If you ever find yourself stuck on how to pronounce English

It’s times like this I especially miss John DeFrancis. How he would have loved this! It’s partially an example of what he dubbed “Singlish” — not Singapore English but Sino-English, the tortured attempt to use Chinese characters to write English. He details this in “The Singlish Affair,” a shaggy dog story that serves as the introduction to his essential work: The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. (And I really do mean essential. If you don’t have this book yet, buy it and read it.)

Here are some lyrics from a popular song, “Count on Me,” by Bruno Mars, with a Mandarin translation. The interesting part is that a Taiwanese third-grader has penciled in some phonetic guides for him or herself, using a combination of zhuyin fuhao (aka bopo mofo) (sometimes with tone marks!), English (as a gloss for English! and English pronunciation of some letters and numbers), and Chinese characters (albeit not always correctly written Chinese characters — not that I could do any better myself). Again, this is a Taiwanese third-grader and so is someone unlikely to know Hanyu Pinyin.

lyric sheet, as described in this post

“If you ever find yourself stuck”



ever ㄟㄈㄦ ei-f’er



yourself Uㄦㄒㄧㄦㄈㄨ U’er xi’erfu




“I’ll be the light to guide you.”






the l[e]



to tu






“Find out what we’re made of”



















“When we are called to help our friends in need”

What when

























ChatGPT writes poetry in Pinyin, sort of

I asked ChatGPT to “write a poem in Mandarin using Pinyin.”

Its first response took the form of a sonnet:

qīngchūn yǒu tài duō de mèngxiǎng,
xīwàng yǒu yīgè xiǎng zhù de dìfāng.
yīgè rén zài huáshān shàng,
tā de mèng yǒu tèbié de chàng.

zài fēngláng zhī xiàn,
tā yòng bàozhǐ zhànwàng huāliàn.
yǒngqì bǎ dōngfēng zài shǒu,
zài yùndòng zhōng fàng sīwáng zhī hòu.

mèngzhōng yǒu tài duō de jìhuà,
yǒnggǎn bǎ tāmen dōu chéngshí huà.
yǒngyuan bùyào bèi shìjiè suǒ bǎozhòng,
zhǐyào huílái bùwàng jiùshì yīzhǒng.

qīngchūn yǒu tài duō de mèngxiǎng,
wǒmen yīqǐ xiǎng zhù zhè yīqiè de dìfāng.

That one won’t win any prizes, but the result was still much better than the one produced when I asked ChatGPT to make another:

Sì jiāo qíng yuán, xìng fú suì suì,
Chūn fēng yè sè, ruò dàng huā kāi.
Dōu shì shuāng shǒu, shuāng shǒu yī,
Xīn lián xīn shì, shuāng xīn xī.

Qīng sè yǔ tiān, yǔ zhuǎn yǔ duō,
Cǎo yuǎn shān jǐn, dōu xīng huā tuō.
Yuè liàng guāng míng, míng yǔ ruò,
Qíng qíng yǔ hǎo, yǔ zhōng yǔ.

Shēn tián yǔ sǎng, qíng hǎo yǔ,
Liàng yǔ fēn fēn, shǎn chéng yǔ.
Qīng chuān huáng hé, yǔ yíng cháo,
Chūn sè xīn róu, xìng fú mǎo.

Wēn huā yǔ chūn, yǔ xǐ xīn,
Sān yuán sì jì, yǔ zhōng shuāng.
Chūn tiān xìng fú, zhuǎn yǔ shuāng,
Qíng huā yǔ jīng, yǔ yīng huáng.

That opaque mo no syl la bic mess is infected by the spirit of Literary Sinitic, which Pinyin isn’t designed to handle.

I’m hopeful that ChatGPT will get trained properly on the rules of Hanyu Pinyin — both the short-form rules of Pinyin and the longer (and superior) work of Yin Binyong — and so will be able to produce proper Pinyin. But maybe wǒ yǒu tài duō de mèngxiǎng.

As one of my heroes, Hu Shih, wrote one hundred years ago,

Nǐ bùnéng zuò wǒ de shī,
zhèngrú wǒ bùnéng zuò nǐ de mèng


NB: I should probably remind everyone, should you wish to include Chinese characters or Pinyin with tone marks in a comment, be sure to encode them first or they’ll end up scrambled here. (Not my fault. Sorry.)

Mother-effing noodles

More than sixteen years ago I wrote in some detail on how what has been dubbed China’s “national swear” (i.e., tāmā de / 他媽的 / tamade — lit. his mother’s) is sometimes rendered with one of the syllables bleeped out, especially the middle one (ma).

In today’s example, though, ma has been replaced not by an X or another symbol but by its English translation: mother, with the first syllable given in Pinyin, yielding “Ta Mother” (though, properly speaking, it should be “Ta Mother’s”; and that singular for “noodle” is a bit odd too).

I spotted the Ta Mother Noodle store in Xindian, Taiwan, from a bus about a week ago. I wasn’t able to get a good photo before the bus rounded a corner, so I’m making do with one from Google Street View. According to Google, the store has closed permanently; but at least for now, its signage lives on.

History podcast episode on loanwords

Formosa Files logo

Formosa Files, the internet’s most informative podcast on the history of Taiwan, recently focused on the topic of language and loanwords: Local Language Loanwords: A Lovely Hot Pot of Fujianese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, English, and More (season 3, episode 5). Lots of linguistic goodness, so give it a listen, and stick around for some of the many other episodes.

Although I, like Eryk, have never found jiayou (lit. “add oil”) much to my taste, the word has already made it past the gatekeepers and into English.

Formosa Files is also on Spotify and other popular content providers.

Further reading:

OMG, it’s nougat

My post about a month ago on another pun for the Year of the Rabbit was in part an excuse for me to note how common “OMG” (oh my God) has become in Taiwan. Indeed, it should be considered not just English anymore but a frequently used loan word, one that is usually written, using the Roman alphabet, as a “lettered word” in Mandarin (i.e., “OMG“). But sometimes “oh my God” shows up in Chinese characters (e.g., 喔麥尬) used as phonetic approximations of the English. And sometimes, as in today’s pun-tastic example, it appears in a mix of English and Chinese characters.

Sign above a storefront reading 'Oh.my.軋', with a 'niu' character (牛) written inside the 'O'.


The “Oh.my.軋” store sells nougat, as one can see from the smaller sign below and to the right of the main sign: “鮮治牛軋糖” (xiān zhì niúgátáng / freshly made nougat).

sign detail, showing 'xian zhi niugatang' in Chinese characters, with the second character being strange, as described in this post

Niugatang is simply a Mandarinization of the English word nougat; it’s transcribed “牛軋糖”. Tang is the Mandarin word for sugar and thus a short form meaning candy.

The use of a stylized version of the character for niu (牛), which rhymes with English’s “oh”, inside the “Oh” of the logo also makes the sign not just Oh my ga but also niu my ga (牛.my.軋). Puns upon puns.

The “Oh.my.軋” uses the ga from niugatang as a phonetic approximation of the English word “god.”

The character “治” is also worthy of note as an example of why Chinese characters are so damn hard. The character has two main parts. The left side has 氵, which is an alternate form of “水,” which is used in writing “shuǐ” (“water”) and many other words. The right side is 台 (tái), which is used in writing the word for platform but which is most commonly seen in Taiwan used phonetically in place names: Taiwan, Taipei (Taibei), Taichung (Taizhong), Taitung (Taidong), etc. So in terms of sound, that’s a shui and a tai. But in this case the phonetic hint commonly given in Chinese characters is 台 (tái). So does that mean the character “治” is pronounced tái?

Nope. Note even close. It’s pronounced zhì. And one just has to memorize such instances.

If you’re thinking, Hmm, shui plus tai? That’s water plus platform. Maybe the character is an ideograph for a pier! Nope. Once again, not even close. That’s generally not how Chinese characters work, no matter how many BS-filled TED talks on Chinese characters, memes, and crisis-tunity claims fill the Internet.

Of course, a character used for pier would make no sense on a sign for nougat. But as we’ll see, there are other things that don’t make sense here.

As I noted above, “xiān zhì niúgátáng” means “freshly made nougat.” But the weird thing is the character being used for zhì isn’t the “right” one. The sign uses “治” rather than the proper and homophonous “製” (zhì). The character used in the sign, however, doesn’t mean “made” but is instead most often seen in terms like zhìlǐ (治理), which is the Mandarin word for manage/administer/govern. Freshly administered nougat just doesn’t have much of a ring to it. So why did the company use that? My guess — and it’s just a guess — is that they wanted to evoke “Taiwan” through the 台 (tai) part of the character. (The company’s website — which has plenty of instances of the character 製 — claims that their nougat is one of the most popular purchases by tourists from China.) My long-suffering Taiwanese wife, however, exclaims that I think too much, and she yearns for the day when I find a more traditional hobby than spotting strange signs and asking her to help me understand them.

Rough guide to pronunciation for those unfamiliar with Mandarin or Hanyu Pinyin:

  • niu. Imagine the yo in Rocky Balboa’s cry of Yo, Adrian! or Dion’s “Yo, Frankie“; then stick an n in front of it.
  • ga. Say the word god, but drop the d.
  • tang. With the a as in father, not as in the English word sing/sang/sung.
  • zhi. Say the word jerk, but leave off the rk. Some people would keep in the r; but that’s not really a Taiwan thing — except perhaps on International Talk Like a Beijinger Pirate Day.

Further reading listening:

  • Gratuitous yo-free Dion link, because Dion is the man! (of course!): “If I Should Fall Behind,” written by Bruce Springsteen.

Company website:

Microsoft Translator and Pinyin

screenshot of the text described in the post, as treated by Microsoft Translator

If supplied with the following,

談中國的“語”和“文”的問題,我覺得最好能先了解一下在中國通用的語言。中國的主要語言有哪些?為甚麼我說這個,而不說那個?因為環境?因為被強迫?因為我愛這個語言?因為有必要?因為這個語言很重要?也想想什麼是中國人的共同語言。用一個共同語言有必要嗎?為什麼?別的漢語的去向會怎麼樣?如果你使用中國的共同語言普通話,你了解這個語言的語法(比如“的, 得, 地“ 和“了” 的不同用法)嗎? 知道這個語言的基本音節(不包括聲調)只有408個嗎?

Microsoft Translator produces the following Hanyu Pinyin:

tán zhōngguóde “yǔ” hé “wén”dewèntí, wǒjuéde zuìhǎo néng xiānliǎojiě yì xiàzài zhōngguó tōngyòng de yǔyán。 zhōngguóde zhǔyào yǔyán yǒu nǎxiē? wèishénme wǒshuō zhège ,érbùshuōnàgè? yīnwéi huánjìng? yīnwéi bèi qiǎngpò? yīnwéi wǒài zhège yǔyán? yīnwéi yǒubìyào? yīnwéi zhège yǔyán hěnzhòngyào? yě xiǎngxiǎng shénmeshì zhōngguórén de gòngtóngyǔyán。 yòng yígè gòngtóngyǔyán yǒubìyào ma? wèishénme? biéde hànyǔ de qùxiàng huì zěnmeyàng? rúguǒnǐ shǐyòng zhōngguóde gòngtóngyǔyán pǔtōnghuà , nǐ liǎojiě zhège yǔyán de yǔfǎ ( bǐrú “de,dé, de ”hé“le” de bùtóng yòngfǎ )ma? zhīdào zhège yǔyán de jīběn yīnjié (bùbāokuòshēngtiáo) zhǐyǒu 408gèma?

This has a number of obvious problems:

  • failure to capitalize the first letter in a sentence
  • failure to capitalize proper nouns (e.g., “zhongguo” should be “Zhongguo”) (Here is how to handle proper nouns in Pinyin.)
  • frequent appending of “de” to the word before it (Here is how to handle de in Pinyin.)
  • incorrect punctuation, e.g., commas, periods, parentheses, and question marks were not converted from their double-width (i.e., Chinese character) forms to regular roman forms (“,。?()” should appear instead as “,.?()”)
  • incorrect word parsing (sometimes)

In short: Thumbs-down for now. But it might not take too much work for Microsoft to make this significantly better.

Tone marks on Taiwan store sign’s Pinyin

An observant reader sent in this relatively rare example in Taiwan of the use of Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks on signage

sign above the 'Di jia Esthetic Nail Salon'

The Pinyin and especially the tone marks are a little thin, so I’ll give a closeup view:

The sign, here in aesthetic Banqiao, of course, reads:

Dǐ jiā
Esthetic Nail Salon

(Dǐ jiā xīnlíng měixué guǎn)

The Pinyin is not just “esthetic,” because most people probably don’t know the character ‘㭽’. Although they could probably take an educated guess that 㭽 is pronounced dǐ because of the 氐, that’s not the same thing as knowing for sure. So the Pinyin comes in handy even for most literate Taiwanese — if they can see it.

What’s especially surprising is that the people at the store went with Pinyin instead of zhuyin fuhao: ㄉㄧ ㄐㄧㄚ.

Chunghwa, Chunghua, Zhonghua

My previous post on postage stamps with Bopomofo (Zhuyin fuhao) mentioned Taiwan’s postal service, Chunghwa Post, which is terrifically efficient at delivering mail but which made an odd choice in romanization in its English name however many years ago . The Mandarin is Zhōnghuá Yóuzhèng in Hanyu Pinyin. But the post office spells its name


logo for Chunghwa Post Co., Ltd

Chung is clearly Wade-Giles. (It probably would be bastardized Wade-Giles; but in this case chung rather than ch’ung is correct – so, luck of the draw.) Yet hwa does not exist in Wade-Giles, which uses hua. So where is that hwa coming from? The only system that uses hwa and has been official in Taiwan is Gwoyeu Romatzyh.

The Yale system, devised by George Kennedy, also uses hwa; but despite occasional confusion by reporters and others, Taiwan has never used the Yale system. Instead, what many people mistakenly believe is Yale is instead MPS2.

I’m afraid, though, that I don’t have a definitive answer for how Taiwan ended up with the portmanteau spelling of Chunghwa. I suspect that what happened is that the initial intention was to go with the country’s official romanization system, which, way back when, was Gwoyeu Romatzyh (“GR” for short), even if you wouldn’t know that from signage or maps or just about anything but long-distance buses. But using GR would have yielded Jonghwa, which would likely struck people accustomed to seeing 中 romanized as chung as “looking weird” (even though chung is hardly an intuitive spelling for native speakers of English for what is zhong in Hanyu Pinyin). So they kept the chung but then went ahead with hwa, which is not so different than Wade-Giles’s hua. At least that’s my guess, based on having followed romanization in Taiwan for decades.

The odd choice of Chunghwa is not limited to just the postal system. The main telephone system uses it as well: Chunghwa Telecom.

logo for Chunghwa Telecom

If Taiwan ever gets a broader rectification of names under which the Republic of China (Zhōnghuá Mínguó) — not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China (Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó) — is simply called “Taiwan,” that would likely remove the issue. The spelling of Taiwan is certainly standard and the same across most romanization systems – with the notable exception of Gwoyeu Romatzyh, which would give us Tairuan. (GR’s fuunny sperlinqs strike again!)