Not the same sound

Today’s New York Times exhibits one of my pet peeves. (Yes, I do seem to have a lot of those.)

This particular one is the practice of declaring that some Mandarin word or expression has “the same sound” as something else — even though it doesn’t. Claiming that the Mandarin words for death and four sound identical is a frequent example of this.

So today we have this:

Consider Tide detergent, Taizi, whose Chinese characters literally mean “gets rid of dirt.” (Characters are important: the same sound written differently could mean “too purple.”)

Nope. The Mandarin name for Tide detergent is Tàizì. On the other hand, “too purple” would be “tài zǐ,” which is close but not the same.

Tàizì ≠ tài zǐ

So, the answer to the question “When is a homophone not a homophone?” is “When it’s not a @#$%! homophone.”

But I will give the Times points for not mentioning wax tadpoles.

source: Picking Brand Names in China Is a Business Itself, New York Times, November 11, 2011

8 thoughts on “Not the same sound

  1. Is there a good term for two words that have the same letters but different stresses or tones? For example, in English we have “to project” and “a project.” Is there a good way to say how those words are related?

  2. Does Michael Wines even speak Chinese?

    Most Times reporters stationed in China don’t. Which is why you see this sort of thing at the bottom: “Adam Century and Li Bibo contributed research. ” Really what it means is that it ought to be a triple by-line.

    Frankly, I think it an unconscionable practice at a time when American universities are turning out Chinese speakers by the truckload.

  3. I’ve met Michael Wines, and no, he doesn’t speak much Chinese at all. He is a very careful reporter, however, and he certainly vetted all of these glosses and accounts fully with a native speaker. The problem is, as we all know, that the Chinese native-speakers themselves are sometimes the worst about blurring these distinctions. I remember tearing my “hair” out over the idiom wúfǎwútiān 无法无天 (lit. “without law, without Heaven”, i.e. “rebel”, “maverick” etc.), which is the punchline of a xiēhòuyǔ about a monk carrying an umbrella. Every Chinese person I asked about this would insist that the pun worked because fǎ 法 was a homonym for 发, “hair”. When I would say “But they aren’t homonyms!”, they would either say “But they sound alike to us!” or “Oh, yeah, I never noticed that”. Reporters should learn that they can’t just ask some random native speakers about an issue such as this.

  4. @Tom:

    Under Mainland law, foreign entities cannot hire local journalists, only ‘researchers’. So triple byline isn’t an option.

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