Dec 2004

Code Switching in the Car

Code switching: a term in linguistics referring to alternating between one or more languages or dialects in the middle of discourse between people who have more than one language in common.Wikipedia

I was riding with my girlfriend in her car. We were pulling up to my apartment, and the guard was motioning to her.

Legend: SHH=上海话 (Shanghainese), PTH=普通话 (Mandarin)

> Her (SHH): Can’t I park here?

> Guard (SHH): No, you need to park over there.

> Her (SHH): Oh, over there?

> Guard (SHH): Yeah.

> Her (PTH): OK, got it, thanks.

> Guard (SHH): No problem.

> Me (PTH): Why did you use Mandarin just now?

> Her (PTH): I wasn’t sure if he knew Shanghainese.

> Me (PTH): What are you talking about? He spoke to you in Shanghainese, and you were replying at first in Shanghainese.

> Her (PTH): Oh.

> Me (PTH): So why did you switch?

> Her (PTH): I don’t know. Why are you giving me a hard time?

Ever since I first came to Shanghai I’ve been trying to figure out if there’s any pattern to the way bilingual speakers in Shanghai use Shanghainese and Mandarin. There are some obvious general patterns, but other times (as in the above example) there seems to be no reason at all.

It’s a little frustrating. Most people don’t pay much attention to their own natural linguistic processes and aren’t too keen on metalinguistic self-examinations either, which doesn’t help my understanding any.

Don’t Chinese people know they’re all supposed to be cooperating with me on this “understanding the Chinese language” thing?


Nov 2004

Hunting! Ha ha!

Happy Thanksgiving

My company has been doing some Thanksgiving activities lately. It’s my responsibility to help design the activities to make them educational both in basic vocabulary as well as in cultural content. It’s also my responsibility to execute some of the activities. This involves such excellent speaking opportunities as explaining in Chinese to a group of kids the basic history and traditions of American Thanksgiving.

So the other day I found myself explaining to some kindergarteners about the Indians (my company’s choice of vocabulary, not mine). It seems that the Chinese would be happy to portray them as ridiculous savages, so I go out of my way to make them seem badass in their own way. I tell the kids how the Indians were really in tune with nature, and how they knew all about the plants and animals, and how they never had problems finding food on the land.

During my narration I mentioned that the Indians would hunt. I used the Chinese word ´òÁÔ. A simple translation. But when I used the word, I noticed that one of my co-workers laughed. I was suddenly self-conscious. Did I pronounce the word wrong? ´ò: third tone, ÁÔ: fourth tone. No, no problems there…. So what could have been funny about that?

Afterward I asked her why she laughed when I said ´òÁÔ. Laughing again, she replied, “kids don’t know that word!” I was a little confused. I felt pretty sure the word is not at all formal or complicated. Huh?

I asked for clarification. “What, because no one hunts in China?”

“Right. It’s just not something they ever come into contact with.”

Whaaat…? Were these city kids really that removed from nature? But, when I thought about it, it actually made sense. So then I thought about the USA. Why does “hunt” seem like such a basic word to me, even in modern society? Is it partly because of the role “Indians” still play in our culture? Is it because of the American pioneers? Is it because the word “hunt” has crossed over into so many other areas of the language, like “Easter egg hunt” and “manhunt?”

OK, there’s a really obvious reason: that there are actually large sections of America where hunting is considered a legitimate form of recreation. There are gun freaks and gun shows. “Hunt” is the only acceptable verbal refuge for what they do with their guns. And the USA still has lots of land where animals roam free.

In China, I’m guessing, the majority of “hunting” that goes on is “poaching.” It’s pretty clear that the average Chinese person has seen very little wildlife (in a natural setting) in his lifetime. If you go on a trip to Huangshan or some other mountain, you can witness Chinese people freaking out in glee over a brief squirrel sighting.

But animals and overpopulation: vehicle for linguistic change? Weird thought.

P.S. Maybe it’s all in my head, but I feel unable to write normally due to my recent obsession with Daily Dinosaur Comics. If you read them, you’ll understand why. I must read them all….


Nov 2004

Accidental Obscenity

I was teaching some kindergarteners today, holding up a picture of a frog:

Me: What’s this?

Kids: ÇàÍÜ!

Me: Say “frog.”

Kids: Flock!

Me: ffffff…rrrrrrr…ahhhhhhh…g!

Kids: ffffff…rrrrrrr…ahhhhhhh…g!

Me: Frog!

Kids: FROG!

[5 minutes pass]

Me: What’s this?

Kids: FUCK!

Hmmm… close?


Nov 2004

Calvin & Hobbes in Chinese!

Ever since I first started reading it as a kid, I’ve always been a huge fan of Calvin & Hobbes. No other comic strip has ever impressed me on so many levels. I remember when I first came to China and brought presents for the special Chinese people that helped me get on my feet, the most prized ones I would give away were Calvin & Hobbes collections. They were one of the few really good items I could think of that you couldn’t get in China.

But that was back in 2000. Today at Shanghai’s Scholar bookstore (思考乐) in Xujiahui, I stumbled upon these:

Calvin & Hobbes in Chinese

The store had Something Under the Bed is Drooling, Revenge of the Babysat, Yukon Ho!, and Weirdos from Another Planet. Notably absent was the original self-titled collection. I’m really stoked that the Chinese can now share in this cultural treasure.

After I got over my excitement, though, I started wondering… how good could the translations be? The titles of the two books I picked up were translated OK. Something Under the Bed is Drooling became “Who is under the bed drooling?” (谁在床下流口水), and Yukon Ho! became “Off to the North Pole” (到北极去).

More disappointing were the names of the two main characters. Most fans know that Calvin was named for theologian John Calvin, and Hobbes was named for political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. I know I’m no translator, so maybe there were good reasons, but it was sad to see Hobbes’ name translated as something like “Jumpy Tiger” (跳跳虎). That name seems much more appropriate to Winnie the Pooh’s friend Tigger, whose Chinese name also happens to be — guess what? — 跳跳虎. “Hobbes” in Chinese is 霍布斯. Not cute enough, I suppose.

Calvin’s name became 卡尔文, which is very close to the preferred Chinese transcription of the theologian’s name, 加尔文. Unfortunately, the transcription 卡尔文 is the one used for Calvin Klein’s Chinese name.

But what’s in a name? The real test is how the comics themselves read. I don’t have the books anymore; I sent them home with my girlfriend under strict instructions to read and enjoy ASAP. Hopefully I’ll know soon. If she doesn’t love Calvin & Hobbes, I’ll be forced to conclude that the comics must be poorly translated into Chinese.


Nov 2004

Number Character Variants

If you’ve studied Chinese characters, you know that each number has its own Chinese character. As a joke, many Chinese-illiterate foreigners boast that they know three Chinese characters: 一 二 三 (1, 2, 3). After 3, though, the characters start getting a little harder to remember.

Or do they? Recently I discovered this little-known character: . It means 4. I didn’t find a similar one for 5, though.

Still, there’s a lot more to Chinese number characters below the surface. One set of “standard variants” are the 大写 (“capital”) characters used on checks and other transactions. Banks require their use on forms. Each digit 0-9, as well as 10, 100, and 1000 has a “capital” form, much more difficult to alter than a 一.

In the following chart, the first column is European numerals (that’s right, I didn’t say Arabic numerals, and I did it on purpose), the second column is the standard Chinese character, and the third column is the “capital” Chinese character.

Chinese Numbers

Still, there are a lot more variants than the official “capital” forms. Check out the following ones. Standard non-capital forms are in bold.

  • 1 弌 (all pronounced yī)
  • 2 弍 弐 (all pronounced èr)
  • 3 弎 (all pronounced sān)
  • 4 亖 (all pronounced sì)
  • 20 二十 廿
  • 30 三十
  • 40 四十

How many more can there be? I don’t know. I’d be interested to learn, though.

Note: The European number system is used everywhere in China and has been for some time. Traditional Chinese numbers are sometimes used as well, however.

Related Link: 大写数字wiki

Update: Thanks to zhwj for his additions to the list.


Nov 2004

To hanzify or not to hanzify…

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!


Oct 2004

Translation Runaround

After reading my first article on the new group Chinese blog ³öÓï²»Ë×, Tian liked it so much that he decided to translate it.

So the article that I have written in Chinese, a second language to me, has been translated into English by a Chinese person for whom English is a second language. Crazy.


Oct 2004

The Moon Represents My Heart

The moon represents my heart. I wince when I type out this sentence. It’s terribly awkward English, but I really don’t know how else to translate it. I’m no accomplished translator or anything, but I’ve given this quite a bit of thought and come up with nothing better.

月亮代表我的心 (“The Moon Represents My Heart”) is an extremely famous song in China. Most foreigners here know it, and every Chinese person seems to know it. It’s a pretty simple song, but I just can’t seem to translate that line. I’m of the opinion that pretty much anything has a good translation if the translator is clever enough. I’m ready for someone cleverer than I to show me the way.

Even if I can’t translate its title well, after four years of living in China I’ve developed something of an affection for the song. I think it’s sort of a mandatory study for anyone living in this culture.

I feel a bit silly about it, but after searching a bit for a good translation of the song and downloading different versions of it via Baidu’s MP3 search, I thought I might as well put this stuff online for other people to benefit from as well. I even made it kinda pretty, I think.

Check it: Sinosplice’s 月亮代表我的心 page. (Get the MP3s now if you want them — if they drive my bandwidth up much I’ll have to take them down.)


Oct 2004

Hanzi Smatter

Hey Westerners! Did you ever wonder how Asians feel about sites like, a site which pokes fun of Asians’ botched attempts at using English? Well, now you don’t have to — you can experience this feeling firsthand!

Tian, a commenter on this site, has recently started up a new blog dedicated to this very topic. The title of the blog is Hanzi Smatter: 一知半解, with this short description under it: Dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters (Han Zi; or 汉字) in Western culture.

一知半解 is a chengyu which Wenlin defines as “half-baked” and my New Age Chinese-English Dictionary defines as “having only a smattering of knowledge.” Literally it means something like “knowing but only half understanding.” (For more chengyu in a digestible dosage, check out

If you have any examples that Tian could put in his blog, I’m sure he’d appreciate the submissions. I just sent him a photo taken in Australia of a guy’s tattoo. View Tian’s contact info for his e-mail.


Sep 2004


What makes a person fat? The Chinese have a simple 4-part answer:

The charm of the answer lies in the fact that each of the four “causes” is pronounced in basically the same way, written “tang” in pinyin. Each one has a different tone, though, which makes it fun. When Chinese people hear the answer they have to think for a second, running through their mental dictionaries, matching up the proper tones to the four corresponding concepts.

Charming answers are all well and good, but to a Westerner, two of the four make no sense at all. Let me give you a run-down.

糖 means “sugar.” This idea has been around for quite a while. Eating sweets will make you fat. Nothing strange here.

躺 means “lie down.” Again, it comes as no surprise the assertion that inactivity leads to weight gain.

汤 means “soup.” This one I don’t get. Eating soup will make you fat?? I always thought that the high proportion of water in soup would cause you to fill up on liquid if you ate a lot of it, and water isn’t going to make you fat. This answer goes contrary to that. I talked to some Chinese people who agreed that eating soup does, indeed, cause one to gain weight. I’m kinda baffled.

烫 means “hot.” The idea is that eating hot food will cause you to put on weight. This just seems utterly ridiculous. Sure, heat can denature proteins in food, but come on! Again, I found some Chinese friends who agreed with this viewpoint. I’m mystified.


Sep 2004

Telling Anecdotes


Overheard in the office:


> Girl A: 索性的索是…?

> Girl B: 索尼的索。

> Girl A: 哦,知道了。

> Girl A: Which character is the 索 in 索性? [索性 is a not uncommon Chinese adverb meaning “simply.”]

> Girl B: The same as in “Sony”.
[索尼 is the Chinese transliteration for “Sony.” Its characters are meaningless, chosen for phonetic value only.]

> Girl A: Oh, got it!


I recently had the 抽油烟机 in my apartment fixed. I’m not sure what it is in English. Literally translated, it would be “oil smoke sucking machine.” It’s more than just a hood and exhaust fan for the cooking range. Because Chinese cooking uses so much oil and the oil goes into the air during the cooking process, this appliance helps suck in that oil and collect it. As I have discovered, if you don’t have a “oil smoke sucking machine” or it doesn’t work properly, the area around the cooking range gets covered with a thin layer of sticky oil residue every time you cook. Nasty.

So yesterday my landlord showed up to collect the rent, and he brought a repairman with him. Some valve in the exhaust duct had gotten stuck shut. Easily remedied.

What amused me was the way the repairman checked to see if the exhaust fan was drawing in the air. In the past I had used a piece of tissue. He just lit up right in my kitchen and used the cigarette smoke to test it. Of course, after testing the fan he also finished the cigarette.


A Chinese friend of mine made this comparison recently:

America’s September 11th is like China’s 1989 incident. When the anniversary rolls around, security gets tightened big time.

I know it’s an innocent (and true) comment about security, but I felt emotional spasms of revulsion inside when I heard a comparison being made between the two incidents. I don’t think I have to go into why.

(Linguistically, there’s another similarity. As with several holidays and other historical anniversaries in China, the 1989 tragedy is referred to in Chinese by the numbers corresponding to its date. It’s called 6-4 — for June 4th — in Chinese. In the same way, the American tragedy is referred to as 9-1-1 in Chinese.)

P.S. Happy Moon Festival!


Sep 2004

Pinyin Tooltips

A while ago Matt from Metanoiac asked me how I do my pinyin tooltips. I was too busy at the time to reply, but since maybe other people are interested in how I do it, I’ll give a public explanation here. (Warning: for those of you with no Chinese-related weblog, this is going to be a very long, boring post.)


“Tooltips” are the little text boxes that pop up when you hover your mouse on certain elements. The picture at left is an example. Internet Explorer (IE) users may be used to using the alt attribute to add tooltips to photos, but this is actually a web design no-no. Non-IE browsers do not display alt attributes as tooltips (this is not the intended purpose of alt), and anyway, alt attributes don’t work for non-photo elements like text. The correct attribute to use is the title attribute.

So you need to use the title attribute to get the tooltip, but what tag does it go inside, and how do you get the dotted underline and the question mark cursor? You need to use CSS for that.

The tag you’ll use is span. All you have to do is define a span class in your CSS. I call mine “info” because it doesn’t have to be used only for pinyin tooltips. {
   border-bottom:1px dotted #00AAFF;
   cursor: help;

This means the underline (which is actually defined as a border) is 1 pixel thick. “#00AAFF” is its color. The onmouseover cursor value is defined as “help“, which results in the question mark effect.

Then you can use it in your HTML like this:

<span class="info">text</span>


This will give the underline and cursor effect, but not the tooltip. You still need to add in the title attribute:

<span class="info" title="pinyin">text</span>


I’m guessing you want the pinyin tone marks too, though. For that, you’ll need to make sure that your page is encoded in Unicode (most people use UTF-8)*.

For the actual pinyin, I use the Pinyin to Unicode converter at The Fool’s Workshop. It’s very easy to use. Type in “zhong1wen2” and click Convert. You get “zhōngwén” back. Then you just copy and paste. Simple.

Here’s what that HTML would look like after you copy and paste:

<span class="info" title="zhōngwén">中文</span>


This does mean, however, that you’ll have to convert the pinyin for each word you want to provide pinyin for, which is a bit of a pain. But the result is nice.

Also, it’s worth noting that the tooltip is not going to look good on some old computers or computers using weird fonts for their browsers. It’s a helpful effect for a lot of people, but you probably don’t want to make it central to your design.

* By this I mean that in your webpage’s html the <head> section should include the following metatag:

<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html;charset=UTF-8" />

If your webpage is encoded in Unicode and you’re using Movable Type like me, it will make your life easier if the default encoding of your edit screen is also Unicode. To do that, just edit the mt.cfg file. You need to find “PublishCharset“. For me it was on line 313 (of 457 total lines). Yours should be similar. Uncomment that line (delete the ‘#’) and change it to:

PublishCharset UTF-8

Thanks goes to John B, who originally showed me how to do this.


Aug 2004

Getting in Deeper

Recently I had a chance to tour three of Shanghai’s main universities as part of a last-ditch effort to find someone for my company ASAP. The idea was to visit schools with Chinese study programs, find the foreigners, and possibly recruit a qualified one. I chose a really hot day to do it. In one day I covered Shanghai Jiao Tong University (上海交通大学), then East China Normal University (华东师范大学), and finally Shanghai International Studies University (上海外国语大学). (Notably absent from this list is Fudan University (复旦大学), but I’ve heard really bad things aboput their Chinese studies program, and it’s not in a convenient location, so I skipped it.)

Handing out my fliers to strangers was kind of a weird feeling. I felt like some suspicious salesman trying to perpetrate a scam, or like one of the Chinese promoters on the street attempting to persuade foreigners to come to her restaurant or bar. The difference, of course, was that I was just trying to find one good person for an actually decent job. But it still felt sketchy.

All of the campuses were nicer than I expected. Quite green, with lots of space. Like most Chinese college campuses, the teaching buildings were a mixture of old structures falling into disrepair and newer, more architecturally “inspired” creations with such modern wonders as elevators.

East China Normal University struck me as the most picturesque, with its emerald green streams cutting through campus and shady tree-lined streets. However, East China Normal University also flung its foreign students into an inconvenient corner of campus, a place which aesthetics seemed to overlook.

Shanghai International Studies University seemed very modern. It was also quite small, and I didn’t find any foreign students. (I think they are actually on a different campus than the one that I went to by the Hongkou Soccer Stadium.)

East China Normal University happens to be the school at which I’m considering doing a master’s in applied linguistics. During my lunch break I had time to inquire about the possibility. It turns out there are actually two applied linguistics programs; one is under the Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language Department (对外汉语系), the other is under the Chinese Department (中文系). They recommended I look into the Chinese Department program. Even though the program in the Chinese Department will be more difficult, it has a better reputation in China. I went along with that. I was sent to talk to the Dean of the Chinese Department.

That’s when things started getting scary. The Dean talked to me about the requirements for me to enter the program. I need an HSK score of 6. I have a 7. No problem. Since I’m a foreign student, the foreign language requirement is waived. Great. There are also four entrance examinations prospective grad students need to take. (gulp!) I would only need to take two. Excellent. One was Foundations of Chinese (汉语基础). I was confused for a second. Didn’t they trust my HSK score? No, that’s different. The HSK verifies that I know Chinese. The Foundations of Chinese test verifies that I know about Chinese. Structure and features of modern Chinese grammar, Chinese phonology, special features of Chinese characters, rhetoric, etc. Oh great. I haven’t really studied that. The other test is a Writing Composition test. Uh-oh.

Naturally, these tests made me a bit apprehensive about the whole deal. I talked to the dean about it, and it seems they’re willing to cut me a little slack, but I’m still going to have to bust my ass. They want me in the program, but I’m going to have to really work. Since I don’t want to start until Fall 2005, I have time to study the necessary material on my own. These are the books I was told to pick up: Modern Chinese (现代汉语), Problems in Chinese Grammar Analysis (汉语语法分析问题), Selected Readings from the West on Linguistics (西方语言学名著选读), and Essentials of Linguistics (语言学纲要). I don’t expect much trouble from the latter two other than just absorbing the Chinese for all the linguistic jargon I mostly already know. But the first might two may pose some diffilculty for me to tackle on my own. I think it’s time to start hunting for a tutor again.

Wow, this is looking like quite a challenge. But it’s a challenge I want. So, I guess it’s time to hit those books….


Jul 2004

What Does an Alien Sound Like When it Speaks Chinese?

My company is still busy preparing a bunch of short educational cartoons. They’re supposed to air on CCTV at the end of August, I think. (I’ll let you all know.)

Anyway, I seem to have been typecast. Last time I played the voice of a slow-witted pig named “Dudu” (the Chinese think this name is cute, and even after they found out what “doo-doo” means in English, refused to change his name!). For this recent run of cartoons, the cast has been changed, and I now play the part of a different pig character named “Asta.” (I have no idea where that name came from; a lot of our characters’ names are strange, to my chagrin.)

Why do they keep sticking me with the pig role?? I guess it’s because (1) I do it well; not many of the others can alter their voices much at all, (2) he’s the only character that can feasibly have a relatively deep voice, and (3) he’s dim-witted and speaks slowly, so it’s an easier part for the foreigner to handle. Sad but true.

This time there’s also an alien in the cast. When our parts were assigned, the question arose: what should the alien’s voice sound like? That was an especially tough question for me. Chinese is not my mother tongue — how am I supposed to know what an alien would sound like in Chinese? And yet everyone turned to me, as the “voice-change expert” to come up with something good.

What we ended up doing was making the alien’s voice monotone, like a stereotypical robot’s. The obvious linguistic problem with that is how can you make a tonal language monotone and still keep it intelligible? It was actually a bit of a problem. We managed to fix it, however. None of the alien’s lines were too complex, but in order to keep monotone Chinese readily intelligible, pauses were key. Once again, I don’t know why, but they turned to me for guidance. I seemed to be better at breaking up the Chinese sentences into discrete chunks of meaning than they were*. They all agreed the alien’s lines were easier to understand after my recommended pauses were inserted.

So we have already finished the latest batch of 10 cartoons. My pig lines were a snap, and I think I’m actually getting better at it. The alien’s voice, once altered by Cool Edit Pro, actually sounds pretty cool. And it’s always a real joy (in an educational way, of course) to see native speakers screwing up Chinese lines, even on such fundamental issues as tones. (And I’m not talking about the alien’s lines, either.)

This job of mine remains very interesting.

* One reason this was especially interesting was I was just reading about this kind of thing in The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, my current read. It is really a fascinating read for anyone at all interested in language. A lot of the linguistics in it I have already studied, but it’s still not boring (except maybe for Chapter 4). It was published in 1994, but is hardly dated at all yet.


May 2004

The Name Nazi Defied

Some time ago I become known as the “Name Nazi” at ZUCC, the school in Hangzhou where I used to teach. Allow me to explain.

If you know anything at all about teaching in China, you know that Chinese students usually have English names. You also know that the names they choose are often ridiculous, bizarre, and/or funny. A few real-life examples: Fantasy (boy), No-No (girl), Snoopy (girl), Icy Cat (boy), Shiny (girl).

After grinning and bearing it for two years, I decided not to put up with these names anymore. When students I taught had ridiculous English names, I told them they had to change their name. They would often protest, saying they had used the name for years already. I would tell them, “well, you can keep it, but you can’t use it in my class. Pick a real name.” Then I would hand them a big long list of popular baby names that they could choose from.

I would try to win them over with reason. My reasons are below.

Why Choosing a Silly English Name is not a Good Idea

  1. If you ever go overseas, you will be laughed at. You’ll think it’s funny at first, but you’ll eventually realize your English name is stupid and change it. Why not sooner than later? Save yourself the grief.
  2. How people are named in a language is a part of the culture. By ignoring this process, you are completely disregarding a part of the culture. While this may not be outright offensive to native speakers, it certainly isn’t impressive. Why not take the chance to learn about the culture of the language you’re studying?
  3. Names are chosen in a certain way. We choose names from baby name books, relatives, movie stars. We do not choose names from dictionaries or take the names of cute cartoon characters. Just as Chinese people would never choose a name like 孙悟空 or 烤面包 for their babies, you shouldn’t do it in English either. It’s not impossible to create a good English name, but it’s also not an easy thing to do, and if you’re not a native speaker, you probably cannot judge what sounds good and what doesn’t.
  4. Names are a kind of vocabulary. When you hear “Mary” you know instantly that it’s a woman’s name because you learned it long ago as a woman’s name. You know it’s not a verb, or an adjective, or any noun other than a person. It’s firmly in your “name vocabulary.” The more English names you hear with frequency, the bigger your “name vocabulary” grows. This is an important part of your English development. Your classmates’ English names should all be contributing positively to your “name vocabulary,” not junking it up with ridiculous non-names.

So those are my reasons. That’s why I’m the Name Nazi. People say I take the issue too seriously, but honestly, you really do get tired of the stupid names after a few years, and my class is not playtime. I’m a serious teacher, so I expect my students to take learning English seriously in my class. And that includes names. We have fun in my classes, but not by calling each other stupid English names.

Flash forward to last week. Gwyneth Paltrow recently had a baby girl and named it Apple. Apple!!! What a dumb name! (Other people agree with me on this one.) “Apple” is one of the non-names I used to forbid during my tenure at ZUCC, and for some reason Chinese girls used to looove to choose that name. And now Gwyneth is directly attacking my efforts! Arrgh!

At my new job I continue the mission of the Name Nazi. Many of these Chinese kids get their English name in kindergarten. I’m making sure none of the teachers are assigning ridiculous names (and oh, you better believe they were). The source I use for “good names” is the Social Security Online Baby Name page. It’s great.

Speaking of names, I recently discovered a new Japanese band with a pretty cool name (keep in mind the guys who named the band are not native speakers of English). Asian Kung-Fu Generation. No, you haven’t had enough of emo, because Japan is not through with it yet! They have pretty cool retro style artwork on their CDs too. Check out this song called 君という花 (A Flower called You).


May 2004

Debating “You’re Welcome”

One of the first phrases a student of a foreign language learns is “thank you,” followed closely by “you’re welcome.” Every culture has etiquette, and these two phrases are about as basic as etiquette can get. It’s best to keep things simple for a new learner. One-to-one vocabulary correspondences are easiest to accept for memorization.

When I learned Spanish, it was gracias and de nada. When I learned Japanese it was arigatou gozaimasu and dou itashimashite. For Chinese, it was xièxie and bú kèqi.

In English, there are actually a variety of ways to express both “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” I tend to stick with “thanks” and “no problem.” It’s only natural that such variety exist in foreign languages as well, but somehow it seems to cause problems.

Soon after arriving in China, I learned that a lot of the Chinese I learned in the classroom was specific to Beijing, and that it didn’t match what I was hearing around me. I quickly discarded nǎr (“where”) for nǎli, huār (“flower”) for huā, etc. I also started saying bú yòng xiè (literally, “you don’t need to thank me”) for “you’re welcome” instead of bú kèqi.

I used bú yòng xiè almost exclusively for a long time. Then I began to realize that if Chinese people can mix it up, I should have a little more variety in my usage as well. I started using mei guanxi (literally, “it doesn’t matter”) for “you’re welcome.” Pretty soon it had completely replaced bú yòng xiè.

Then there was a short period of time when I switched back to bu keqi (literally, “don’t be polite”), the form of “you’re welcome” I had originally learned. I didn’t stick with that one for long though, because it feels more northern to me and I don’t like that.

I noticed today that I’m using méi guānxi all the time again. I think I want to switch back to bú yòng xiè, it just has the nicest feel to me.

My point is that I can’t seem to be able to “mix it up” like I originally planned. I can switch which form I use, but then I tend to use that one form all the time. Is this actually difficult?? Should I just be content with using one form all the time like I do for the most part in English?

In any case, it’s not a problem. Just one of those little linguistic issues I ponder and probably no one else cares at all about….


May 2004

Creeping Japanese

Japanese was my major in college, but I’ve barely used it in these three years (almost four) that I’ve been in China. A testament to the worthlessness of a language degree? Or of any degree? Or have I just chosen a “career path” which renders my major particularly ineffectual?

I remember in my final year at UF I won an award for outstanding Japanese major of the year (I beat out the three other people in my class), and I was presented with a copy of the Koujien (広辞苑), Japan’s authoritative Japanese-Japanese dictionary. It’s quite a beast. Anyway, at that mini ceremony, my Japanese professor said to me, “I hear you’re going to China. I hope we don’t lose you. You wouldn’t be the first one to switch over to Chinese.”

Quite some time ago I resigned myself to the fact that Japanese had, indeed, lost me. Nevertheless, I’m finding that the Japanese I learned is staying in my brain, albeit rather dormant. Every time I go back to Japan, I can be speaking fairly fluently (like I used to) after three days of immersion. It seems a shame to waste it.

And now, in Shanghai, I find Japanese slowly creeping back into my life.

My next door neighbor in Shanghai is a Japanese girl that works for JAL.

Recently someone at the office needed help deciphering a Japanese address. The Japanese simplifications of the traditional Chinese characters left her very confused, so I had to show her how to write the address. (For the character 豐, the PRC has simplified it as 丰, but the Japanese write it as 豊. For 縣, the PRC uses 县, not the Japanese 県.)

Yesterday at my favorite DVD store I found four complete seasons of Ranma 1/2 on DVD (24 DVDs). I remember getting a kick out of those in college (hey, it’s educational!). I picked them up.

Tomorrow there’s a Japanese teacher coming to the office to do a teaching technique demonstration. I’m going to be here anyway, so I’m going to stick around and watch (and possibly offer my interpretation services).

I’ve already decided that I need to get back into Japanese. I’m going to find a tutor soon. Japanese will be useful in my future, and I’m not going to let it go. Then there’s also my good friends in Japan. If I quit on Japanese, I’m pretty much quitting on my relationships with them too.


May 2004

Alcohol Vocab

I want to add more Chinese study material to Sinosplice, and the latest is a vocabulary list. Of Western alcohol. You won’t find any form of baijiu on the list, but if you ever wanted to know how to say “Guinness” or “Jim Beam” or “Sex on the Beach” in Chinese, this is for you.

It’s noteworthy that many of these names do not have a standard name (especially mixed drinks), so many variations are possible, but the names in my list have all been verified through online sources and/or in actual Chinese bars.

Some of the ones I find interesting:

  1. Sex on the Beach. The literal Chinese is “sexy beach.” I guess a faithful translation would be too racy for printing on a menu in a Chinese bar?
  2. Absolut. In Chinese, it’s just “Swedish vodka.” Boooooring. The name in English is kinda cool.
  3. Cocktail. It’s literally “chicken tail alcohol.” Of all words to translate absolutely literally (which the Chinese don’t really do so often), why this one??
  4. Draught beer. It seems that in the south it’s more often called sheng pi (生啤), whereas the north prefers to call it zha pi (扎啤). Sheng pi means “raw beer.” (It also happens to be exactly the same thing the Japanese call it: 生ビール.) I really like that. “I’ll have a beer. Make it RAW.” Badass.
  5. Smirnoff. In Chinese it means “imperial crown.” Since the Chinese name sounds nothing like the actual name, I’m guessing that’s a translation of the Russian. Cool. Learning Russian through Chinese through booze. How scholarly. [Update: That guess was wrong. See comment #14.]

Sinosplice vocabulary: Alcohol

Special thanks to Brad F and Brendan, who helped me a bit with my research.

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