Biscriptal juxtaposition in Chinese

« previous post | next post »

We have often seen how the Roman alphabet is creeping into Chinese writing, both for expressing English words and morphemes that have been borrowed into Chinese, but also increasingly for writing Mandarin and other varieties of Chinese in Pinyin (spelling).  Here are just a few earlier Language Log posts dealing with this phenomenon:

"A New Morpheme in Mandarin" (4/26/11)

"Zhao C: a Man Who Lost His Name" (2/27/09)

"Creeping Romanization in Chinese" (8/30/12)

Now an even more intricate application of alphabetic usage is developing in internet writing, namely, the juxtaposition and intertwining of simultaneous phrases with contrasting meaning.  Here are a couple of examples:

1. 他温[fu]文[hei]尔[dou]雅[bi].

The romanization of that would be:  Tā wēn [fu] wén [hei] ěr [dou] yǎ [bi].

Separating out the characters from the romanization, we have:

a. 他温文尔雅

b. fuhei doubi

Converting b. to characters, we get:

c. 腹黑逗比 (with tones added, the romanization is fùhēi dòubǐ)

1a. means "He is gentle, cultured, and refined in manners" (usually said of males)

1c. means "He is malicious / scheming and funny / zany"

fùhēi 腹黑 (lit., "belly black") is a word from Japanese anime culture (haraguroi 腹黒い) that signifies someone who is superficially kind and nice, but inwardly mean and cruel

The whole sentence, with characters and romanization mixed together, is superficially saying one thing while, as though under one's breath, at the same time saying just the opposite.  Thus, "On the surface he seems to be gentle, cultured, and refined, but inside he is actually crafty and zany."

2. 就这么顺[tian]理[bu]成[zhi]章[chi]地说服了自己,她安心地实施计划.

Romanized, that would be:  Jiù zhème shùn [tian] lǐ [bu] chéng [zhi] zhāng [chi] de shuōfúle zìjǐ, tā ānxīn dì shíshī jìhuà

Separating out the characters from the romanization, we have:

a. 就这么顺理成章地说服了自己,她安心地实施计划.

b. tianbuzhichi

Converting b. to characters, we get:

c. 恬不知耻/恥 (with tones added, the romanization is tiánbùzhīchǐ)

2a. means "Following the natural logic of things, she persuaded herself and confidently carried out her plan without any worry."

2c. means "shamelessly"

The whole sentence, with characters and romanization mixed together, is saying that "[It seemed that,] following the natural logic of things, she persuaded herself and confidently carried out her plan without any worry, [but in fact she did so] without any sense of shame."

Here's a short article in Chinese from the Hangzhou Daily explaining how this works and giving some more examples.

It's interesting that, when I looked up "biscriptal" on the web, many of the references had to do with reading development in Chinese children who also know English or with "alexia" and "dyslexia" in individuals who are bilingual and use two different scripts (e.g., Chinese or Japanese and an alphabetical script).  It seems that there is a clear differential in the ability of persons with these disorders to process the two scripts.  The literature on this subject is abundant, and it appears to be of great importance for psycholinguistics.  I think it would be rewarding to do a thorough comparative study, based on the already available research results, of the way in which alexic and dyslexic bilingual individuals read the two scripts with which they are familiar.

One study I did read showed that children in Singapore who grow up learning both English and Mandarin from a young age display a clear disparity in the way that the home language affects their ability to master the respective scripts.  The ability to progress in English is less dependent on having it spoken at home, whereas the ability of children to progress in reading Mandarin is much more dependent on having it spoken at home.  I believe this is a highly significant finding.

In the following paragraphs I'll briefly introduce a few new types of playful language usage that may be found online in China, especially among young people.  Not all of them involve Pinyin and characters, but one way or another they rely on unusual approaches to the phonetics of characters.  N.B.:  all of the examples are taken from online fiction.

1. Fusing the sounds of characters

E.g.: bù zhīdào 不知道 ("don't know") –> bù zào 不造 (lit., "don't make / create", but actually here standing for "dunno")

Cf. "bur'ao" that I wrote about here:  "OMG moments induced by allegro forms in Pekingese"

See also this comment to another post.

2. Elision of syllables

bù míngbái dànshì juédé lìhài 不明白但是觉得厉害 ("didn't understand, but felt that he was really fierce / sharp") –> bùmíng jué lì 不明觉厉 (ditto)

3. Intentional homophonous error

shēnjǐng bīng 深井冰 (lit., "deep well ice"), but standing for shénjīng bìng 神经病 ("neuropathy") or 神精病 ("mental illness")

This was probably initially due to misentry using Pinyin without tones, but kept as a cute euphemism.  This sort of thing is rampant in youthwrite and, as we have often seen on LLog, is a favorite tactic of people who want to avoid the lìhài 厉害 ("fierce") web censors and web police.

4. Transcription of English words into Chinese

a. kāngmǔ áng, běibí 康姆昂, 北鼻! ("come on, baby!")

b. tā sòng wǒ gè àifēng, wǒ sòng tā gè niúpái 他送我个爱疯,我送他个牛排 (lit., "He gave me a love-crazy and I have him a steak", but the sentence should actually be interpreted as "He gave me an iPhone and I gave him a new [i]Pad")

All of these tricks, crosslinguistic and otherwise, are very common on the internet in China.

But let me close with a spectacular instance from Taiwan that reveals the complex nature of the Chinese writing system and its relationship to spoken language perhaps better than any of the above examples.  That is 吐槽, which is pronounced tǔcáo in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) and whose surface signification is "spit-trough / slot / manger / groove", which obviously doesn't mean anything sensible, so it must be a transcription of something, but what?

Before we go hunting for what might be the source of 吐槽 and try to figure out what it means, we need to confront another totally different way to write the same expression, and that is 黜臭, which is pronounced chùchòu in MSM and whose surface signification is "dismiss / remove / expel stench / odor".  That might make some sort of sense, but it doesn't quite jibe with how the word is used in daily speech, namely, "pull away a prop / support; disclose / reveal someone's [embarrassing] secret / shortcoming".

In any event, 黜臭 has been designated by the Taiwan Ministry of Education as the official Hanzi orthography for the Taiwanese term under discussion.

Many people in Taiwan believe that 吐槽 conveys the sounds of the morphemes in question, which we may take for granted, while 黜臭 conveys their meaning.  I have my doubts about that, though, since tǔcáo and chùchòu are phonologically within the same ballpark.  Tǔcáo 吐槽 is actually the Mandarin transcription of the Taiwanese term, which is pronounced thuh-tshàu (or thuh-chhàu in POJ Romanization).  Furthermore, it is still quite a stretch from "dismiss / remove / expel stench / odor" to "pull away a prop / support; disclose / reveal someone's [embarrassing] secret / shortcomings".

Now, when Taiwanese (the same holds true for speakers of other topolects) have an expression in their spoken language that they're not sure how to write, then they go looking for its běnzì 本字 ("original characters").  (See here and here for an explanation of this concept.)

The problem with thuh-tshàu is that it's a new expression.  It came out of nowhere and entered Taiwanese speech, but initially did not exist in writing.  We can get a good sense for how old the expression is in Taiwanese from the fact that it is a new term which belongs to the sub-culture of young people.  From my very limited survey of Taiwanese speakers, it would seem that people who are over about forty years of age do not use it in speech, much less in writing.  Consequently, how could there possibly be any "original characters" for it.  But the concept of and the faith in běnzì 本字 ("original characters") die hard.  Hanzi enthusiasts want to believe that there is a Chinese character for every morpheme in the language, but this is clearly not the case.

One informant in his seventies, who was a Taiwanese language specialist and teacher his whole life, told a colleague that he never says thuh-tshàu, much less writes <吐槽 or 黜臭.  Instead, he would use piak-khang (l裂 洞)for "reveal someone's shortcoming".

Various sources associate tǔcáo 吐槽 / thuh-tshàu 黜臭 ("disclose someone's shortcomings") with the Japanese term tsukkomi 突っ込み, which refers to the role of the straight man in manzai comedy plays.  The name tsukkomi 突っ込み refers to his "butting in" and correcting the errors and blunders of the boke (the funny guy in these plays).

In MSM, 突込 would be pronounced tūyū and means "barge / crowd into").

Here are some of the ways to write the Taiwanese term thuh-tshàu ("disclose / reveal someone's shortcomings / faults / errors") that I have come across.  Except for the last variant, which is half Taiwanese romanization, I give the MSM pronunciations of the characters, and I also provide literal renderings of the constituent graphs.

a. tǔcáo 吐槽 ("spit-trough / slot / manger / groove")

b. chùchòu 黜臭 ("expel stench")

c. tuōchòu 托臭 ("entrust stench")

d. tǔcáo 吐嘈 ("spit noisy")

e. túchòu 扌突 [these two components should be one character that is untypable for me]臭 ("brusque / rude / abrupt stench")

f. thuh-tshàu thuh臭 ("?? stench")

I submit that, taking these variants (all of which seem to have arisen in recent decades) into consideration, we may come to the following conclusions:

1. There is a Taiwanese term thuh-tshàu that means "disclose / reveal someone's shortcomings / faults / errors".

2. Nobody is sure how to write it in Chinese characters.

3. Various combinations of characters have been proposed for writing thuh-tshàu, all of which, when pronounced in MSM, only approximate the Taiwanese sound of the word in question.

4. Some of the combinations place more emphasis on conveying some aspects of the meaning of thuh-tshàu, whereas some are concerned mainly or wholly with transcribing the sound.

5. Taiwanese thuh-tshàu has been borrowed into Taiwan Mandarin and is written there in various Sinographic forms, but has spread to the Mainland mainly as tǔcáo 吐槽.

6. Especially because of form e. above, I suspect that thuh-tshàu may ultimately derive from Japanese tsukkomi 突っ込み, the straight man who butts in to point out the foibles of the buffoon in manzai comedy.

Such are the vagaries of Chinese writing, particularly when it comes up against terms from speech or from other languages for which there are no securely assigned characters.


Sophie Ling-chia Wei, "The Influence of Semantic Transcription on the Sinitic Languages," Sino-Platonic Papers, 224 (May, 2012), 73-87 covers many such terms in Taiwan Mandarin (tǔcáo 吐槽 is on pp. 82-83). (free pdf here)

[Thanks to Michael Cannings, Grace Wu, Li, Khin-huann, Cao Lin, Rebecca Fu, Sophie Wei, and Ziwei He]



  1. Wentao said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 12:02 am

    Reading the biscriptal juxtapositions is so much fun! It reminds me of both parenthetical remarks in English ("Read: XXX") and the Japanese furigana. Personally I'd like to call it Furi-pinyin.

    I suspect 深井冰 might also have some topolectal influences? I'm not sure if the exact tone pattern exists, but it certainly sounds like a plausible variety of Mandarin to me.

  2. richardelguru said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 6:48 am

    Bit like those wacky mediæval monks with their macaronic verse:
    "Of all creatures women be best/Cuius contrarium verum est"

  3. William Steed said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 9:27 pm

    Chinese lends itself very well to the likes of 1 and 2, given that the four-character idioms are so common, and so commonly match syllable by syllable.

    A related one is puns in the Japanese translation of Harry Potter, such as the (K)Night Bus, where furigana were used to deliver the English language pun. On the whole, the Japanese translations of HP seem to have some excellent word play. See:

  4. Victor Mair said,

    August 19, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

    Some good illustrations here:

  5. JQ said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 12:39 am

    This whole parenthetical thing seems very unwieldy to me. Unlike Wentao, I don't find it fun at all because it slows down my reading speed by at least 4x.

    It would work in printed or handwritten materials with ruby characters a la furigana, where I can scan horizontally on 2 lines more or less simultaneously, but having to read (more or less) the same area of the screen twice is very jarring.

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment