Smile, Say “Eggplant!”: English Loanwords in Chinese

This morning, I checked my email on my Pingguo diannao, then I laced up my A Di Da Si sneakers and walked over to the local Xing Ba Ke for some kafei. I could use their wi-fi to check out the news, and I saw that Ao Ba Ma was holding a meeting with the president of Luowangda in Huashengdun. Then I went to the Wa’erma and bought some Ao Li Ou cookies. I also stopped at Yi Jia Jia. I was feeling a bit peckish, so I went to the Maidanglao around the corner and got a nice big cup of Ke Kou Ke Le.

How much of that sentence did you (my non-Chinese-speaking readers) get? All of those words I used were Chinese transliterations of English brand names, place names, and country names. (Check the end of this post to see a “translation” of what I wrote, or try to guess for yourself)

One of the biggest signs of globalization in China that you see in everyday life here is how English has been absorbed into spoken and written Chinese. Even people who speak little to no English say farewell with a hearty “bai-bai” rather than “zai jian”. My students in Yunnan frequently yelled “Oh my god!” when I informed them that they would have a test that week. It’s common to hear people inserting English words mid-sentence (a linguistic phenomenon known as code-switching), sometimes for effect and sometimes because there’s no real equivalent for that word in Chinese. And as I demonstrated above, Western brands and proper nouns get Sinified for ease of pronunciation and so they can be written in characters.

I find the Sinification of brand names in China particularly interesting, especially because not only does the Chinese name have to evoke the phonetics of the original name, but the characters have to have a positive (or at least neutral) meaning — no brand wants the embarrassment of picking a name that means something lewd, derogatory, or just plain strange in one of its target markets. For example, the Iranian cleaning product line Barf — which means “snow” in Farsi — obviously didn’t sell too well in the English-speaking world, because few people would want to wash their dishes with Barf or put Barf in their washing machines. Many products with “mist” in their name either don’t sell well or are renamed in German-speaking markets because “mist” means “manure” in German. Obviously, companies want to avoid such mishaps when they expand to China and other Chinese-speaking countries or regions, and choose their syllables and characters carefully.

Some companies don’t go for phonetic similarity, and instead go for literal meaning; my Pingguo computer was first thought up by none other than Steve Jobs – Pingguo means “apple” in Chinese. Xing Ba Ke is a combination of phonetic similarity and meaning: Xing means “star” (now guess what Xing Ba Ke is in English).

Western companies who want the Chinese version of their brand name to sound close to the original pronunciation also try to make sure the Chinese name has a positive meaning or relates to their product. The French hypermarket chain Carrefour chose the name Jia Le Fu for its launch in China; the characters they used translate to “home/family”, “happiness”, and “prosperity”, respectively. “Happy and Prosperous Family” is a very apt name for a store that sells groceries and household wares. Ke Kou Ke Le translates roughly to “delicious and fun” — obviously, the makers of Coca-Cola wanted their Chinese name to reflect the tastiness and upbeat image of their soft drink. In a particularly culturally aware move, the cosmetics company Revlon chose their Chinese name (Lou Hua Nong) from a poem by Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (though Revlon is now calling it quits in China due to poor sales and local competition).

In addition, famous Westerners and countries get their own Chinese names so they can be written in characters and Chinese speakers don’t have to switch to English to say their names. They, too, must use characters with neutral or positive meanings that also line up with the original pronunciation (for instance, the wrong phonetic characters could render “President Bush” as “Is not the President”). Perhaps you watched Ao Ba Ma give the State of the Union, or listened to a song by Bi Bo (Justin Bieber) or Jie Ke Xun (Michael Jackson). One of the best transliterations I’ve seen is the Taiwanese name for the Beatles: Pi Tou Si (the mop-head four). Place names must also take meaning into consideration: Athens’ Chinese name, Yadian, translates to “elegant and classical”. America is known as Meiguo, or the “beautiful country”.

However, adapting English words into Chinese isn’t limited to brand names or celebrities. While at any big tourist attraction, you may hear Chinese tour groups saying “Qiezi!” (approximately pronounced chyeh-zih) as they pose for a photo. Qiezi translates to “eggplant”, but its pronunciation is close to the English word “cheese”. Many people in China like to start their morning with a steaming mug of “kafei” (coffee), and then have a “san ming zhi” (sandwich — approximately pronounced san ming jih) for lunch.

In one interesting twist, in recent decades, Chinese has also taken a loanword from Japanese, whereas in the days of emperors, the reverse was the norm: on a Saturday night, you and some friends might go out to sing Kala OK (Karaoke, though the Chinese transcription is based on the Japanese pronunciation, not carry-okie, as we say in English). Edit: Karaoke itself is a loanword — a compound of the Japanese word “kara” (empty) and “okesutura” (Japanese transcription of orchestra).

While on one hand many people (including me) have mixed feelings about the effects of globalization and Westernization on Chinese culture and language, it’s heartening and interesting to see how the encroaching influence of English can be transformed and adapted to fit into China’s own linguistic heritage and identity. To me, it shows that even though Chinese is thousands upon thousands of years old, old languages can still learn new tricks and survive through the ages. And who knows? Maybe one day the tables will turn and we English speakers will have to adapt more and more Chinese words and brands to English!

Now, see if you can guess the original names of these places, people, and brands! (hints to help you: x is pronounced like “sh”, but more in the front of the mouth, with your tongue touching your teeth; e sounds like “uh”, i sounds like “ih” if it’s after an S, C, SH, CH, or ZH and “ee” otherwise; ou is pronounced “oh”, and c is pronounced like “ts”)

Yi Da Li

Bi Ang Si

Ken Ni Ya

Wa Er Ma

Ao Da Li Ya

Bai Si Mai

Hua Sheng Dun

Bi Er Gai Ci

Ha Li Bo Te

Lou Shan Ji

Mei Bao Lian

Ke Lin Dun

Translation of my first paragraph: This morning, I checked my email on my Apple computer, then I laced up my Adidas sneakers and walked over to the local Starbucks for some coffee. I could use their wi-fi to check out the news, and I saw that Obama was holding a meeting with the president of Rwanda in Washington. Then I went to the Wal-Mart and bought some Oreo cookies. I also stopped at Ikea. I was feeling a bit peckish, so I went to the McDonald’s around the corner and got a nice big cup of Coca-Cola.

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