Everybody has been puzzling over the language of the series of online ads for Windows 8 that it recently released in Asia.
- Seattle Times: "Those weird and wacky Windows 8 ads: What language are they in?"
- Forbes: "Microsoft's Asian Windows 8 Ads Are Relatively Insane"
- Mashable: "Windows 8 Releases Kooky Ads in Asia — But in What Language?"
Native speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean declare that it is not any of those languages. The first time I listened to them, the ads sounded as though they contained elements of some Wu topolect, a bit like mangled Shanghainese, but I could also definitely hear bits of Mandarin, albeit with unusual tonal contours and slurring. What was most perplexing of all to me was that, although I was certain that the ads contained Chinese phrases and sentences, every Chinese person to whom I showed them emphatically maintained that they could not understand a single word! In contrast, several non-native speakers of Mandarin said they could pick out a word of Chinese here and there.
Here is a sampling of the scores of replies I received from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean speakers (all native except where otherwise noted):
Mandarin speaker: It's a made-up language.
Speaker of many Chinese topolects: It's gibberish. My wife and I together know all the major non-Mandarin dialects. We listened to the ads, but did not understand any. Who are Microsoft's consumers? Who does it target at?
Mandarin speaker: The kids have invented their own language.
Mandarin speaker: They do not sound like any Chinese language.
Shanghainese speaker: I don't understand any of the words in these ads. They're not like any Wu languages that I know. I guess they speak Microsoftish.
Korean speaker: I'm not sure but I don't think it is Korean. It's funny that MS declined to say what language these commercials are in!
American speaker of Mandarin and a bit of Shanghainese: It does have hints of something Wu but I can't place it.
Speaker of Mandarin and Cantonese: I am too busy to be bothered with those strange ads.
Fluent American speaker of Japanese who also knows a little Korean and Mandarin: First one is Chinese, second one is Korean, third one is very mumbly, probably Japanese based on the actors.
Korean speaker who also knows some Mandarin and Japanese: I have no idea. They aren't speaking in Korean for sure, and it doesn't sound like Japanese either. I only can think that they are speaking in a Chinese dialect (including Taiwanese) or South Asian language.
Korean speaker who also knows some Mandarin and Japanese: I don't recognize the language either. But it will be definitely one of Chinese dialects. Funny commercial though.
Fluent American speaker of Japanese who also knows a bit of Mandarin: Sounds like make-believe Chinese for non speakers. In Italy there's a big tradition of comedians "speaking" various regional dialects by catching just enough of their sounds and rhythms to sound plausible. What was that poem? Mimsy are the borogoves….
Korean speaker who also knows some Mandarin and Japanese: They surely are funny, and I don't know what language they are speaking either. ^^; Microsoft is being weird I guess.
Fluent American speaker of Japanese who also knows some Mandarin: No idea whatsoever.
Speaker of Taiwanese and Mandarin: I could not understand them, either. However, the tones and pronunciation indeed remind me of Korean language. I am not sure whether they are trying to imitate Koreans or not.
Japanese speaker: If you, an outstanding polyglot, can't tell what language they are speaking, how would I know!????? Clever ads. The boys in the 3rd ad are bad pianists but terrific pingpong players!
Fluent American speaker of Korean who also is very advanced in Japanese and Mandarin: No kidding, Victor. Just crazy. A real mystery! Well, the language is definitely not Japanese or Korean, or Mandarin Chinese or any other variety of Chinese I've ever heard. Still, here's my guess: Although it's not Chinese, in the first video there's a ma at the end of a clause, isn't there? And I hear yihou (with the wrong tones) introducing a clause in a set of instructions. That's why I think Microsoft just got some Chinese speakers to start making things up. What I'm saying is that I think it's made-up language, gibberish. Oh, and by the way, the styles of clothing, etc. look Chinesy, at least to me. They don't really look Japanese or Korean.
Speaker of Mandarin and a Hunan topolect: I asked several friends about the three ads. We think the first one may be a Wu topolect 吴方言 (maybe Shanghainese 上海话), the second one like a southwest topolect 西南方言 (maybe Sichuanese 四川话). And we really don't know about the third one. However, we can not confirm with the guess.
Speaker of Mandarin and Hangzhounese: All three ads speak Korean.
Speaker of Shanghainese and Mandarin: Are they foreign students trying to speak Shanghainese? I can't understand any of it.
Fluent American speaker of Mandarin who also know Shanginese and other Wu languages: The ads are entertaining. But I think the language is fake. Though it seems intended to sound like some incomprehensible Chinese dialect. I guess that there is a remote chance that it is real. But I will be really surprised if someone identifies any of it as a real language. The ads were probably filmed in the U.S., maybe the west coast, all in the same room, which if you look closely has hazard signs all printed in English and no Chinese at all.
Speaker of Taiwanese and Mandarin: I do not understand any of them. Quite creative!
Fluent American speaker of Mandarin who also is conversant with Min topolects: There's only enough to listen to in the first one. I hear 人 and 一點 in what sound like Wu forms. I'm surprised, however, not to hear the ubiquitous Wu form of 不.
Speaker of Mandarin and several Wu topolects: It is none of the Yangtze Delta dialects I understand. Check with someone from Fujian or native Tawanese?
Fluent American speaker of Mandarin who also knows a lot about many of the topolects: I do not speak any Wu dialect, but it should be fairly easy to find someone who does and ask them about it. There are Shanghai speakers all over the place in the US now, and Philly must be full of them. I can understand some words and phrases in it, which leads me to suspect that it could perhaps be some form of Mandarin. Southern Mandarin of the Yangtze watershed would be a possibility, it seems to me. Or even some sort of Central Plains Mandarin (中原官話). My wife says she cannot understand a single word of it, which I frankly think is a gross exaggeration due to a psychological block of some kind. (Some people totally shut down when they hear a speech form that is even slightly unfamiliar to them. My wife is one of those people. For example, she also says she can't understand a word of Chaozhou/Shantou, but even I can sometimes catch entire phrases of it when I hear it, and I am not a native speaker of Southern Min. I think she just doesn't want to understand these things.)
A couple of people from China suggested to me that the language might be that of Ruian (near Wenzhou) 瑞安的温州话, which has about 5,000,000 speakers. But I only think they said that because the speech of Ruian is famous for being virtually impossible for outsiders to comprehend in the slightest, so much so that (along with other Wenzhou topolects) it has supposedly been used in wartime as a secret language (e.g., when the Chinese fought against the Vietnamese in 1979).
Due to its long history and the geographical features of the region on which it is located, Wenzhou Chinese is so eccentric in its phonology that it has the reputation of being the "least comprehensible dialect" for an average Mandarin speaker. It preserves some vocabulary from classical Chinese lost elsewhere, and has noticeable grammatical differences from Mandarin.
One of my Chinese friends told me that someone online stated that the female speaker in the first video was from a place in Shanxi called Lishi 離石. But I think that he said that only because that area — like Ruian in Wenzhou — has a reputation for being hard for outsiders to comprehend.
But what do the ads really say, and in what language are they spoken? Here I concentrate only on the first ad because the other two ads have such a small amount of speech, and it is sotto voce.
The first expression spoken in the ad is one of the most ubiquitous utterances in Chinese: zàijiàn 再見 ("goodbye"). It is strange to me that no Chinese speakers could recognize it. Perhaps it is because it comes right at the beginning, is totally out of context, is spoken very quickly, and is not Modern Standard Mandarin.
A bit later comes yǐhòu 以後 ("after"), though with altered tones. The same tonal alteration of yǐhòu 以後 ("after") is heard soon again and then once or twice more later on.
Other words that I hear are the following:
wúlùn 無論 ("regardless")
néng bùnéng wǎn yīdiǎn 能不能晚一點 ("can you [come] a bit later?")
zhèyàng ba 這樣吧 ("like this")
nǐ tīngjiàn 你聽見 ("did you hear?")
pò zhège zhōngguó màozi ("ruining this Chinese hat" [?])
nǐ gàn ma 你幹嘛 ("what are you doing?")
shénme dōngxi 什麼東西 ("what thing?")
yǒu zhème hǎo fǎzi 有這麼好法子 ("there's such a good way" [not sure of the next-to-last syllable])
tèbié 特別 ("special")
wǒ gěi nǐ nòng 我給你弄 ("I'll do it for you")
N.B.: the order of what I've written down here is not necessarily that which is the actual sequence in the video, since I just quickly jotted down what I heard during several passes through the video. I probably can grasp twice again the amount of what I've given here, but this should afford an idea of the nature of the speech. I'm fairly certain that it is basically some variety of Mandarin.
Of course, what the voice is saying is totally unrelated to the actions in the video, so I suppose — in addition to the fast speed and muttered, altered quality of the speech – that is a major factor in causing native speakers of Chinese to aver that they cannot understand anything that is being said. Another problem is that at a number of points the pronunciation is electronically modulated in an unnatural way.
My question to Language Log readers is this: why do foreign speakers of Chinese languages seem to pick up more of these ads than the native Chinese speakers for whom they were intended?
[Thanks to Mark Liberman, Ben Zimmer, W. South Coblin, Bob Ramsey, Richard VanNess Simmons, Sanping Chen, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Xu Wenkan, Zhu Qingzhi, Minglang Zhou, Jidong Yang, Feng Shengli, David Spafford, Frank Chance, Kellen Parker, Nathan Hopson, Grace Wu, Haewon Cho, Gianni Wan, Cheng Fangyi, Rebecca Fu, Daniel Sou, Yunu Song, Sophie Wei, Chin Yi Young, Frank Lin, Summer Hu and her parents, and Stefan Krasowski]