at the claim that zhima (the way to write in Pinyin the Mandarin word for sesame) has “no meaning” but is merely something coined by the company. Would anyone believe that this was just some sort of coincidence?

The authorities at the Patent and Trademark Office of course had no trouble finding plenty of examples of zhima being used as such to write the Mandarin word for sesame, including by Alibaba itself. And so the application for a U.S. trademark on “ZHIMA” as a coined word that was supposedly not Mandarin at all but merely something without meaning was rejected once and for all. Importantly, this decision sets a precedent, which should help stop such claims in the future.

Although I’m pleased that the correct decision was reached, I don’t think the decision was necessarily a foregone conclusion, however obviously absurd the claims of Alibaba were. The problem is that a lot of people — including many who really should know better — actually believe nonsense like Chinese characters are necessary to convey the meaning of Mandarin words. The truth is that Mandarin is a language, and Chinese characters and Hanyu Pinyin are scripts (means for writing that language). Chinese characters are not some sort of über language. And, by extension, no matter how many times such claims are repeated, even in what would normally be considered reputable sources, there is no such thing as an “ideographic language” or a “logographic language.”

Speech is primary, not secondary, to the existence of a living language. If by some sort of quirk in the universe every single Chinese character vanished from the face of the Earth, Mandarin would still exist, hundreds of millions of people would still be speaking it with one another, and the Mandarin word for sesame would still be zhima, regardless of how one might write it or what the lawyers for a huge company claim.

Further reading: “Open Sesame” Without Translation Won’t Open Door to Trademark Registration, Lexicology, February 2, 2023

Big Pinyin on Chengdu Storefronts

Fan Yiying and Gu Peng have posted a story at Sixth Tone that is both surprising and not surprising at all: State Media Criticizes Chengdu Shop Signs in Romanized Chinese.

The main points I’d like to make about this are:

  • Word-parsing matters.
  • Hundreds of millions of people in China use Hanyu Pinyin on a daily basis but still do not know how Pinyin is meant to work as an orthographic system.
  • The government of China, though it needs Pinyin, is in many ways hostile to it.
  • The fonts available for writing the Roman alphabet (and thus Pinyin) far exceed those for writing Chinese characters, so there is nothing in the least artistically limiting about Pinyin per se. (Whether Chinese characters are intrinsically more beautiful than the Roman alphabet is another matter.)

Here are some screenshots from the video mentioned in the article. Note: This isn’t the loveliest voice ever….

Sorry about the triangles on the photos, which make the shots look like videos. I wasn’t good at capturing screenshots without pausing the video, which made the triangles appear.

signs reading DIAN XIAN DIAN LAN, etc.

signs reading HONG DA TU WEN and MIAN DAO

signs reading HAO QI DENG SHI and ER LIANG WAN ZA MIAN

ER LIANG WAN ZA MIAN

ER LIANG WAN ZA MIAN sign in Chinese characters

Article on early Tongyong Pinyin on Taipei street signs

Reader Jens Finke recently came across a newspaper clipping from about twenty years ago, the dark ages of Taipei’s street signs. Back then most roads in the city were identified in bastardized Wade-Giles and wildly misspelled variations thereof. Two or even more spellings for one name at the same intersection was not uncommon. (Outside of Taipei, many signs were in MPS2, which is often mistaken — including in the article below — for the Yale system.) And so the foreign community of Taiwan by and large cried out for the use of Hanyu Pinyin. But that’s not what foreigners got. Instead, Taipei Mayor Chen Shui-bian decided to go with a half-baked local invention called Tongyong Pinyin.

Really, half-baked. Incredibly, not long after street signs started to go up in this system in 1998, its creator changed it. For example, the article mentions “Zhongsiao” (“Zhongxiao” in Hanyu Pinyin). Scarcely had the paint dried on the new street signs than the spelling in the supposedly same system was changed to “Jhongsiao.” This and other changes rendered most of the new signs obsolete.

But before many signs went up in the old new system or the new new system, Chen lost his December 1998 reelection bid. His successor, Ma Ying-jeou, didn’t pursue Tongyong Pinyin. Ma even took the surprising step of asking foreigners what they wanted and took action to implement the overwhelming choice of the foreign community (both then and now): Hanyu Pinyin, though unfortunately the road to this was not without monumentally foolish detours, bad ideas, and still-unfixed errors.

In 2000, Chen was elected president. He asked his minister of education, Ovid Tzeng, to decide on a romanization system for Taiwan. After Tzeng picked Hanyu Pinyin, he was given the boot. His successor saw the writing on the wall and quickly announced his support of Tongyong Pinyin. Meanwhile, Ma, who remained mayor of Taipei, said he had no plan to change to Tongyong Pinyin. This time marks the beginning of Taiwan’s romanization wars, which raged in the first decade of the century and have still not been completely resolved.

Some readers may suspect the reporter in the article below of pulling people’s legs (e.g., “Special thanks to janitorial assistant Shaw Toe-now of the Jyii Horng Bus Company in Tainan for faxing a copy of his employer’s self-designed romanization table”). But I assure you, it would be very difficult to outdo the craziness of Taiwan’s romanization situation back in those days.

Feel free to use the comments section below if you’d like to share any recollections of Taiwan’s signage mess of the 1990s and before.

In my transcription, I’ve fixed a few typos and omitted the article’s Cyrillic system for Mandarin.

photo of newspaper article on the enactment in Taipei of an early version of Tongyong Pinyin

Friday, May 8, 1998

It’s all Roman
By Ian Lamont
STAFF REPORTER

Throw out all of the new business cards, office stationery and checkbooks that you ordered a few months back to include Taipei’s new telephone numbers. Just three months after the phone company made all the city’s phone numbers eight digits long, the Taipei City Government has decided it wants to institute a new romanization system for street signs to make the city more accessible to international visitors.

Well, at least that’s the plan. Someone in the city government’s vast bureaucracy finally figured out that the screwed-up mix of Wade-Giles and Yale (the same guys who brought you “Peking”) was not really helping anything by having foreign nationals attempting to say “Jen-ai Road” or “Kien-kwo South Road” to bewildered taxi drivers.

Not that taxi drivers won’t be any less confused by the new linguistic concoctions that will result under the new system:

“I’d like to go to Her-ping West Road, please.”

“Huh?”

“You know, Her-ping West Road. It’s on the way to Manka?”

In case you didn’t understand this little exchange, “Herping” (rhymes with “burping”) is the new Mandarin romanization for the current Hoping East/West Road, while “Manka” is the Taiwanese name for Taipei’s Wanhua neighborhood. According to the Taipei City Government, both of these names will be in common use once all the city’s street signs are replaced.

Professor Yu Boh-chuan, the Academia Sinica linguist who helped design the new system, says his way reflects the local culture while at the same time following international standards.

Currently, there is only one international standard — the hanyu pinyin system developed by China some forty years ago and now almost universally accepted as the official Mandarin romanization system by governments, universities, libraries and publishers around the world. While there are many similarities between hanyu pinyin and Taipei’s new system, there are also several glaring differences, most notably the puzzling use of the letter “r” at the end of some syllables, the omission of the palatal spirant “sh” sound in certain Mandarin words, and the inclusion of Taiwanese, Hakkanese and Aborigine place names.

Since Taipei will soon have at least three different romanization systems floating around, Weekend has decided to create a handy chart that will help readers (and potentially psychotic mail sorters) survive the sticky transition period.

As an added bonus, we’ve decided to include several other alternative spelling systems for non-Chinese speakers. Special thanks to janitorial assistant Shaw Toe-now of the Jyii Horng Bus Company in Tainan for faxing a copy of his employer’s self-designed romanization table, as well as Prof. Vladimir Torostov of the Sinitic Languages Department of Khabarovsk University in Russia for submitting a conversion table with the cyrillic spellings for Taipei street names. Dosvidanya!

Old Romanization New Romanization Mainland Jyii Horng Bus Co.
Chunghsiao Zhongsiao Zhongxiao Chunggshaw
Jenai Renai Renai Lenie
Hsinyi/Shinyi Sinyi Xinyi Shynyii
Hoping Herping Heping Huhpeeng
Keelung Kelang Jilong Cheerlurng
Pateh Bader Bade Patiih

Reasons Gwoyeu Romatzyh never caught on, part 39

sign with a color photograph of a woman, with 'Eel Chyi 爾旗時尚' written beneath her

Eel Chyi

Here’s a sign spotted in Banqiao, Taiwan, for what would be written “Ěrqí” in Hanyu Pinyin.

“Ěrqí shíshàng” means “Erqi Fashion” (爾旗時尚), with the first word pronounced roughly like the English name “Archie.”

The doubled vowel (“ee”) is a marker of the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system (or “GR” for short), in which doubled vowels indicate the third tone. Thus, “ee” in Gwoyeu Romatzyh equals “ě” in Hanyu Pinyin. As for the -l, that’s GR’s way of indicating -r. For those of you wondering why GR didn’t just use -r for -r, that’s because GR uses -r to indicate second tone … except when it uses other letters to do the same thing. It’s kinda complicated. For example:

  1. ēr = el
  2. ér = erl
  3. ěr = eel
  4. èr = ell

And

  1. qī = chi
  2. qí = chyi
  3. qǐ = chii
  4. qì = chih

Of course, Hanyu Pinyin’s q isn’t intuitive for most people used to reading in an alphabetic script but must be learned. Once learned, though, q is entirely consistent. And it must be noted that as quirky as Gwoyeu Romatyzh can be, its oddities are nothing compared to those of Chinese characters.

How to add tone marks to Pinyin automatically, sort of

PInyin text without and with tone marks

There are plenty of ways to type Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks. These usually involve typing the tone number after the vowel in question or entering a series of special keystrokes to produce the tone mark.

But some consider that too much mafan, or perhaps are unsure of which tones are correct. (Heads up, students learning Mandarin! This post will be useful.) So occasionally I’m asked this question:

Is there a way to type in Hanyu Pinyin and have the correct tone marks appear automatically — even without typing tone numbers or pressing additional keys? Oh, and for free too, please.

The answer is a qualified yes.

Google Translate’s Pinyin function has come a long way since its inauspicious beginning about eight years ago. For quite some time it has even offered a way to add tone marks automatically, though few people know of this function, which could still use a great deal of improvement.

To get Google Translate to produce Pinyin with tone marks as you enter text in toneless Pinyin, first you need to set the system to translate from “Chinese” to “Chinese (Traditional)” or from “Chinese” to “Chinese (Simplified)”.

Enter your text in the box and Pinyin with tone marks will appear below the box on the right.

(Click any image to enlarge it.)

Alas, there are some problems with the system.

A lot of perfectly normal things that are essential to proper writing in Hanyu Pinyin will cause Google Translate to break. So when adding your text, do not use any of the following:

  • capital letters
  • the letter ü (use “v” instead)
  • more than 160 characters (including spaces and punctuation) at a time

Up to 160 characters is fine

Image showing how Google Translate will produce Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks for texts of up to 160 characters

But more than 160 characters will break the function that adds tone marks to Pinyin

The following are optional in terms of getting Google Translate to give you good results, though they are not optional in properly written Pinyin:

  • apostrophes
  • spaces
  • punctuation

A second significant problem is that the system doesn’t deal well with proper nouns, failing both word parsing and capitalization, though at least it seems to recognize that proper nouns are units, even if Google Translate doesn’t write them correctly. sample showing how Google Translate fails to capitalize and parse Tian'anmen and Mao Zedong, producing tian'anmen and maozedong instead.

So although Google Translate won’t handle everything for you, it can nevertheless be a useful tool for including tone marks in Hanyu Pinyin.

Zhou Youguang, 1906-2017

Zhou Youguang

Zhou Youguang, who is often called the “father of Hanyu Pinyin,” died earlier today.

He lived to the age of 111. He was “the man God forgot,” he liked to joke. And he did like to laugh. His sense of humor, which he kept despite some of the trials he suffered, no doubt helped him flourish so long.

He was most remarkable, however, not for his longevity but for his monumental contribution to literacy, his dedication to helping others, and his sense of justice.

I’ll add more information later.

RIP.

Taipei to spend NT$300 million making MRT signage worse

Taipei MRT station
Commonwealth Magazine (Tiānxià zázhì) recently interviewed me for a Mandarin-language piece related to the signage on Taipei’s MRT system.

As anyone who has looked at Pinyin News more than a couple of times over the years should be able to guess, I had a lot to say about that — most of which understandably didn’t make it into the article. For example, I recall making liberal use of the word “bèn” (“stupid”) to describe the situation and the city’s approach. But the reporter — Yen Pei-hua (Yán Pèihuá / 嚴珮華), who is perhaps Taiwan’s top business journalist — diplomatically omitted that.

Since the article discusses the nicknumbering system Taipei is determined to implement “for the foreigners,” even though most foreigners are at best indifferent to this, but doesn’t include my remarks on it, I’ll refer you to my post on this from last year: Taipei MRT moves to adopt nicknumbering system. Back then, though, I didn’t know the staggering amount of money the city is going to spend on screwing up the MRT system’s signs: NT$300 million (about US$10 million)! The main reason given for this is the sports event Taipei will host next summer. That’s supposed to last for about ten days, which would put the cost for the signs alone at about US$1 million per day.

On the other hand, the city does not plan to fix the real problems with the Taipei MRT’s station names, specifically the lack of apostrophes in what should be written Qili’an (not Qilian), Da’an (not Daan) (twice!), Jing’an (not Jingan), and Yong’an (not Yongan) — in Chinese characters: 唭哩岸, 大安, 景安, and 永安, respectively. And then there’s the problem of wordy English names.

Well, take a look and comment — here, or better still, on the Facebook page. (Links below.) I’m grateful to Ms. Yen and Commonwealth for discussing the issue.

References:

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.”

Nope.

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.