Continent Names and Region Names in Chinese

05 Aug 2011

Although not actually very complicated, the names of continents and world regions can trip up a student of Chinese. It’s not the continent names that are hard, it’s that knowing the continent names can lead one to incorrect inferences about the names of various world regions. An AllSet Learning client (this is for you, Stavros!) recently reminded me of this fact. I struggled with this myself not so long ago. Because no one ever took the time to lay it out for me, it took me forever to piece it together on my own.

Basically, the way it works in Chinese is like this:

1. If it’s a continent, it ends with the suffix –. (You can think of as representing the meaning “the continent of….”)
2. If it’s not a whole continent you’re talking about, drop the .

So that means, for example, that “Western Europe” is not ×西欧洲, because it wouldn’t make sense to say “the continent of Western Europe.” Drop the , and you get 西欧, the correct way to say “Western Europe.” It’s as easy as that. (I say “easy,” but I know I said ×西欧洲 quite a few times before anyone ever told me, “we never say that; just say 西欧.”)

These examples below should help drive the point home:

  • 亚洲 – Asia
    • 东亚 – East Asia
    • 东南亚 – Southeast Asia
    • 中东 – the Middle East
  • 欧洲 – Europe
    • 北欧 – Northern Europe
    • 西欧 – Western Europe
    • 东欧 – Eastern Europe
  • 非洲 – Africa
    • 北非 – Northern Africa
    • 南非 – South Africa (the country)
    • 西非 – West Africa
    • 东非 – East Africa
  • 澳洲 – Australia
  • 南极洲 – Antarctica (literally, “South Pole Continent”)
  • 北美洲 – North America
  • 南美洲 – South America

A couple final complications…

1. You don’t often divide either Antarctica or Australia into regions in Chinese
2. You can also say 美洲, which means something like “the Americas”
3. Because 北美洲 and 南美洲 already have cardinal directions built into their names, it’s awkward to try to use the short form (like ×东北美 or something).

So the world region names are actually pretty simple, no ke…

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John Pasden

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

Comments

  1. Carl Johan Says: August 5, 2011 at 9:39 am

    Even if you say that they are easy, you are at least using some words up there that I have not heard spoken.

    北美 and 南美 appear much more natural to me when referring to North and South America. 南极洲 I have actually never seen in use, and I would think 南极 would be used rather often as well, even if it can be misunderstood as “The South Pole”.

    My personal guess is that this is because 2-character expressions are more natural (and more common) than 3-character expressions in Chinese

    • Yes, 北美, 南美, and 南极 are all commonly used. The point I was trying to make was when you use 洲 and when you don’t. Those three are all continents, so you can use it.

    • In fact, when we talk about Antarctica in a geographical and scientific circumstance, we actually use 南极洲. 南极 would be a larger area than 南极洲, because in Chinese, 南极洲 just refers to the very continent, but 南极 could include the sea.

      in addition, 2-character expressions are more natural (and more common) than 3-character expressions is wrong, maybe 2-character vocabulary is more than 3-character vocabulary, but that dosn’t mean they are more natural (or common as you said).

  2. Hey, interesting piece as ever, thanks. Just one quibble though, isn’t 澳洲 better translated as Australasia? As I understand it, 澳大利亚 and 新西兰 are IN 澳洲, even though I agree that when people say 澳洲 they tend to mean Australia. Like us, Chinese people don’t always use their own language correctly though – Australia the country isn’t actually a continent in itself. It shares a continent with New Zealand and some tiny islands.

    Or do I have it wrong?

    • Thanks, Aelred.

      This is one of those issues that gets really complicated really fast. I elected to leave this out of the post itself, because I was going for something simple and short.

      I’ve come to understand that the exact name and geographical range of the 澳洲 continent varies quite a bit from country to country, since, as Wikipedia says, continents “are generally identified by convention rather than any strict criteria.” Check out the Wikipedia continent article for more on that.

      • Geographers may quibble about it, but in general conversation I think 澳洲 and 澳大利亚 are both equivalent, and refer to Australia. The former seems to be used more by older Chinese speakers, while the latter is the newer, “official” name for Australia. Also:

        大洋洲 – Oceania

      • This is a little like how, in English, the USA is referred to in general as “America”, even though there’s North, Central and South America, and the USA is only in the North.

    • In my experience, I’ve always heard Australia referred to as 澳大利亚 by mainlanders, but every Taiwanese person I know frowns when I’ve said 澳大利亚, and insists on saying 澳洲. Of course I don’t know how accurately this reflects the usage of the two.

  3. Great! Thank you so much for this article. I’ve been meaning to practice these.

  4. jen_not_jenny Says: August 5, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    “…no 洲ke.” groannn

  5. Woah that pun was excellent. I always love some cross-linguistic punning. Interesting post though.

  6. Interesting, thanks. What about Southern Africa (not the country)?

  7. Matthew Stinson Says: August 6, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Good post, John.

    What always messes me up is the difference between the Middle East (中东) and Central Asia (中亚?) in Chinese. This affects my students because they also mix up the Middle East and Central Asia in English.

  8. At least in Singapore the Mandarin news programmes and newspapers used to say/write 纽西兰 for New Zealand, but since last year or thereabouts adopted the name 新西兰. The news programmes have also been referring to Australia, the country, as 澳洲, using the continent’s name. They corrected it around last year as well, to the current 澳大利亚. Indonesia was called 印尼 in the Singapore press, but of late has been referred to as 印度尼西亚. I suppose these were done to align with how the rest of the Mandarin world might refer to these countries.

    I’m not sure how often changes to Chinese translations for place names are made. I remember Seoul was once 汉城, but was later referred to as 首尔.

    • 纽西兰 seems to me to be more a Hong Kong/Taiwan thing, so maybe Singapore’s move to use 新西兰 is a symptom of them getting closer to the Mainland. I always thought of 印尼 as a contraction of 印度尼西亚 and I hear 印尼 used a lot in informal speech here. And I thought it was South Korea that moved to change Seoul’s Chinese name to 首尔 as it closer represents the Korean pronunciation of the city’s name?

    • Chinese translations for place names are not changed very often. In the case of Seoul, Seoul mayor proclaimed that the Chinese name of Seoul was changed from 汉城 to 首尔 in 2005, because the pronunciation of 首尔 is more similar to the pronunciation of Seoul, and it literally means “the most important city”. By the way,汉城 is the ancient name of this city.

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