She calls herself Angelababy

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That’s what practically everybody else calls her too.

There’s a great article by Qian Jinghua in Sixth Tone (Fresh voices from today’s China) titled “Call Me Angelababy, Maybe:  Ban on foreign names in Chinese-language press reveals fear of cultural fragility.” (6/30/16)

It’s about a phenomenally popular 27-year-old actress, model, and singer whose Chinese name is 楊穎, which is read as Yáng Yǐng in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) and Joeng4 Wing6 (conventional spelling Yeung Wing) in Cantonese.  Her father, from Hong Kong, is half Chinese and half German, her mother is Shanghainese.  Yang Ying’s stage name, “Angelababy“, by which virtually everyone knows her (most people are uncertain about her Chinese name or don’t know it at all), comes from a combination of her English name “Angela” and her nickname “Baby”.

So what’s all the fuss over her name?

A few close-minded individuals object to the use of English in Chinese.  This is a topic that has come up repeatedly on Language Log, especially around the time of major political events in China.  Even more often have we examined the growing use of English terms and morphemes in Sinitic languages, written both in characters and in Roman letters.  This extended quotation from the Sixth Tone article reveals what’s really at stake:

But ironically, focusing the debate on foreign influences actually serves to obscure the ethnic and linguistic diversity within China. Angelababy’s so-called “Chinese name” is pronounced “Yang Ying” in Mandarin and “Yeung Wing” in Cantonese, just two of the many mutually unintelligible languages in a country whose official script uses Chinese hanzi characters, while regional groups use alphabets ranging from Arabic to Mongolian.

In some ways, the Chinese national language doesn’t play well with others. Non-Han Chinese names have to be altered to fit Mandarin phonic patterns and then transliterated into characters. “Obama” —Aobama — works well; “Clinton” and “Trump,” with their consonant clusters and terminal consonants that don’t exist in Mandarin, have to be rendered into names pronounced “Kelindun” and “Telangpu.”

It’s not just famous foreigners being renamed, either — over 100 million Chinese citizens who are members of non-Han ethnic minorities must have their native-language names translated for official ID cards.

The Roman alphabet is an official part of the Chinese writing system.  Everyone who goes to school in China learns it.  If Angelababy wants to call herself by that name, and if her countless fans also want to call her by that name, it shouldn’t present a problem even when written down.

Let’s ask Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang, Yao Ming, Ne-Yo, Xu Bing, Goh Choo San, Wenlan Chia, Kang-i Sun Chang, Shu-mei Shih, Jing Tsu, Ha Jin, Yiyun Li, Anchee Min, Wendi Deng, Yishan Wong, An Wang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Ang Lee… what they think.  If you look at this long list of hundreds of famous Chinese Americans, you will see that some of them adopt Western sounding names and some retain purely or partially Chinese sounding names.  That’s their prerogative, and I respect them for their individual choices.

If the Chinese character aficionados insist that Angelababy write her name in hanzi, maybe she could try translating it as Tiānshǐbǎobǎo/bǎobèi/yīng’ér/wáwá 天使/宝贝/婴儿/娃娃, etc. or transcribing it as Ānjílābèibǐ 安吉拉/Ānqílā 安琪拉/ Āngēlā 安哥拉(that could also be “Angola”)贝比 (see below for more transcriptions of “baby”).

——–

Glossary of characters in the transcriptions:

ān 安 (“peace; secure”)

jí 吉 (“lucky; auspicious; propitious”)

qí 琪 (“fine jade”)

lā 拉 (“draw; pull”)

bèi 贝 (“shell; cowry”)

bǐ 比 (“compare”)

——–

But then she’d no longer be “Angelababy”, would she?  “Angelababy” is what she wants to be and what her millions of fans want her to be.

My current cultural consultants on the ground in China tell me that, for “baby”, some people will jokingly write bēibǐ 卑鄙 (lit., “mean; despicable”), but that in almost all instances it’s just written “baby” (the English word mixed right in with Chinese) and, when it isn’t, it’s usually written as bǎobèi(r) 宝贝(儿), though běibí 北鼻 (lit., “north-nose”) has lately been gaining popularity in cyberspace (465,000 ghits).

More notes on words for “baby” in current usage submitted by correspondents in China:

1.

One recent (?) development: I’ve seen bǎobǎo 寶寶 (lit., “precious-precious”, i.e., “baby; darling”) being used on WeChat as a cutesy first-person pronoun by young women for whom rénjiā 人家 (“[other] people; somebody else”) is apparently insufficiently cute and girly. Not sure whether anyone does this in speech; certainly nobody I would want to hang out with would. I have heard  bǎobǎo 寶寶 being used as a term of endearment between partners — possibly only by women; would have to think about it — but it’s definitely more commonly used to refer to children, babies, kittens, etc.

2.

My impression is that bǎobèi(r) 宝贝(儿) is more like “darling” whereas bǎobǎo 宝宝 is just for babies. You can call your husband / wife / girlfriend/ boyfriend bǎobèi(r) 宝贝(儿) but not bǎobǎo 宝宝.

3.

I hear bǎobèi 宝贝 less frequently than bǎobǎo 宝宝 (Asking the boss for leave:  bǎobǎo shēngbìngle 宝宝生病了 [“baby is sick”]).  I’ve even heard of a teacher in a language school who addresses all her students as bǎobǎo 宝宝.*  Reminds me of the infantile reduplication which seems to be an increasingly common, though not necessarily a new, phenomenon:  hē nǎinai 吃奶奶 (“drink milk-milk”), shuìjiàojiào 睡觉觉 (“fall asleep-sleep”), chīfànfàn 吃饭饭 (“eat rice-rice”), xiǎogǒugǒu 小狗狗 (“little pup-puppy”)….  And to prove that it’s not only confined to adults addressing children mǎi bāobāo 买包包 (“buy bag-bag”).

*VHM:  Many of the ladies who work in the dining halls, food shops, and restaurants around Penn call ME “Baby”!  That really tickles me.

On the pronunciation of bǎobǎo 寶寶 and other terms for “baby” in Mandarin, see:  “Bèibèi panda” (9/26/15)  Note especially the comments, where many (idiolectal) tonal variants are discussed.

For “baby” talk in a song, listen to this (the singer does some interesting things with the tones).

[Thanks to David Moser, Kaiser Kuo, Gwennie Kuo, David Lancashire, Jeremy Goldkorn, Brendan O’Kane, Matt Smith, and Yixue Yang]



16 Comments

  1. WSM said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

    Seeing how *many* denizens of online Chinese social media spaces enjoy adopting (often nonsensical, always amusing) English sobriquets for themselves, it’s hard to see how anyone could find this too upsetting. Here’s a good, less editorialized summary of what actually transpired and some perspectives from both sides:

    http://news.uschinapress.com/2016/0628/1069557.shtml

    I didn’t take the whole “not pandering to the West” declamation of the original person who submitted the letter as defensiveness; rather as an attempt to focus the discussion on comparatively netural issue of helping readers who might not have any idea who or what an “Agelababy” might be. Interpreting this “furor” (even though it hardly seems to qualify as such) as reflecting fear of foreign influence seems overwrought, especially since many semi-official Chinese authorities quoted in the uschinapress article seemed like they could care less: reactions from the Chinese blogosphere ran the gamut from bemusement to irritation, but not xenophobia.

  2. Guy said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 9:55 pm

    And ironically (or not), in Hong Kong “baby” is written in informal Chinese text as “BB”! Yes, with Roman characters interspersed between Chinese characters. It’s pronounced bi4bi1 in conversation (I’m just learning Cantonese, so perhaps a native speaker can correct me).

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 10:57 pm

    @Guy

    Thank you very much for the important addition of “BB”.

  4. JS said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 11:17 pm

    The tone of the reader’s letter is contempt thinly disguised by an argument from respect for the reader — note repeated use of “洋名,” flippant comments like (paraphrasing) “I’m gonna guess this isn’t the name her parents gave her,” and of course the classic “of course I’m not saying she is 崇洋媚外, I wouldn’t dare.” That said, some of the arguments presented for using foreign names directly are wrong-headed. You do it not because “that’s their actual name, we should respect that” (note that Chinese / Arabic / Hindi / etc. names appear in English media only in information-loss-prone transliteration, duh), but because Roman-letter words have become, at least in a limited way, a part of written Chinese, and thus are sometimes the more direct or only way of expressing an idea (a quoted editor remarks to this effect).

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 11:48 pm

    As for official names, see:

    Naming laws in the People’s Republic of China“:

    “Latin characters, numerals and other non-Chinese symbols are prohibited, as they do not constitute part of a Chinese name under government law. Only Chinese characters are permitted….”

    Note the famous cases of Zhào C 赵C and Wáng “at” 王@ discussed here.

    See also:

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

    A Limitation on Names in the PRC” (4/21/09)

    English Banned in Chinese Writing” (12/23/10)

    A Ban on Roman Letter Acronyms?” (4/21/10)

  6. Jenny Chu said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 12:57 am

    @Guy, I also was going to mention Cantonese BB. This has an interesting use in Hong Kong Chinglish as well, in that it is used without a determiner/article: for example, one can say (or write or text), “I go to dim sum with BB” or “How old is BB?”

    (by the way: Chinglish, to my mind, is a nearly full-fledged creole – I am prepared to defend this although some of it is based on [notoriously unreliable] native speaker intuition from my kids)

  7. Rebecca said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 1:15 am

    I’m curious for no particular reason: Is the “Angela” part of her name specifically English and not, say, German in its pronunciation? (It looks like it could be either, based on the suggested possible transcriptions.)

  8. WSM said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 6:10 am

    @JS You’re right; the letter as a whole reads much more snarkily to me in the cold light of the morning. However most of the bloggers sympathetic to the letter’s argument did maintain a neutral tack that falls short of hostility towards foreign influence. I guess it’s encouraging that there’s such a disparity between various official promulgations on the use of English and notably less “close-minded” sentiment on the ground (at least, the well educated, relatively cosmopolitan ground in places such as Beijing and Shanghai).

    When are we going to get to hear about the Chinese spelling for various friendly phrases as people get ready for the G20? Per Buckley’s tweet.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 6:59 am

    @WSM

    “When are we going to get to hear about the Chinese spelling for various friendly phrases as people get ready for the G20?”

    Did you miss this?

    Spelling with Chinese character(istic)s, pt. 3” (6/30/16)

    If Buckley’s tweet adds something important, please tell us about it. Or copy it for us.

  10. WSM said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 7:10 am

    @Victor Mair: sorry, I did miss that post. Never mind.:)

  11. Victor Mair said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 7:26 am

    Or this, in Shanghaiist:

    Hangzhou government publishes hilarious English pronunciation guide ahead of the G20 summit” (7/5/16)

  12. Eidolon said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 6:27 pm

    It might come as a surprise to many, but most countries enforce naming restrictions: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naming_law. The US, perhaps the best reference for globalism and individualism, leaves the decision up to the states, which implement a variety of different naming rules – from Kentucky not having any naming rules to California, a politically liberal state otherwise, not even allowing diacritics common in European names. Xenophobia might be involved at some level in the PRC case, but then it is probably involved at some level in these other cases, as well. The more important and practical concern is probably orthography. Bureaucrats cannot be expected to read/write every possible character set in the world, and input could also be difficult for the less computer capable. Pronunciation by contrast is not much of a problem, as people living in multi-cultural societies such as the US generally have to learn how to pronounce a person’s name from that person in any case. But writing certainly is.

  13. Eidolon said,

    July 5, 2016 @ 6:45 pm

    I should amend the above by saying “many” instead of “most,” as a precise list of countries & their naming laws is not easily found, as a more detailed search has shown. Nonetheless, I should add that a name such as Angelababy would be restricted in many countries other than China as a *birth name*, at least without going through the process of getting government approval. As a stage/nick name, it is of course not an issue in any Western country I know of. But I think saying that the Chinese government should be comfortable with the idea of having alphabetical “official” names in the PRC because of English’s status as a prestige foreign language is beyond the international standard. Even many European countries disallow names that do not fit within their cultural practice.

  14. amy said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 9:09 pm

    There is some previous discussion about an alternate meaning of BB here, which is very different:
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=12358

  15. Victor Mair said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 9:01 am

    From a Dongbei correspondent:

    On my WeChat ‘moments’ today I find a selfie of a male university student with two other boys and the caption: Bànyè chūlái xuéxí de sān gè bǎobǎo! 半夜出来学习的三个宝宝!(“Three bǎobǎo who have come out to study in the middle of the night!”)

    Not sure what that tells us.

  16. wanda said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

    Pretty sure the name “Ne-Yo” does not come from Chinese at all. Wikipedia says that, “The stage name “Ne-Yo” was coined by Big D Evans, a producer with whom Ne-Yo once worked, because Evans claimed that Ne-Yo sees music as Neo sees the matrix.”

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