A variable, transcriptional Chinese character

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Gloria Bien sent in the following photograph and asked what to make of the Chinese text in it, especially the unusual character 叻, which is pronounced lè in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM; but see below for the Cantonese pronunciation and meaning). Wenlin says it's part of a name for Singapore, but not used alone, as it is in this picture. Google says Overseas Chinese use it for Singapore. But, as Gloria observes, "I'm the most Singapore" doesn't make sense.

This is from a package of noodles from Emeryville, CA, and says "Product of China," but complex characters are used throughout.

Here's what the Chinese says (transcribing the characters in MSM):

Huáng shīfu gōngfu liǎodé, dǎmiàn wǒ zuì lè!

黃師傅功夫了得,打麵我最叻!

"Master Huang has remarkable kung fu! I am
(–> he is / we are [i.e., our shop / company]) is the best at making noodles!".

All of the translation software systems that I've tried this on fail miserably to provide an intelligible rendering of these two clauses.

For extensive notes on "kung fu", see this post. Its essential meaning here is "skill (attained through long practice and concentrated discipline)".

Dǎmiàn 打麵 ("make noodles", lit., "beat noodles [with a bamboo stick]", which is illustrated in the above photograph) also throws translation software for a loop, because it is not in MSM. The term would seem to have originated in Cantonese along with the technique, but it is present in other Southern topolects as well.

Although liǎodé 了得 ("terrible; amazing; able, capable; settle; understand, know") has been in Chinese since the medieval period (over a thousand years ago), its polysemous quality and colloquial flavor also pose challenges for translators.

However, it is the last, five-stroke character, 叻, that is most troublesome for readers of MSM who are not familiar with Cantonese.

Basically, in Cantonese 叻 is used to transcribe the sound (lek1) of an adjective meaning "clever; smart; competent; good at (some skill)", but it also has the Cantonese pronunciations lik1 lak6, in which case it indicates an alternative name for Singapore as used by overseas Chinese.

For a list of many Cantonese compounds containing the syllable lek1 and lek1 as used in example sentences, see here.

When I was living in Singapore, I very much enjoyed eating a dish called laksa, the name of which is transcribed in Chinese characters as 叻沙 (Cantonese lak6 saa1, MSM le4 sha1). This is a spicy, prawn-based Chinese-Malay (i.e., Peranakan) noodle soup. The origin of the word "laksa" is unclear, but it may come from Hindi-Persian lakhshah, referring to a type of vermicelli.  Perhaps through an attempt to Sinicize the name, laksa has also become known in Chinese as làshā 辣沙 ("spicy-sandy", which some people explain as derived from its hot, gritty [because of the many shrimp heads and shells in it] quality). Since là 辣 has a final -t in the southern topolects that have preserved the entering tones, làshā 辣沙 is not a viable candidate as a source for the name laksa.

We have already seen that another use for 叻 is as an alternative designation for Singapore. Again, though, nobody knows for sure the derivation of the usage. Singapore (which comes from Sanskrit ["Lion City"], through Malay) used to be known as Shílèpō 石叻坡 (lit., "Stone-lak-slope"), which sort of sounds like "Singapore", so perhaps the usage of 叻 as an alternative designation for the "Lion City" is an abbreviation of that Chinese transcription. It is also claimed that Shílèpō 石叻坡 comes from the Malay term "selat" which means "straits", with the pō 坡 ("slope") serving to indicate a place name. I have my doubts about this because both 石 and 叻 have a final consonant (-k, -t, -g) in the southern topolects with entering tones, so 石叻 pronounced in the relevant southern topolects would not sound like "selat".

Regardless of its derivation, 叻 was a widely used Chinese designation for Singapore, as in the name of the Singapore newspaper called Lè bào 叻报. 叻 is also used to transcribe the Thai word "rath" meaning "state; country".

In the end, 叻 appears to be a highly versatile character possessing many meanings. In point of fact, 叻 — in and of itself — doesn't really mean anything. In all its many uses that I know of, it is used to convey the sounds of diverse morphemes from various languages. One might think that 叻, and other such transcriptional characters, would offer the possibility of evolving into a syllabary. Unfortunately, Chinese transcriptional characters do not indicate a specific, constant sound, but vary from topolect to topolect (and even within topolects) and from language to language. Thus 叻 is pronounced lè in MSM, lak6 lek1 lik1 in Cantonese, let8 lit8 | liak8 liag6 in Hakka, la̍t, le̍k in Taiwanese, rath when referring to Thai, roku ryoku in Japanese, sựt in Vietnamese, and there are countless other pronunciations in other topolects and languages. Clearly, relying on transcriptional characters like 叻 is not a workable path for the development of a phonetic script for China.

[Thanks to Geoff Wade, Bob Bauer, Yilise, Stephan Stiller, Caixia Liu, Fangyi Cheng, and Janet Williams]



19 Comments

  1. Jenny Tsu said,

    February 25, 2014 @ 12:09 am

    About a year ago when I was in a hardware store in Hong Kong looking for stain (I was planning to stain an unfinished wood cabinet from Ikea), I came across that character. I had described what I wanted to one hardware store owner, and he didn't have it, but I asked him to write it down. One of the characters was surely this one (although I don't remember the other one – I only happen to remember this one because at first glance I got it confused with 加), and it was pronouned Lik1.

    Now what does *that* have to do with Singapore, noodles, or cleverness?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2014 @ 12:33 am

    @Jenny Tsu

    Interesting tale!

    Since the word that the hardware store owner wrote down was made up of more than one character, perhaps what he wrote was a Chinese character transcription of the English word "lacquer", with 叻 standing for the first syllable. (The Chinese word for "lacquer" is qī 漆.)

    There are two things about your interesting tale that do not surprise me:

    1. that 叻 might have represented a syllable of an English word

    2. that you would have confused 叻 and 加 (that's entirely understandable [and pardonable])

  3. Simon P said,

    February 25, 2014 @ 3:39 am

    叻 "lek1" is a very common word in Cantonese and you hear it all the time (especially if you're a Canto-speaking caucasian). I tried to google up some image examples, but most of the results are images of popular Hong Kong TV and movie star Nat Chan 陳百祥, or "阿叻", as he's often called.

    I did find this poster, though: http://www.change4health.gov.hk/filemanager/publications/en/upload/26/doh_poster.jpg

  4. Hyman Rosen said,

    February 25, 2014 @ 3:42 am

    "Lokshen" are (egg) noodles in Yiddish, often seen as "lokshen kugel" (noodle pudding).

  5. Adrian Morgan said,

    February 25, 2014 @ 7:26 am

    I see the Unicode description for 叻 gives the Mandarin pronunciation "LE4", the Cantonese pronunciations "lak6 lek1 lik1", and the definition "used in place names; (Cant.) smart, clever)".

    The word "laksa" is of course familiar to anyone who browses the powdered soups section at the supermarket, particularly the Asian range of flavours. I have a few packets of dehydrated laksa in my cupboard right now.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    February 25, 2014 @ 8:46 am

    @Jenny Tsu

    I was very happy to receive this note from Bob Bauer, which indicates that the supposition I put forward above in response to your comment is correct:

    =====

    Cantonese 叻㗎 lek1 gaa2, lik1 gaa2 is loan from Eng. 'lacquer'; also written and pronounced as 叻架 lik1 gaa3/2.

    =====

  7. Mara K said,

    February 25, 2014 @ 9:45 am

    @Hyman how are you defining "pudding"? I see kugel as more like a casserole.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 25, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

    If I may continue the hijacking, M-W says "lokshen" is "Yiddish (pl. of loksh noodle), fr. Russ dial loksha, of Turkic origin; akin to Uigur & Kazan Tatar lakča noodles, Chavash läškä". So are those Turkic words the source of the Hindi-Persian word or vice-versa?

    "Pudding" has a wide variety of meanings, including "black pudding" (blood sausage) and "white pudding" (sausage containing bread and oatmeal). My great-aunt who brought the same dish to every Thanksgiving called it "noodle pudding". It's even a little sweet.

  9. Michael Rank said,

    February 25, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

    Beats me how 叻 is pronounced sựt in Vietnamese, but Sino-
    Vietnamese seems to give rise to lots of bizarre pronunciations, a glimmer of enlightenment would be welcome.

  10. Janet Williams said,

    February 25, 2014 @ 6:01 pm

    In old letters from Chinese relatives to my mother in Singapore 30 years ago, the character 叻 was often used to mean Singapore. See evidence in Letters from China: Part 7 and Part 3.

  11. Jenny Tsu said,

    February 25, 2014 @ 6:51 pm

    @Victor Mair + Bob Bauer: Yes, that was quite probably the one! Also interesting to know that it wasn't stain, but lacquer, that the hardware store guy thought I wanted. Or, does it mean that 叻㗎 also refers to stain as well as lacquer? To give some additional complication to the matter, the hardware store was in North Point, which has a high concentration of Fukkienese-speakers (Fujianese? not sure how to write it in English), and thus there is a lot of variation in the Cantonese spoken there. Don't remember if the guy had an accent though.

    @Michael Rank: there is SOME rhyme & reason to Sino-Vietnamese; the typical t/s correspondence for example. But I agree that whoever was in charge has a lot of explaining to do!

  12. Victor Mair said,

    February 26, 2014 @ 6:31 pm

    Some useful links from Leander Seah:

    http://infopedia.nl.sg/articles/SIP_33_2005-01-11.html

    http://www.lib.nus.edu.sg/lebao/index.htm

    https://www.google.com/search?q=yillise&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&channel=sb#channel=sb&q=lat+pau+singapore&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official

  13. David B Solnit said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 6:12 pm

    @Michael Rank, Jenny Tsu: Vietnamese initial s- can descend from velar+liquid clusters; e.g. sông 'river' is cognate with forms like kroŋ in other Mon-Khmer languages. So that Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation that puzzles you may be evidence that the Chinese source started with *kl- or *kr-, with the k- dropped in all (?) later Sinitic languages. This could also relate to the reason that 力 lì appears to be phonetic in 加 jiā (< *ka).
    There's undoubtedly more to be said; that's what I can come up with without access to lots of reference material.

  14. Jean-Michel said,

    February 27, 2014 @ 11:56 pm

    According to Wikipedia, Proto-Viet-Muong had a native kr initial, which in Vietnamese evolved into ks and finally to just s. So if 力 were borrowed at an early enough date, it would've retained the Old Chinese *kr- and undergone the same change as native words with the same initial, resulting in 力 with an s initial. Some Vietnamese readings of 立 (Mandarin , Old Chinese reconstructed by Baxter-Sagart as *krəp) also reflect this: sầm, sập, sụp.

  15. Kwan said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 7:07 am

    I don't understand why the Chinese languages, including Cantonese, has to develop a phonetic script. Why can't they just be as it is? The implication seems to be that phonetic languages are somehow superior, and that the Sino ideographic languages are backward.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 7:16 am

    @Kwan

    "I don't understand why the Chinese languages, including Cantonese, has to develop a phonetic script."

    Of course, none of the Chinese languages HAS to develop a phonetic script, but many of them ARE developing phonetic scripts.

    " Why can't they just be as it is?"

    It's not in the nature of things for them to remain in stasis. As the Yi jing tells us, things are always changing.

    "The implication seems to be that phonetic languages are somehow superior, and that the Sino ideographic languages are backward."

    That's your interpretation.

  17. Stephan Stiller said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 1:09 am

    @Kwan
    One important thing to keep in mind is that it isn't accurate to say that some language is "phonetic". It's the writing system or orthography that can be of varying degrees of phoneticity. Linguists also talk of "grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences" (more precisely this means: correspondences between grapheme clusters and phoneme strings).
    To give an answer, people seem to process (most) writing phonetically. The more phonetic a writing system is, the easier it is for the common person to attain literacy. Illiteracy creates class divisions. Phonetic writing systems are more practical for languages in present-day use.

  18. brandon seah said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

    Since 石叻 was discussed, I thought I'd mention this book 石叻古迹(http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_5de4db230100cdnh.html), which is a collection of essays on antiquarian subjects relating to Singapore and Nanyang. In that book I think they subscribe to the 石叻 = "Silat" etymology.

  19. nqa2 said,

    June 16, 2014 @ 2:41 am

    old letters from Chinese relatives to my mother in Singapore 30 years ago, the character 叻 was often used to mean Singapore

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