To hanzify or not to hanzify…

02 Nov 2004

Hanzi (汉字 or 漢字) is the Chinese word for “Chinese character.” The Chinese language has been written in hanzi for a very long time. As the Chinese tell me, hanzi have been in use since approximately 3000 years before the Big Bang. It’s quite a tradition.

When an institution has been in place for that long, it can be incredibly hard to implement change. For example, when the new Communist emperors wanted to reform and “simplify” hanzi, some old fuddy-duddies opposed. Still, significant change was effected, but only in the writing system of mainland China. The two bastions of traditional characters to this day remain Hong Kong and Taiwan, two territories well known for their linguistic backwardness — many of the people there can’t even speak good Beijing Mandarin!

The PRC’s Emperor Mao had an even more radical scheme. He was in favor of eventually replacing Chinese characters with pinyin — a romanized form of Chinese. This idea was so upsetting that some experts believed it may reverse the Big Bang itself. It is also one of the stronger pieces of evidence that Emperor Mao’s personal doctor cited for his belief that in his later years Mao suffered from WTF Syndrome.

But allow me to get to my point. While those are all old issues better forgotten by fashionable people, there are new issues. More radical issues. No one is trying to further simplify Chinese or replace it with pinyin, but something else upsetting to the fuddy-duddies is happening. English is creeping into Chinese!

Now, I’m not talking about English being thrown in here and there, like someone saying “sorry” instead of “dui bu qi,” the cultural equivalent of an American saying “amigo.” Those are inevitable results of internationalization. They’re different. I’m talking about an English word becoming the preferred nomenclature, in Chinese.

Some examples:

  1. Pose. When Chinese people take pictures, they might tell those having their picture taken to strike a pose. The traditional Chinese way to say this is “摆个姿势“. Nowadays, though, you frequently hear young people say “摆个pose”. Why the word “pose” might be singled out for adoption I have no clue.
  2. High. When young Chinese people talk about a feeling of excitement, they often use the word “high” in its adjectival form, as in “很high的感觉” (a ‘high’ feeling). This usage is not related at all to drugs.
  3. Kitty. I’ve been told that Hello Kitty is officially known in written Chinese as something like “凯迪猫,” which is basically “Kitty Cat.” The thing is, no one pronounces the “kitty” part as it as written, kǎidí. They all say “kitty 猫,” following the English pronunciation. (Incidentally, I’m really suprised by the “decision” to drop the “hello,” a word the Chinese normally seem to adore.)
  4. Cheese. The traditional Chinese word for “cheese” is 奶酪. In recent years phonetic transcriptions of the English word have cropped up on trendy menus (mighty catalysts of monumental linguistic change, as we all know), like 芝士 and 起士, but the actual word for cheese you hear coming from young Chinese people’s mouths is quite different. It is undeniably the English word “cheese,” although the final /z/ sound is often pronounced as an /s/ sound.

To Chinese language purists, this English creeping into Chinese must all be very terrifying. Why? Because English words cannot be written in Chinese characters! What’s the big deal about that? Well, Chinese is always written in Chinese characters! And only in Chinese characters! The reason, as mentioned before, has something to do with the Big Bang and the stability of the space/time continuum. The fate of the universe, it seems, rests precariously on the tongues of this new reckless generation of Chinese youngsters. Yikes!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I think you’ve seen what happens when English “creeps” in … you can look to Japanese culture/language for that. I STILL remember when you described the Japanese way to say “Broadband Internet” as “Brwode-Band-Een-ter-neta”. But then you have Taiwanese ‘reckless’ teenagers sippin’ on pearl iced tea who greet “mushi-mushi” when they answer their phone.

    Not really related to your post entirely, but anyways… =)

  2. Wilson,

    Japanese and Chinese?

    Apples and oranges, man.

  3. The post brings to mind the question I was pursuing answers to when I came across your site. Since I don’t want to pester you with a “cold call” email, I thought I’d ask about your impressions on China and Japan here.

    I’m presently teaching myself Japanese out of interest and.. whether the perception is correct or not.. the notion that it’s easier to teach myself more Japanese on my own than Chinese. I’ve recently become more interested in Chinese culture, however. Living in St. Louis, there is also a much higher population of Chinese people than Japanese. While I enjoy Japanese and am curious about Chinese, I figure it’s best to dedicate my studies to one or the other, rather than both at once. It seems to me that Chinese would be of more use in areas with high Asian concentrations here in the U.S. than Japanese.

    I’m also curious about your experiences abroad. My wife and I would like to tour both China and Japan. She’s not quite the traveller I am, however, and I would like to spend more of our eventual tour where she’d probably feel a little more comfortable. As such, I figure it would make sense to focus on learning the language of the country we might spend more time in.

    Having travelled and lived in both Japan and China, do you feel one is more “hospitable” to foreigners than the other? I’d be interested in your impressions. You’re welcome to email if you like, or just post a response. As I said, I didn’t want to assault you out of the blue with an email or something. 🙂 Thanks.

  4. This is nothing new–English has been creeping into Chinese for decades. It’s only a relatively recent phenom in Mainland b/c the country didn’t seriously open up to the outside until the 1980s. However, the same thing has been going on in Hong Kong and Taiwan (in Taiwan’s case, probably from the Vietnam War era).

  5. Onikaze, quick comment.. if you want to be able to speak to Chinese people in the US, you should learn Cantonese, most overseas Chinese came from Hong Kong/Canton. Recently, however, that dialect is becoming less and less useful as time passes, so stick to Mandarin, but don’t expect to be able to go to Chinatown and speak it to shop keepers/people on the street.

  6. Do expect to be able to go to Chinatown and speak Mandarin to shop keepers and restaurant servicers. The population composition has changed so much in major US (and Canadian) cities that Mandarin is spoken all over the places. The newer immigrants (from Mainland and Taiwan) may not live in those streets but they have become the major consumer force. This is even true in HK and southeast Asia nowadays.

  7. The funniest thing is when you are speaking Chinese and you don’t know the word for what you want to say — I take a cue from my Chinese friends and just pronounce the word in a Chinese way! E.g. ÄãµÄah-sine-men ÄѲ»ÄÑ£¿(assignment). They normally don’t even notice, since many study related words they use the English. Assignment, exam, test, report, lecturer, tutorial etc. (These are Chinese studying in New Zealand).

    I even tried this in China with Tibetan high school students who were too shy to speak English to me (even though their English is better than my Chinese and Tibetan!). I would speak in Chinese but many of the nouns I used would be in English. They would respond in Chinese, giving me the words that I didn’t know. Good for my study but not their’s. It’s amazing how even students in countryside schools can understand so much English! It is a bit of worry for these minority groups, some TIbetans my age could only speak English and Chinese, and not Tibetan anymore, because they are taught English and Chinese for longer.

  8. I think it was in early 80’s when the phrase “bye” was first introduced to the mainland Chinese. Before then, everyone used “ÔÙҊ”.

    Soon after the American style denim jeans were introduced. At first everyone calls them “Å£×Ðѝ”, but soon the street merchant realized that if they actually use “Jeans”, they would get more business and inflat the price.

    The phrases of “cool” and “party” are more popular in China than U.S.

    Instead of saying “¸ç‚ƒ”, they start to use “dude”.

  9. Tian,

    What I’ve seen is a little different from you describe.

    Yes, everyone says “bye-bye” (not “bye”). But no one says “jeans,” they all say “Å£×Ðѝ”. Most of the Chinese people I know don’t even know the word “jeans.” “Party” is widespread, but “cool” is not. I would argue that “¿á” and “cool” are not the same. And I’ve never heard anyone here say “dude.”

  10. John, care to elaborate on why you think “¿á” and “cool” are different?

  11. “I would argue that “¿á” and “cool” are not the same.”

    I thought they were and the translation came from HK or Taiwan which might have led one to think they were HK or TW words.

  12. Gin,

    Maybe it depends on which city, but from my experience in San Francisco Chinatown I heard nothing but Cantonese from people walking around on the street.

    Vancouver, however, was very different. That was very Mandarin…

  13. I think sometimes ¿á is used to mean something that seems similar to “cool,” but its main meaning is actually quite different. The Chinese word Àä¿á influences the meaning of the word ¿á a lot, I think, as it is often used to describe men of the “strong and silent” type. You know, the kind of guy who looks tough, doesn’t smile, and says little.

    If a girl says,
    “ÎÒϲ»¶¿áµÄÄк¢” translating it as “I like cool boys” would simply be incorrect in my view.

    Likewise, in English you could say, “I think Jackie Chan is cool,” but no Chinese person would ever say, “ÎÒ¾õµÃ³ÉÁúºÜ¿á”. The guy’s always smiling and acting goofy, so he just isn’t ¿á, regardless of whether or not you like him.

    So I think it’s a case of a Chinese word being modeled to sound like an English word, but still maintaining a lot of its own separate meaning.

  14. Yea. I understand.

    That dog I ate for dinner was not good but very ºÃ¡£

    You are on drugs if you think that “high” is not used to describe intoxication.

  15. Tim,

    My point was that while saying you’re “high” in English has been reserved largely for drug use, it’s not in Chinese. And I have never personally heard it used that way, although I’ve heard it used many other times in other contexts.

  16. Thanks for the clarification, John. I agree with you to some extent, but I believe I have heard Chinese people say “ku” or “cool” in place of “°ô”, which doesn’t fit with your interpretation of the current use of the word.

  17. Brad,

    Yeah, I guess I have to admit there’s some overlap.

  18. Actually, I had a discussion about this with my senior students. Living in Shenzhen, there is definitely a ton of English everywhere. The interesting thing is that when I asked them about it, they denied they were doing it! I had a whole classroom of senior 2’s telling me that “°Ý°Ý” wasn’t English.

    I played along and asked them if English words would ever be “allowed” in Chinese. They said no, because China has 5000 years of history. Go figure.

    While the influx of English into Chinese is certainly interesting, I find certain peoples’ attitudes towards it much more interesting.

  19. You are on drugs if you think that “high” is not used to describe intoxication.

    “High” is used frequently in Taiwan and it has no drug connotations at all. For instance, if the local news channels is covering a Jolin concert, they might say that the “¸èÃÔ³¬high”

    The word that they use for “high” for when there are drug connotations is “uî^ or “head shaking,” as in that’s what people like to do after doing a hit of E or KËûÃü.

    two territories well known for their linguistic backwardness

    Oh please. I’ve yet to meet a single Taiwanese person under the age of 60 who couldn’t speak intelligible Mandarin, even if Taiwanese were their preferred dialect. The same cannot be said for the mainland.

  20. “High” is not used in Chinese to describe drug high because people don’t know this further reaching origin. They see Americans call an excited or hyperactive person high and they took it to mean jolly. Sometimes you guys say so-and-so is so high after that perfect score… you may not literally inferring he used drug, right? I’m sure the drug user soceity of China also has the real menual on high.

    I see your reasoning on cool vs. ¿á but don’t know what you are high from — kidding. I think you got it wrong. When ¿á is said, it no longer means Àä¿á. It was borrowed from there to produce an extremely cool (sound and meaning)translation of cool. As to Jackie Chan and other examples, that’s just different coolness by different observers. Cool is such a subjective word sometimes it’s cool just to be different.

    There are other examples of Hanzifized English words with somewhat meaningful characters, such as Íи££¨TOFLE£©£¬¶¡¿Í£¨D.I.N.K.£©£¬¿ÉÀÖ£¨cola£©. These were old.

    If there is not a character for high already, I wouldn’t be surprised to find oneday a º§£¬ that would be ¿á.

  21. Similarly in English, COOL in such contexts has lost it’s original meaning of nicely felt temperature, right? So ¿á here no longer means Àä even though it originated from Àä¿á. the parallel is astonishing.

  22. Wayne and Gin,

    Thanks for backing me up on the “high” issue.


    Maybe you missed the Big Bang references, but I wasn’t being exactly serious there.


    I know ¿á is not the same as Àä¿á. I used the word “influences.” I think ¿á is a word influenced by two cultures, and the result is a word that’s somewhere in the middle. You mention “different coolness by different observers.” Well, one one “observer” is one culture speaking one language and the other “observer” is another culture speaking another language, I think it amounts to two words meaning not quite the same thing.

  23. John, you should compile of Chinese slangs and their English counter parts, vice versa.

  24. In a related example, I’ve seen Chinese product names that adopt the Japanese possessive particle ¤Î (no) as a substitute for 的. No idea how a Chinese would pronounce it though.

    I find my Americanized Chinese friends amusing when they freely (perhaps subconsciously) mix English words into Chinese speech. (e.g. “我已經跟他argue過了”… given that there are plety of Chinese equivalents for “argue” I suspect this one was subconscious).

    It would be interesting if we reached a breaking point where romanized words just had to be used instead of hanzi. On the other hand, consider all of the Chinese dialects that don’t have written equivalents, or whose non-Mandarin written forms are rarely used (e.g. Cantonese).

  25. “The two bastions of traditional characters to this day remain Hong Kong and Taiwan, two territories well known for their linguistic backwardness — many of the people there can’t even speak good Beijing Mandarin!”

    I know the whole post was written tongue-in-cheek but I can’t tell if you’re trying to be serious about this or not?

  26. Also, it just occurred to me how ironic the title of this post is. you made a new word (hanzify) by taking a chinese word and adapting it to english. was that intentional?

  27. “On the other hand, consider all of the Chinese dialects that don’t have written equivalents, or whose non-Mandarin written forms are rarely used (e.g. Cantonese).”

    A good place to look are Hong Kong comics. They use “non-standard” characters all over the place to encode the Cantonese sounds/words that don’t have equivalents in Mandarin.

  28. Can anyone enlighten me to the way the word “feel” has been appropriated by the Chinese language as used in popular Chinese culture? I’ve noticed the word used in very uncomprehensible (to me) ways on Chinese t-shirts, the names of DVD’s. Things like “Feel 100%” and “Christy Chung – Feel”, etc. What is meant or understood by the word in these contexts? It certainly isn’t native English use of the word. Thank you.

  29. I’m with JR. Isn’t a national standard language a relatively new invention? I thought everyone got together in the first national assembly in 1911 and pretty much sort of decided that the Beijing dialect would be standard. And this was quite controversial, so much so that it started a fist fight between two prominent parliamentarians. Before then, I thought that there were strong local prestige zones, just like there were economic zones. So that in the old Suzhou area the Wu dialect would be the prestige dialect, not the Beijing dialect. We can imagine the beautiful, thriving linguistic heterogeneity, all living under a unified literary language (ÎÄ×Ö). So it seems rather healthy that Cantonese is still a prestige dialect. Look, though, if you go to Wenzhou, for example, you will also find a very strong sense of local identity coalesced around an ancient local dialect and, at least a few years ago, old people who still didn’t really speak Mandarin or didn’t care to. And really all the linguistic diversity in China is amazing and wonderful.

    I would be really grateful if someone with solid knowledge of the development of a national standard language in China would chime in– I could be way off. I know that in Europe, most places the national standard language is something that grew up around the nation state, something to which our brains are just irrevocably tied. It’s difficult to imagine politics and social fabric without a modern nation state, and so it’s difficult to imagine them without a national language. But in Germany, for example, standard Hochdeutsch wasn’t invented until the 1870s, to my knowledge.

    I thought that in the past ÎÄ×Ö was really the national binding force of the literati. Was the pronunciation really that uniform around the empire? And what about Manchu? Weren’t most important documents kept in Chinese and Manchu well into the 19th Century?

  30. I think it goes through an ellaborate process. First people use foreign words in conversations for whatever reason, lazyness, clarity, fashion, arragance, coolness, and what not. After a short while the popular press (comic strips, tabloids) strives to impress by putting either the English or an invented hanzified version in writing, mixed use and switch hitter will rule in this period. If one particularly cool translation catches people’s taste bud it will spread like wild fire. However, it takes ages before the official press including book publishers accepts such imported goods and when it does it invariably is going to be the well accepted Chinese word. Has anyone ever seen the English version of “Bye-Bye” or “No” in the People’s Daily or ÈËÃñÎÄѧ? I’m not even sure if the Chinese word ¿á made it yet — can anyone tell us, please?

  31. Tian,

    I’m certainly not the person to compile a slang list… I’ll leave that to the more qualified.

  32. I know the whole post was written tongue-in-cheek but I can’t tell if you’re trying to be serious about this or not?

    Of course it’s not serious!

    But then, I’d be lying if I said I never imagined ruffling a few feathers with my joke… hehe

  33. JR,

    As for the irony…

    You’re just now discovering the many, many layers of meaning carefully crafted into my blog entries???


  34. Alaric,

    I just asked a friend who says they just see “feel” as meaning “¸Ð¾õ”.

  35. Wendy,

    I’m no expert, but I’ve done some research regarding the evolution of the Chinese written language. The normal pattern seems to be that the transition to “modernity” involved the creation of a national language and the establishment of a vernacular.

    In China the ¹úÓï movement (for a spoken standard) had gained momentum by the early 1900s. On the heels of that movement was the °×»° movement, which advocated the use of the written vernacular in place of the traditional ÎÄÑÔ.

    Around 1900, Qiu Tingliang wrote, “there is no more effective tool than wenyan for keeping the whole population in ignorance, and there is no more effective tool than baihua for making it wise.”

    Hu Shi began a literary revolution in 1917, advocating baihua. In 1922 In 1922 the Chinese Ministry of Education decreed that elementary textbooks were to henceforth be written in the vernacular.

    So the establishment of a unified spoken language and a standard written form based on the vernacular are closely related, but still separate.

    Hmmm, maybe that doesn’t totally address your question. I was just looking at my old senior thesis from college and I was surprised at all the stuff I used to know, and it sort of related….

  36. “…the first national assembly in 1911 and pretty much sort of decided that the Beijing dialect would be standard.”

    The standard adopted then was actually ¹úÓï based on the northern dialect spoken by the elite society in Shanghai (and on the campuses of Tsinghua and Beida also), which is the predecessor of the ¹úÓï being used in Taiwan today. You can appreciate this standard language by watching old Chinese movies of the 1930s. Then PRC decided on a different one: Putonghua, based primarily on a cleaned-up version of Beijing dialect.

    “We can imagine the beautiful, thriving linguistic heterogeneity, all living under a unified literary language (ÎÄ×Ö). “

    That is the case today, and ever since the big bang, but also dynamically changing all the time. Now the western commercialism is destroying the heterogeneity by driving out the Wu dialect but at the same time destroying the homogeneity of Putonghua by inserting OK, COOL, HIGH, PARTY, DATE, CHURCH, FEEL, all these capitalist spiritual pollutions. Oh, no, thay are trying to reverse the big bang.

    Seriously, ÇØʼ»Ê unified ÎÄ×Ö but did not do the same to ÕZÑÔ. Some (economists) think it was a failure, others (linguistists) think it was a good thing, that he didn’t. Me? I don’t know what to think of it. Is Chinese ÕZÑÔ going to finally be unified by the crushing force of economical modernization? Yes, possibly, and it’s happening. Is Chinese going to be ruined by the “crushing” force of English invasion? Fat chance!

    “Was the pronunciation really that uniform around the empire? “

    Impossible. This is evident in some of the old °×»°ÎÄ novels.

    Disclaimers: 1. The above was from a nonprofessional; 2. It feels soooo good for a lazy bone to be able to insert foreign words at will without having to translate them so what’s the fuss?

  37. This is a really good time to ask a question I’ve had for a while. So I have a bunch of Kelly Chen CDs (shut up, I know). On 99% of the songs she sings Mandarin vocabulary with Cantonese pronunciation (e.g. saying 不 “bat” instead of ßí “mh”). I was under the impression this would sound very unnatural. What is up with that? Is that normal for Cantonese singers, or is Kelly just being weird?

  38. oh the joys of using foreign words in speech. sometimes i find some chinese words are so much easier to use than the english equivalent. my favourite at the moment is; Âé·³, as in “sorry honey, i was going to get some fruit on the way home but it was Âé·³”.

  39. ….and you know whats strange for me right now, i’m so immersed in studying my chinese lately that i can’t really remember how i would say that sentence with out using Âé·³. weird.

  40. If Âé·³ gets you so high, try also ÂíÂí»¢»¢.

  41. I’m taking a Chinese Linguistics class right now, and this is what one of my books says (Lin Hua, 2001) in paraphrase:

    There are 7 accepted dialects still alive in China today, all (except Min) are said to have developed from Middle Chinese which refers to a spoken dialect dating back to 601 AD with the publication of the standard dictionary Qieyun. Not much is known about how Middle Chinese was pronounced back then, but linguists have peiced an approximation together based on literary works (rhyme books) and this dictionary.

    Dialects have always existed in China, but the main uniting factor has always been the writing system unified by the first emporer of Qin.

    Ooo.. just found this really good link:

  42. Here’s another map. You can see why they chose Mandarin to be the standard over the other dialects

  43. Wow, it was really fun reading the informative comments and taking in the different personal angles! Great blog, John.

  44. Gin, Wayne, John,


  45. That was me.

  46. Tim H,

    You may know some Chinese people that do drugs or get drunk and use the word ‘high’ to describe the feeling. (I’d guess they’ve been influenced by English speakers.) But that doesn’t make said usage a trend for the whole language. Sorry, man.

  47. I just thought that you shouldn’t have used the word “all”. Many people do look at your site as something more than a joke and take your word very seriously. You are a linguist and a very good Chinese speaker and you are respected. I thought you should be more careful with your wording. Someone might laugh when they hear about someone getting high because acording to John it just means “excited”. Now if the guy was really high he might think that those around him are laughing and accepting the behavior. Argue how you like but people do use the word that way. People should be careful about how they react to such statements.

  48. Gin said:

    Is Chinese ÕZÑÔ going to finally be unified by the
    crushing force of economical modernization? Yes,
    possibly, and it’s happening.

    I don’t think this will happen. Ever since I arrived in Shanghai a few months ago (not long, I know) I have been surprised by the ways I’ve found my colleagues using their Shanghai»° to “greasen” the wheels of business. When I am around to observe negotiations they will often speak in Mandarin out of courtesy to me; but when the conversation begins to get heated or special deals have to be cut, they will switch to the local dialect. I think they do this to represent friendliness and good intentions towards each other, however insincere these are. I don’t think this is a coincidence; many economically developed parts of China enjoy thriving local dialects: Guangdong, Hong Kong. In fact, I found Hong Kong to be nearly impossible to travel in for that very reason: so many Chinese people, so few who spoke decent Mandarin!

    (For those who, like me, would come at this from an economist’s standpoint, I would suggest that this phenomenon is related to Ronald Coase’s ideas on The Nature of the Firm, ie lowering transaction costs by using this unique bargaining tool.)

  49. Applied to a person, the English word “cool” suggests to me someone confident, economic with words, and perhaps even a little “cold”. And by the way, don’t forget that ¿á (like cool) can be applied to more than just people.

    One of my favourite hanzified words is ºÚ¿Í (hacker), because is seems quite meaningful in chinese — a system cracker could be considered an uninvited “guest”. Furthermore, the chinese word ´Ì¿Í (assassin) also contains this “guest” character.

  50. but when the conversation begins to get heated or special deals have to be cut, they will switch to the local dialect. I think they do this to represent friendliness and good intentions towards each other, however insincere these are.

    I disagree–they do it because that is the language they are most familiar with, and the parties are from the same place. If they were doing business with someone oustide their province/city/village they would use Mandarin.

  51. It seems to me from the timing of the switch to local dialect that it is meant to ingratiate the speaker to the listener, implying that they are from a similar group and should be more willing to make concessions to each other during a tough point in the negotiation. I suppose that the switch is unconscious, but I don’t think that it is completely random, as I said, because of the timing and because of the inside/outside implication that you mention.

    If they were negotiating with an outsider, you are right, it would be in Mandarin; and because they wouldn’t have access to this linguistic bargaining “technique”, the deal would be less likely to go through, or at least it would be a tougher bargain.

    I’m sure there has to be a study on this somewhere…

  52. My Beijing father used to jokingly say that westerners like to eat Zhu1 Shi3 and Ma3 Fen4. A futile Chinese attempt to pronounce “Cheese” and “Muffin” only to mean Pig Shit and Horse Shit. 😛 😀

  53. Micah, using Shanghainese among themselves could be for inducement (Micah) and comfort (Prince Roy) and privacy too (Gin), all of which do reduce the bargain cost, true. However, the bigger argument in Coase’s theory (I, as a noneconomist and nonlinguist, have just been exposed to it by the link you gave) is the overall transaction cost which he points out as being greatly reduced by the organization of a corporation (firm). This, at least metaphorically, can speak to my case. Unified spoken language will reduce transaction cost just as unified written language by Qinshihuang did.

    The bigger point is that you have to examine this issue macrospically. What you observed in a span of several monthes can only be considered a single data point. To see changes in a language that barely budged over several thousand years, one needs to take data across decades. People who follow it see tremandeous increase of Mandarin’s market share in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. The changes have been astronomical multiples greater than 20 years prior. That is why I proposed that it is happening, with a qualifier of “possibly” because a mere quarter of a century may prove too brief. Now in Shanghai the role of Shanghainese has been reduced to business small talk and the Shanghai folks are willing to talk just as seriously with non Shanghainese speakers. This was not the case 25 years agao during the cultural revolution in which Shanghai was even a prominent player; legend had it that a lowly Shanghai bus conductor will not respond to an inquiry for directions etc. unless it is raised in authantic Shanghai dialect. How that has changed and how the same has taken place in HK and in Chinatowns in Toronto, Chicago, LA, and Houston! It remains to be seen, though, whether it’s a sheer number’s game which I doubt it is and whether the change will be sustained.

    Tim H, if your read my words carefully I was actually with you. Or was my argument too perplexed, hmmm? When Emperor John branded me into his camp, I did not raise my hand and object to his majesty. Haha, that’s just me. In the cultural revolution when Chairman Mao’s men told me I was his good student, I…ahum…… .

  54. That was a typo. Macroscopically.

  55. There are tons of studies on this kind of language switching “code-switching” in polygloss situations… anyway, I haven’t seen any done on particular Chinese dialects except for an undergrad essay on hakka, cantonese and mandarin usage in one family. What I want to say is that Micah’s interpretation is quite reasonable — it’s a common reason to switch to a native dialect if you want the proceedings to be more informal and less distant. Normally in European countries they want the distance so they start off in the same dialect then switch to the ‘high’ language when they get to talking business.

  56. I think that simplified chinese is the most horrible invention ever conceived by man. I feel it denigrates the language by attempting to dumb down how characters are written, so that the ‘the peasants’ can learn how to read and write. I find this incredibly patronising on the part of the communist party, and they have in one fell swoop destroyed whatever little culture that was left after the cultural revolution. Just another thing the Communists did for us.

    This grievance is compounded by the fact that not only are simplified characters ugly, their very association with ‘mainlanded-ness’ makes it instantly ‘cheapened’. The closest analogy I can possibly relate this to is akin to the difference between American English and well…English. Why spell colour ‘color’? It serves absolutely no purpose at all but to distort the language from it originated from (I get the feeling I won’t be making any AMerican friends today.) Reading classics in simplified chinese is like reading Shakespeare in bloody American English. A hideous thought.

  57. Kenny,

    The Communists simplified the characters in 1956, well before the Cultural Revolution. It also wasn’t the first character reform in Chinese history. Why aren’t you outraged that characters aren’t still written in their earliest forms?

  58. Kikko Man Says: November 4, 2004 at 7:42 am

    Chinese people say ÇÑ×Ó “qie zi” meaning eggplant when they take a picture. That’s why you hear the zi sound and you have to admit saying eggplant is funny too.

  59. I think Gin is more accurate than the rest of you. But I think the real catalyst for change is technology, TV, cinema, radio, music concerts, etc. Also, the changes will be better understood if the standard of measurement is generation. A generation ago you would have heard haka spoken everywhere in Fukuoka, but today one hears in conversational Japanese the national language. I think this is the trend in most countries, or will be.

    An irony of inporting English words into foreign languages is that the word is probably not “English”; that is, is not a vocabulary term used or descended from a term used by the Anglo-Saxon invaders of England. Also, I would agree with Gin also about ¿á. Once a word becomes popular in a new language setting, it will take on a life of its own determined by the new speakers.

  60. Cool. Now I feel high.

  61. JFS made excellent points.

    “…the real catalyst for change is technology, TV,…” Don’t forget the internet, which is even having an impact on trranslating foreign languages. I remember John described using Google to accomplish looking up Chineese words.

    “Once a word becomes popular in a new language setting, it will take on a life of its own determined by the new speakers. ” “Feel” in Alaric’s examples?

    That “cheese” became “ÇÑ×Ó” causes me to giggle everytime.

  62. Kenny, Your analogy doesn’t hold up. Chinese originated in mainland China. As far as China is concerned, the holdouts in Taiwan and Hong Kong are the ones “in the wrong.” A better analogy would be England’s English going through the transformation…

    Anyway, I’m of the belief that language is organic and human. It’s always changing. Language (no matter what culture) was drastically different 200 years ago than it is today. You can either accept nature, or fruitlessly fight against it…

  63. JFS,

    Once a word becomes popular in a new language setting, it will take on a life of its own determined by the new speakers.

    Well, yeah. That’s sort of a given.

    My point was that I believe the Chinese sort of altered the word ¿á to make it overlap with the English word “cool” while still retaining some of its original nuances. That makes it different from most loanwords. Compare it to ɳ·¢ or something.

  64. I understand your point of view, but I think our view will be colored by whether this is a loan word from English or is a Chinese equivalent word of an English word. If one views this as an equivalent word to the English “cool”, then I would agree with you. But if one thinks this is a loan word in which an hanzi was found that had a meaning similiar to the English, then I would disagree with you.

    This may appear as hair-splitting, but I do not think so. My own opinion is that it is a loan word because of the nature of the word itself. It is more slang, used by young people and is more fashionable, all characteristics of a loan word; rather than an attempt to find an equivalent word in Chinese for an English word, equivalents will usually be assoicated with attempts of to translate.

    But no matter which direction it takes, you will be right in that this particular word is different from most because it has both a sound similiarity and a root meaning that has similiarities in both languages.

  65. And I maintain that it is a transliteration (yes I said translation before) well done, siding with a loan word rather than a equivalent. My reasoning for not calling it a equivalent is that before, nobody in China would say ÁÖÔòÐì×î¿á,ÑϽûѻƬ or Õâ¸öëÖ÷ϯÏñÕ¿ᰡ. There were Àä¿á, ÑÏ¿á, ¿áÐÌ but never the lone word ¿á as an adjective. John says “the Chinese sort of altered the word ¿á to make it overlap with the English word” cool, very true but they have discarded the Àä aspect. The nuances may be there but definition-wise it no longer relates to the original Àä¿á (Brad correctly pointed out it relates to “°ô” and in my youth we said “¾ø¶Ô¸Çñ”–tranlation: absolutely tops). If a Chinese or British commentator says ÁÖÔòÐì½ûѻƬ–¿á, you would not take it to be a snear with any connotation of his act being cold or cruel.

  66. By the way, cruelty can be TRANSLATED as ¿áÐÐ, short for ²Ð¿áÐÐΪ.

  67. Gin,

    What are we arguing again?

    My original statement was “I would argue that ‘¿á’ and ‘cool’ are not the same.” (Again, compare with “ɳ·¢” and “sofa.”)

    Also, I wouldn’t agree completely that “they have discarded the Àä aspect” because ¿á is often used to refer to a guy who is unemotional and indifferent. (See example above.)

    I really don’t see the point in arguing this, though. We all know what the words mean, we just don’t agree on the degree to which ‘¿á’ and ‘cool’ differ in usage. You’re more tolerant in your judgment, and I’m being super picky. Why? Because I have to be — I’d sound like an idiot if I used “¿á” in Chinese the same way that I use “cool” in English.

  68. John,

    Are you sure that this “creeping English” isn’t just a fad in Shanghai? We both know the Shanghainese love to prove how modern and worldly they are. I seriously doubt you’d find these same linguistic trends in rural parts of China, where the bulk of the population lives. And while I’ve heard “pose” used as you described, I haven’t heard “kitty” or “high” used. Moreover, I would rank “cheese” up there with “chocolate,” “salad,” “sandwich,” “hamburger,” and a host of other words that are transliterated because they represent a foreign substance or idea. It would be more significant if “noodles” came to replace the Chinese word.

    Just food for thought.

  69. Hmmm…I guess I must sound like an idiot. I actually do use “¿á” in Chinese the same way I would in English. If anyone laughs, my excuse will be that I was really saying “cool” with a Chinese accent.

  70. John,

    You are right in that we are arguing over not much of a difference. And you defined the difference quite accurately.

    Problem is, after the rounds, I seem to sense that the “influence” in “¿á” is in your mind only. Do the Chinese young people have the trace of influence by Àä¿á in their mind? Back to your original example, “ÎÒϲ»¶¿áµÄÄк¢” Do you really think today’s Chinese young girls would mean someone different from what Western girls consider “cool”? If a polling finds mature female students say there are only three types of boys, ˧µÄ£¬¿áµÄ£¬ÆäÓàµÄ£¬would you then be willing to accept that as being not a bit different from American girls categorizing boys as hot, cool, and the rest? This should be a good linguistic experiment.

    “Hacker” is now “ºÚ¿Í” as Todd cited above. The cleverness in this translation mirrors the ¿á translation. But so does the potential complication: ºÚ has a nagative origin, as in ºÚÊÖ£¬ºÚÔô, ºÚ°ï. Are you going thus to assume “ºÚ¿Í” in Chinese refers only to the hackers that are doing illegal hacking and excludes the legit hackers (the kind employed by banks, law enforcement, etc.)?

    BTW£¬am I wrong in assuming the word “legit” is a “simplified” English word? I’m sure “fridge” is a simplified one.

  71. Gin,

    I think the main difference between English word “cool” and Chinese word “¿á” is that the English word has a much broader application. Do you disagree with this? I don’t see how anyone could.

    For the student learning Chinese, it’s important to note which words have I narrower range of application in the target language. Example: the English word “know.” In Chinese you can’t say “*ÎÒÖªµÀËû” to mean “I know him.”

    Similarly, I think any student of Chinese would be making a mistake to use ¿á in the same way that they would use “cool” in English, because the range of application is different.

    I think it’s also significant to note that a Chinese person learning English will not run into the same problem — using “cool” when they’re thinking “¿á” won’t make strange sentences in English, even though I think the Chinese usage is more focused on the “tough guy” aspect that the English usage. (The influence of the “meaning” of the character ¿á would only be on a subconscious level.)

    That’s why I say they’re not the same.

  72. I agree. Though “¿á” is younger than “cool” and since these are primarily “pop” words, the Chinese youngsters possibly may expand ¿á’s “coverage” or broadness of application. Similarly, I have argued that “high” in Enlgish covers drug high, drink high, and hyper personality whereas Chinese MAY NOT HAVE learned the intoxication applications, yet.

    Your point on the good-ole “know” is right on.

  73. Gin,

    Actually, after thinking about it, I should admit that it is possible that the ¿á meaning carrying over from other Chinese words is all in my head. The narrower Chinese focus could also easily come from a more literal interpretation of the word “cool” that the current American usage. The ºÚ¿Í example is a good one. (I’ve also heard º¦¿Í.)

    It’s impossible to prove conclusively one way or the other, though. You can’t ask people what’s going on in the subconscious when they use a word. And a non-native speaker’s opinion can never be the voice of authority on issues of “feeling” regarding a Chinese character.

    At the risk of overkill, I just wanted to add that I asked my Chinese co-workers to tell me what ¿á meant to them, in Chinese.

    The first thing they said was “¸úÓ¢ÓïÒ»Ñù.” I insisted that they explain, though, and the essence of their definition was Àä. They said you could not describe a Ñô¹âÄк¢ as ¿á.

    That differs a lot from English, because in English someone’s perceived “coolness” is based on the speaker’s own standards of what is cool, and not at all on society’s standards (although admittedly, the two influece each other in both cases).

  74. John:

    Just a few more comments. Quibbling over the details is done quite often in my profession, engineering. It helps sharpen our focus and understanding of the issue. The posts from Gin, yourself and others are quite usefull for me, at least.

    I am puzzled by your last posting on 5 Nov at 11:16 am. The question is not the range of meanings of “cool” in English vs. the range of meanings of ¿á in Chinese, but rather is ¿á in certain applications the loan word “cool” from English. I believe that was the original comment you made, that it was different and therefore not a loan word. I doubt that most loan words in the second language will have the same range of meanings as that word has in its original language.

    I do not have any practical experience with the word “cool” or the word ¿á. Most of the people I do with, in both the English speaking world and the Chinese speaking world, are professionals (Engineers and the like), business people and government officials. Either of those words does not come up in normal conversation. But recently I did have one contact with this word. It was through a round about email concerning another subject, but an individual who is teaching English somewhere in the Pearl River Delta area (I am not sure whether it was Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, or some other there abouts) put for the word ¿á, coming forth from his students. It appeared to me that either in his mind or in the mind of his students that ¿á was much closer to the English use than what you have described. If that is accurate, then there are two questions that come to mind: 1) do you have too narrow of a definition of its usuage, and 2) is there a regional difference in the usuage of ¿á ?

  75. I would support using ºÚ¿Í over º¦¿Í, since the former describes the mysterious and underground nature of that profession while the latter only calls them pesty. And the complication factor I was worrying about would be even more pronounced in the latter.

  76. For a look at when “hacker” was just entering mainstream Chinese, check out the novel ¡¶ÊÀ½çÄ©ÈÕ¡·, an apocalyptic thriller from the early nineties. The protagonist muses on a few different versions; he likes “º£¿Í”, since it captures the unknown origins of a visitor, and still has a whiff of the dark side with its connections to º£µÁ. Apparently at the time there was no non-English term in Japanese, either–are there non-phonetic-translations in other languages? (search for “hacker”)
    My favorite appropriated English is “Сcase”, which for the longest time I thought was “Сkiss”, and although I knew what people meant, I couldn’t imagine how the expression got the meaning it has.

  77. JFS,

    OK, let me lay it out one more time. To be honest, I didn’t think everything completely through as I was replying to most of those comments; I just wrote whatever came to mind at the time. If what I write below contradicts something I said above, it’s because I hadn’t thought it through enough before.

    1. ¿á is a loanword. It hasn’t been used in Chinese as a single character in recent history until the influence of the English word “cool”.

    2. ¿á has a more limited range in Chinese than the English “cool”. This is probably due to the fact that it is a young word (as Gin said).

    3. In my view, the Chinese word ¿á is influenced by the original uses of the character ¿á. But that could also be attributed to literal interpretation of the English word “cool” or of adopting the earliest definitions of the English word “cool”.

    What I originally said was not that ¿á is not a loanword, but that it is not equivalent to the English word “cool” from which it was derived. Loanwords can change dramatically in meaning after importation. Take the Japanese word “baikingu” which comes from the word “Viking.” In Japanese it means “all-you-can-eat buffet.”

    As for your final two questions, 1) I don’t know, and 2) I don’t know.

  78. Your analysis is pretty decent. If I jerked your chain, I apologize; although jerking chains is not all that bad. But what I find remarkable is so many postings on an item concerning language. Rather remarkable and rather interesting.

  79. Speaking of simplification in English, for those who have not set foot on US soil for a while, have you heard of the abbreviation BOGO?

  80. To talk more under this post when I have already talked too much. I would like to add that there are other important driving forces for the increase of popularity of Putonghua in addition to technologies: not the least are transportation and education. The China of yesteryears was not mobile at all given the conservative culture and terribly unsmooth land. Today Shanghai’s and Canton’s workforce is from everywhere. When one in every 3 households employ an Ayi or nanny from far-away provinces, the power base for Shanghainese is weakened at the grass-roots. The advancement of education transforms Putonghua’s role in a greater degree than advertised. When I was in elementary and high school in my mid-sized home city in the not-so-distant past, teachers who spoke down-to-the-earth local dialect or “vinegarized Putonghua (´×ÁïÆÕͨ»°)” counts for the majority. In contrast, kids born after 1980 likely could never have spoken a word of their local dialect in his/her life. If linguists are worried about distinction of some dialects, they should be and they better do some perservation work now.

    Similar to Putonghau’s winning over local languages due to modernization in China, we all know the globaliztion trend is also promoting English as an “international language.” CNN, Yahoo, Sina, Google, the airlines, the schools are all contributing to this. Look, even Pre-K is being taught by high-salaried, high-nosed Johns and Waynes, who are certainly contributing their share.

  81. For more on cool vs. ku, see Time magazine November 1, Asian edition.

  82. Wally,

    Thanks for the tip, but I didn’t find such an article anywhere on Time Asia for Nov. 1st. Unfortunately, searching for it is kind of difficult because I can only access Time via proxy. If anyone else wants to post the correct link, it would be appreciated.

  83. I realize this thread is probably pretty dead by now, but for all these people knowledgeable about the baihua movement, I’m surprised that I’ve only heard about “The communists simplified Chinese.” There have always been people simplifying the Chinese writing system. Even when they were illegal for official use, there were character forms called “suti” that were used for writing stuff quickly by hand. The Nationalist government was the first to try and officially simplify characters, but they met with opposition. The Communists were just the most successful. Also, a lot of the jianti forms are actually archaic forms that have been brought back. Like yun (cloud). (Thank you Jerry Norman’s book Chinese.)
    Anyway, language change will keep marching on as long as children keep learning language, right? Not much you can do but enjoy the ride.

    Also, If anyone knows anything about Hangzhouhua, would you drop me a line? I am studying abroad there next semester and hope to do a project on how well Putonghua has done entering into dialectical areas. The thing is, apparently Hangzhouhua is actually a kind of guanyu (Mandarin) from back when the Song moved their capital there, even though it’s surrounded on all sides by Wu dialect.



  84. back in the 1900’s, democracy was µÂÏÈÉú,
    and almost every other word in Shanghainese was a foreign word, from “gander” to “gasoline” to “science” to “car” to “f—.”

    Then came the “purification” of Chinese language (meaning: importation of Japanese words with Chinese pronunciation) after 1920’s.

  85. Sorry to resurrect this dead post, but I found a couple of data points on the word “high” in Chinese that I’d like to add to the discussion for anybody who wanders across this post in the future. From a Fashion and Lifestyle insert in the free ʱ´ú±¨ newspaper of the Shanghai rail system, on January 14th, 2005:




    Note in particular the third example. Is the word “high” describing Rojam (a popular Shanghai disco)? Rojam is a place, not a person. So high as a condition that a person reaches using drugs is probably not what is being meant here.

  86. In addition to the use of English words there is also the use of acronyms and abbreviations such as KTV and DVD. A popular one in Taiwan that is not even really used in English is DM which stands for “direct marketing” and refers to advertising leaflets.

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