For the last couple of weeks we've been focusing on loans from Chinese and Japanese into English and from English into Chinese and Japanese. In this post, I'd like to demonstrate the intricate intertwining of Mandarin, topolectal Chinese, Japanese, and English, with Japanese providing for Chinese two key terms from comic book culture. All of these things are illustrated in the following promotional item that Nuno Sobral stumbled upon in the QQ music app:
This seems to say:
zhème kě'ài 這麼可愛
yīdìng shì nán háizi 一定是囡孩子
(*"it must be a boy")
méng nán • zhèngtài 萌男•正太
(*"budding boy • truly too")
yīgè dōu bùnéng shǎo 一個都不能少
("not one should be omitted" OR "not one should be left out")
kě'ài nánshēng • méng fān nǐ 可愛男生 • MV萌翻你
(*"lovely boy • MV budding will turn you")
Of course, this is a highly unsatisfactory understanding, but it's the best that most people who are not "hip" to the new borrowings from Japanese and alert to topolectal nuances will be able to do. Here and below, when I say "most people", I'm talking about those who are literate in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), but are not au courant with the latest trends in popular usage.
In the second line, most people would know neither the sound nor the meaning of 囡, but the fact that it is annotated with Pinyin as nán suggests that we should understand it as nán 男 ("male"), since nán háizi 男孩子 ("boy") is a very common lexical item in MSM, and nán háizi 囡孩子 seems to be another way of writing that, albeit a very weird way, since 囡 — not a standard character — consists of nǚ 女 ("girl") inside of a box! Even though most readers wouldn't know the meaning of 囡孩子 because they are unfamiliar with the character 囡, the annotated reading of nán háizi will ineluctably elicit the meaning "boy" for MSM readers. Though most people will automatically interpret it precisely that way, they would be wrong, according to the hippest understanding of what has been written. Actually, they would only be partially wrong, because the people who wrote this jingle do want "it must be a boy" to come across as one of the possible readings of yīdìng shì nán háizi 一定是囡孩子. But the really with-it reading of yīdìng shì nán háizi 一定是囡孩子 is something rather different. To find out what that might be, we must tackle the unusual character 囡 head-on.
Actually, 囡 does have a MSM reading, and that, according to ZDIC and Wiktionary is nān, not nán. So far as I know, the character is never used in MSM per se (except as a borrowing from one of the topolects), but it is familiar to speakers of Hakka, Teochew (Chaozhou), Cantonese, and other non-Mandarin Sinitic languages.
囡 is to be found in medieval rime dictionaries such as Jí yùn《集韵》(Collected Rhymes ).
Let us just look at 囡 as it is used in Shanghainese. It is 2nd tone and entirely homophonous with 男 ("male; man"). The morpheme means "young daughter or child". But it is a bound morpheme that must occur with a suffix or in compounds. The exact meaning depends on the word it is in. Some examples, using Simmons' Romanization, are: nóe-ñ 囡儿 ("daughter"), nóe-noe-d'eu 男囡头 ("boy"), guà-noe 乖囡 ("good child"), shiaw-noe 小囡 ("child"), shiáw-shiaw-noe 小小囡 ("infant"), and nóe-noe 囡囡 is a term of endearment for a child. So, in nān háizi 囡孩子, these types of meanings are operative, but they are partially subverted by the designated nán háizi annotation to emphasize that this is about a little boy.
Before moving on to the next line, I would like to emphasize how the present line illustrates the increasing use of pinyin to give characters alternative readings, which in turn facilitates punning that would not occur with the characters alone. The cultural difference evident in this line is also worth observing: it would be rather strange to say “so cute it must be a little boy” in English.
What to make of méng nán • zhèngtài 萌男•正太 in the next line? Surely it must mean something quite different from the direct translation *"budding boy • truly too". This is the line that contains the two key borrowings from Japanese. 萌 and 正太 originated in Japanese comics. 萌, which in MSM is pronounced méng and means "bud; sprout; germinate"), can be used as adjective and verb. Here 萌男 signifies a handsome and extremely lovable young male. 正太 refers to a very cute, prepubescent boy (definitely without facial hair) whose age is between 8 and around 14. When 萌 is used as a verb, it means "be infatuated with" or "love".
These usages of 萌 derive from Japanese moeru 萌える ("sprout"), which can be a name for a girl or boy. For example, I know of someone with the name Moyuru — written in kana! — but it means 萌 ("budding" or "sprouting"), and 萌男 ("Moeo") is definitely a boy's name. It is closely related to the wildly popular anime term "moe", which is another recent Japanese borrowing into English.
Shōta 正太 is a very common boy's name, but the borrowing into Chinese brings with it a whole complex of anime and video game associations. Note especially the term "shotacon" ("shota complex"), which designates an attraction to young males. Cf. "Morpheme of the Year". Here, here, and here may be found some basic introductions to these words in Chinese.
The next two lines — yīgè dōu bùnéng shǎo 一個都不能少 ("not one should be omitted" OR "not one should be left out") and kě'ài nánshēng 可愛男生 ("lovable boy") are straightforward as MSM.
The last line is harder for unhip readers: MV méng fān nǐ MV萌翻你 (*"MV budding will turn you"). I suppose that MV refers to a "music video", though it can also signify a "promotional video", for which PV is the preferred abbreviation in Japanese (and through Japanese) in Chinese.
This reminds me that Japanese showbiz and entertainment use a lot of Anglicized (if not exactly English) abbreviations, including:
- VTR = "video tape recorder", which is used to mean a video segment on TV, including replays
- BGM = background music (there's even a national BGM association!)
- NG = no good
- CM = commercial message (CM songu ソング ["song"] = jingle)
The next word, méng 萌, we already know from its special anime and comic book sense: "handsome young male".
ADJ + fān nǐ 翻你 ("to be so ADJ that it knocks / bowls you over") = extremely ADJ
Thus méng fān nǐ 萌翻你 means extremely méng 萌 ("extremely cute / handsome in his boyishness", i.e., "so boyishly cute / handsome that he bowls you over").
Here are some more illustrations of how fān nǐ 翻你 functions:
zhè ge gùshì huì xiào fān nǐ 这个故事会笑翻你
("this story will make you laugh so hard you'll fall over")
zhè jiàn shìqíng huì lè fān nǐ 這件事情會乐翻你
("this affair will make you so happy that you'll fall over")
These borrowings are meant to be representative of hundreds of other such terms that have entered Chinese from Japanese in recent years. I consider it to be particularly noteworthy that so many Japanese words have continued to flow so freely into Chinese, despite the harsh rhetoric and tense standoff that exists between China and Japan. It is reassuring that language transcends politics.
Meanwhile, as a challenge to Language Log readers, what is the meaning of the Japanese English injunction "SAFETY UP" in this photograph sent to me yesterday from Japan by Frank Chance?
[Thanks to Cheng Fangyi, Nathan Hopson, Cecilia Seigle, Miki Morita, Jidong Yang, Wenkan Xu, Gianni Wan, Rebecca Fu, and Richard VanNess Simmons]