T-shirts with romanized Taiwanese

If you’re in Taiwan, make a trip to your local 50% Fifty Percent Píngjià Shíshàng (50% FIFTY PERCENT 平价时尚) (50 percent bargain-price fashion) and pick up one of their shirts of various Taiwanese foods, each of which is labeled in romanized Taiwanese. (Place name hashtags (e.g., #Yilan) are not included on the shirts.)

The only problem is that you may want to carry a magnifying glass with you, because the images and letters are tiny. (C’mon, people! When you want people to read something, size matters.)

This is the one I picked for myself: tshang-iû-piánn (in Mandarin: cōngyóubǐng / 蔥油餅 / 葱油饼). Those scallion pancakes are wonderful.

Advertising image of the graphic for a T-shirt that has a drawing of Taiwanese scallion pancake (congyoubing in Mandarin) and the text 'tshang-iu-piann' (partially obscured by a superimposed image of a T-shirt.

More images on the 50% Fifty Percent Facebook page.

Mandarin words with more than one apostrophe

listen attentively

As I often note, apostrophes are used in only about 2 percent of words as written in Hanyu Pinyin. But when they’re needed, they’re needed. Don’t skip them.

A few years back, someone wrote to me to ask about multiple apostrophes in Pinyin. I dug through a 2019 edition of the CC-CEDICT (2019-11-12 04:41:56 GMT) for an answer. But I don’t think I ever posted my findings online. It’s time to rectify that.

CC-CEDICT is not an ideal source in terms of words, because some entries are phrases rather than single words, though they are not marked separately than words, which means that some entries might be better off with spaces rather than apostrophes, which would reduce the apostrophe count and percentage.

So, with that in mind, of the file’s 117,579 entries, 3,006 needed apostrophes, or 2.56 percent.

No entry needed three or more apostrophes.

Only 52 entries needed two apostrophes, or 0.04% of the total (1 per 2,261 entries).

Most of those were just Mandarinized foreign proper nouns. For example:

  • Ā’ěrjí’ěr: Algiers, capital of Algeria/ 阿爾及爾 阿尔及尔
  • Āi’ěrduō’ān: Erdogan (name)/Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (1954-), Turkish politician, prime minister from 2003/ 埃爾多安 埃尔多安
  • Běi’ài’ěrlán: Northern Ireland/ 北愛爾蘭 北爱尔兰
  • Bì’ěrbā’è: Bilbao (city in Spain)/ 畢爾巴鄂 毕尔巴鄂
  • Dá’ěrfú’ěr: Darfur (western province of Sudan)/ 達爾福爾 达尔福尔
  • Dá’ěrfù’ěr: Darfur, region of west Sudan/ 達爾富爾 达尔富尔
  • fēi’ābèi’ěr: (math.) non-abelian/ 非阿貝爾 非阿贝尔
  • Fèi’àoduō’ěr: Theodor of Fyodor (name)/ 費奧多爾 费奥多尔
  • gǔ’ānxiān’àn: glutamine (Gln), an amino acid/ 谷氨酰胺 谷氨酰胺
  • Láiwàng’è’ěr: Levanger (city in Trøndelag, Norway)/ 萊旺厄爾 莱旺厄尔
  • Léi’ā’ěrchéng: Ciudad Real/ 雷阿爾城 雷阿尔城
  • Luójié’ài’ěrzhī: Raziel, archangel in Judaism/ 羅潔愛爾之 罗洁爱尔之
  • Mài’ěrwéi’ěr: Melville (name)/Herman Melville (1819-1891), US novelist, author of Moby Dick / 麥爾維爾 麦尔维尔
  • Pí’āi’ěr: Pierre (name)/ 皮埃爾 皮埃尔
  • Shàng’àisè’ěr: Overijssel/ 上艾瑟爾 上艾瑟尔
  • Sīfú’ěrwǎ’ěr: Svolvær (city in Nordland, Norway)/ 斯福爾瓦爾 斯福尔瓦尔
  • Sītài’ēnxiè’ěr: Steinkjær (city in Trøndelag, Norway)/ 斯泰恩謝爾 斯泰恩谢尔
  • Tèlǔ’āi’ěr: Tergüel or Teruel, Spain/ 特魯埃爾 特鲁埃尔
  • Xīn’ào’ěrliáng: New Orleans, Louisiana/ 新奧爾良 新奥尔良

Examples of more regular Mandarin entries with two apostrophes include:

  • bái’éyàn’ōu: (bird species of China) little tern (Sternula albifrons)/ 白額燕鷗 白额燕鸥
  • báixuě’ái’ái: brilliant white snow cover (esp. of distant peaks)/ 白雪皚皚 白雪皑皑
  • chū’ěrfǎn’ěr: old: to reap the consequences of one’s words (idiom, from Mencius); modern: to go back on one’s word/to blow hot and cold/to contradict oneself/inconsistent/ 出爾反爾 出尔反尔
  • húnhún’è’è: muddleheaded/ 渾渾噩噩 浑浑噩噩
  • pāi’àn’érqǐ: lit. to slap the table and stand up (idiom); fig. at the end of one’s tether/unable to take it any more/ 拍案而起 拍案而起
  • qì’áng’áng: full of vigor/spirited/valiant/ 氣昂昂 气昂昂
  • qīng’ěr’értīng: to listen attentively/ 傾耳而聽 倾耳而听
  • qīqī’ài’ài: stammering (idiom)/ 期期艾艾 期期艾艾
  • suíyù’ér’ān: at home wherever one is (idiom); ready to adapt/flexible/to accept circumstances with good will/ 隨遇而安 随遇而安
  • xiù’ēn’ài: to make a public display of affection/ 秀恩愛 秀恩爱
  • yǐ’échuán’é: to spread falsehoods/to increasingly distort the truth/to pile errors on top of errors (idiom)/ 以訛傳訛 以讹传讹

A few of those present interesting questions in orthography. For example, Xīn’ào’ěrliáng or Xīn Ào’ěrliáng?

But, basically, those entries are outliers. Relatively few words in Pinyin need an apostrophe; only a minute subset of those need two apostrophes; and, to my knowledge, none need three or more apostrophes.

Can you think of any triple-apostrophe words? Sorry, written examples of stuttering don’t count.

The most common given names in Taiwan, by decade

Some names have waxed and waned in popularity in Taiwan over the past century or so. This post gives tables of the top-three names for each decade (as calculated by the ROC calendar).

In this post, I give only Mandarin forms of names — out of familiarity, not preference. An exacting writer seeking character names might do well to investigate how such names might be pronounced in Taiwanese, Hakka, or even yet another Sinitic language other than Mandarin, depending on the who, when, and where.

Note: Although the normal style for names in Hanyu Pinyin is to write given names solid, without a space or hyphen, I have used hyphens in this post to preserve the style of writing names that has been standard in Taiwan for many decades. I am including the spelling in Wade-Giles, even though I don’t recommend using that system, because that is what is commonly seen in Taiwan — albeit without apostrophes or umlauts.

Most popular Taiwan boys names, by ROC decade of birth

Birth Year Chinese
Pinyin Wade-Giles
1912–1920 明、金水、健 Míng, Jīn-shuǐ,
Ming, Chin-shui,
1921–1930 金龍、金水、金生 Jīn-lóng,
Jīn-shuǐ, Jīn-shēng
Chin-lung, Chin-shui,
1931–1940 正雄、文雄、武雄 Zhèng-xióng, Wén-xióng,
Wen-hsiung, Wu-hsiung
1941–1950 正雄、武雄、文雄 Zhèng-xióng, Wǔ-xióng,
Wu-hsiung, Wen-hsiung
1951–1960 金龍、進財、榮華 Jīn-lóng,
Jìn-cái, Róng-huá
Chin-lung, Chin-ts’ai,
1961–1970 志明、志成、文雄 Zhì-míng, Zhì-chéng,
Chih-ming, Chih-ch’eng,
1971–1980 志偉、志明、建宏 Zhì-wěi,
Zhì-míng, Jiàn-hóng
Chih-wei, Chih-ming,
1981–1990 家豪、志豪、志偉 Jiā-háo,
Zhì-háo, Zhì-wěi
Chia-hao, Chih-hao,
1991–2000 家豪、冠宇、冠廷 Jiā-háo,
Guàn-yǔ, Guàn-tíng
Chia-hao, Kuan-yü,
2001–2010 承恩、承翰、冠廷 Chéng-ēn,
Chéng-hàn, Guàn-tíng
Ch’eng-en, Ch’eng-han,
2011–2018* 承恩、宥廷、品睿 Chéng-ēn,
Yòu-tíng, Pǐn-ruì
Ch’eng-en, Yu-t’ing,

Most popular Taiwan girls names, by ROC decade of birth

Birth Year Chinese
Pinyin Wade-Giles
1912–1920 秀英、英、玉 Xiù-yīng,
Yīng, Yù
Hsiu-ying, Ying,
1921–1930 秀英、玉蘭、玉英 Xiù-yīng,
Yù-lán, Yù-yīng
Hsiu-ying, Yü-lan,
1931–1940 秀英、玉蘭、玉英 Xiù-yīng,
Yù-lán, Yù-yīng
Hsiu-ying, Yü-lan,
1941–1950 秀英、秀琴、美玉 Xiù-yīng,
Xiù-qín, Měi-yù
Hsiu-ying, Hsiu-ch’in,
1951–1960 麗華、秀琴、秀美 Lì-huá, Xiù-qín,
Li-hua, Hsiu-ch’in,
1961–1970 淑芬、美玲、淑惠 Shū-fēn,
Měi-líng, Shū-huì
Shu-fen, Mei-ling,
1971–1980 淑芬、雅惠、淑娟 Shū-fēn,
Yǎ-huì, Shū-juān
Shu-fen, Ya-hui,
1981–1990 雅婷、怡君、雅雯 Yǎ-tíng,
Yí-jūn, Yǎ-wén
Ya-t’ing, I-chün,
1991–2000 雅婷、怡君、怡婷 Yǎ-tíng,
Yí-jūn, Yí-tíng
Ya-t’ing, I-chün,
2001–2010 宜蓁、欣妤、詩涵 Yí-zhēn,
Xīn-yú, Shī-hán
I-chen, Hsin-yü,
2011–2018* 詠晴、子晴、品妍 Yǒng-qíng,
Zǐ-qíng, Pǐn-yán
Yung-ch’ing, Tzu-ch’ing,

*: The counting of names continued until June 2018. I’ll give newer figures once I have them.

Source: Quánguó xìngmíng tǒngjì fēnxi (全國姓名統計分析). Department of Household Registration, Ministry of the Interior, Taiwan, 2018, p. 59.

Taipei MRT’s new in-car signage sucks

photo of the new-style video screen above the door of the Taipei MRT (subway system).

For the past few months, one can occasionally spot trains along the Taipei MRT’s blue line (aka the Ban-Nan line, for the Banqiao–Nangang line of the subway system) sporting a new style of above-door announcements. (Perhaps some of the other lines have these as well; but I’m not on them as much and haven’t spotted new signage on those yet.)

The MRT has signs above the doors to let people know what the stops are coming soon. Or at least that’s what the signs are supposed to do, what they need to do in order to help passengers. Alas, that crucial function appears to have been overlooked when designing the new signs, which are all bling-bling and little useful substance.

In fact, they’re so bad that I’m almost surprised they don’t feature cutesy cartoon characters — something that would make the disaster complete.

The photos in this post of the new signs were taken from the seat with the best vantage point of the video-screen sign. Some zoom was used to get the important part of the image to stretch from one side to the other of the photos. In short, the parts of the sign passengers need to read likely appear even smaller in real life than they may look in the photos. Of course, I could have positioned myself immediately in front of the signs and gotten better photos. But the point of signage isn’t what can be seen if one is standing close to and directly in front of it; rather, good signage needs to work for viewers from farther away and at an angle as well. So the proximity and angle represent a compromise on my part rather than the farther vantage point from which many riders will experience the signs. In other words, for many riders, the signs will look even smaller and less clear than shown in these photos.

And, as we’ll see, smaller is definitely not a good thing.

Here’s a close-up of the above sign, rotated slightly and showing the size of the text as a percentage of the screen height (approximately).

photo of the video screen with the size of the text shown as a percentage of the screen height

The screens themselves are large. But what about the information they need to convey? The names of the stations, the most important information, are small: just 19% of the screen height for the Chinese characters and only 6% of the screen height for the Pinyin. I suppose one could add another percentage point or even two if the descenders are counted as well rather than just the cap height. But even 8% would be utter madness! The Pinyin text is absurdly tiny — and as such is close to useless. How is anyone supposed to read that?! But there’s plenty of space on the screen to make the Pinyin larger, especially if it is given separately rather than in combination with Chinese characters at the same time.

The video screens do cycle through different information, with one screen providing station names in Pinyin and English without any Chinese characters. But it’s almost as if they’re trying to make the signage unreadable. Here’s an example:

photo of a video screen on the Taipei MRT, showing the station names on the blue line in English/Pinyin in small text.

Again, the English/Pinyin names are too small to read — needlessly so. And it doesn’t help the cause of making text large enough to read that the Taipei MRT has some needlessly wordy station names.

But there is one new feature I actually like: listing how many minutes before the next stations. (Note the numbers along the bottom right of the screen.) This is nicely done — if only one could read the names of the stations.

And still more space could be saved if those nicknumbers (e.g., “BL17”) were removed. I have yet to hear anyone ever even mentioning them, at least not in a positive way. And to think the MRT system spent NT$300 million (about US$10 million) on that!

And let’s not forget that Taiwan is projected to become a super-aged society by 2025 — which means an especially large number of people who don’t see as well as they used to. Thus, it is all the more important that the letters are large enough to be read by people with less than perfect eyesight.

Alas, there’s more. The signs, as bad as their design is from the standpoint of the size of the text, have another significant flaw: their use of color.

detail of the above image, as described below

Look at how the name of the next station is presented: in light-blue-gray against an off-white background. There is little contrast between the text and the background, which makes the text very difficult to read. I would have thought that this problem, like the problem of size already discussed, would have been painfully obvious to everyone involved in the design process. Yet for some reason this wasn’t corrected long ago on the drawing board but has instead made it all the way to signage on the MRT itself! That light-blue-gray against off-white makes me just livid.

Another important aspect of color for the MRT is the assignation of colors to the different transit lines. Identifying different lines by color is actually quite useful, and many people refer to the various lines by their color. So how well do the new signs handle this? If you’re familiar with Taipei, try to ignore the names and placements of the lines for the moment. Just this once — because the actual station names are so tiny and damn hard to read on these video screens, and because I’m hoping you’ll try to let your knowledge of the MRT avoid interfering with your objective judgment on this — I’m asking you to refer to the numbers for Taipei MRT stations, stupid though they are.

The lines that intersect with the blue line are marked by vertical bars of color. OK, now look at the image below and answer a few simple questions. You’ll probably have to click on the photo one or more times to achieve the extreme magnification needed to view the sign well.

photo of video-screen signage above the door of a car on the Taipei MRT's blue line, this one showing stop names in Chinese characters and with colored lines to show different line transfer points

Q: Which station or stations intersect with the red line?

A: BL12.

OK, that was easy. Now another.

Q: Which station or stations intersect with the green line?

A: BL11.

Simple enough. But how about these?

Q: Which station or stations intersect with the brown line?
Q: Which station or stations intersect with the orange line?
Q: Which station or stations intersect with the yellow line?

Why the MRT thinks passengers need a regular reminder of what car number they are in is beyond me. Note, too, how those numbers are larger than the station name in English/Pinyin.

The answers are, respectively, BL15 & BL23, BL14, and BL07 & BL08.

How’d you do? And could you even tell that BL15 and BL23 are supposed to be the same color, and that color is supposed to be brown?

Here’s a look at what the current/old signage looks like.

Next : Zhongxiao Xinsheng BL14

  • The style is basic but effective.
  • The letters are large enough to read.
  • The space before the colon is wrong.
  • The contrast between the color of the text and the color of the background is strong, making the text easy to read.
  • The addition of “BL14” is an unfortunate distraction (sometimes less is more); but it’s nothing that the new signs don’t repeat.

In short: By the most important measures, the old signs are better than the new ones. And they already exist, so keeping them won’t cost taxpayers and farepayers anything, unlike putting in expensive new video screens that make navigating the MRT worse.

Meanwhile, the MRT system has still not corrected errors in the Pinyin for the names of some stations.

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.

Japan to add romanization to names on My Number cards

The Japanese government has reportedly decided to add romanization for names on My Number cards, starting next year (2024). My Number cards — also known as Individual Number cards (or kojin bangō kādo / 個人番号カード) are a form of national ID.

Here’s basically what they look like now (without a space for romanization):
blank My Number card

But I haven’t been able to find any more specific information yet.

I wrote the authorities with My Number cards for clarification. I wanted to know what romanization system My Number Cards will use: Hepburn, Kunrei-shiki, or something else? Or will people be able to choose any system they want or to choose from a list of government-approved systems?

I also requested links to any articles/announcements about this in English or Japanese.

Unfortunately, the person who politely responded did not have any information about this beyond what I submitted.

Source: one small mention at the end of this article: Pronunciation of Japanese Personal Names to be Regulated by Planned Law Revision, Japan News (from the Yomiuri Shimbun), February 18, 2023.

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!)

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