Texts, tones, tattoos

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Clifford Coonan's byline is on The Independent's story about the Max Planck Institute strip-club ad ("Chinese 'classical poem' was brothel ad", 12/9/2008), covered earlier by Victor Mair here at Language Log (Burlesque Matinée at the Max Planck Gesellschaft, 12/4/2008). And Coonan, who seems to be The Independent's regular China correspondent, must be quite well informed about Chinese culture, politics and language.  But given his broad experience in China, and his status as an experienced writer for a major newpaper, I found some things in his article surprising.

Let's start with this one:

Chinese is a tonal language, which means words sounding the same can often have very different meanings depending on how they are spoken.

I guess this is true, if you add an appropriate qualification: "Chinese is a tonal language, which means words sounding the same (to people who don't pay attention to tone) can often have very different meanings depending on how they are spoken".

Of course, for a randomly-selected pair of languages X and Y, there's a reasonably high probability that "words (in X) sounding the same (to speakers of Y) often have very different meanings depending on how they are spoken". For example, the English vowel distinction that differentiates "bit" from "beat" is hard or impossible for native speakers of many other languages to learn to hear.

But what's really puzzling about this sentence is not its misleading way of describing lexical tone, but rather the implication that Chinese tone is somehow relevant to MPI's unfortunate choice of cover art. Remember that the editors of the Max Planck Forshung apparently couldn't read Chinese, and their expert advisor, asked to find a typical bit of Chinese text to put on the cover, apparently subverted their intent by choosing a strip club ad. However, the fact that Chinese is a tone language is completely irrelevant to all this — exactly the same thing could have happened with material in Japanese, or Korean, or Hindi, or Arabic. For that matter, it could have happened with Hungarian or Swahili or another language written with the Latin alphabet — all that's required is some written material that the editors can't read.

Right after the remark about Chinese tone, Coonan's story continues with some examples of foreigners not being able to read Chinese characters, as if this were somehow connected to the fact that Chinese is tonal:

There are tales of drunken teenagers walking out of tattoo parlours with characters reading, "This is one ugly foreigner" or "A fool and his money are easily parted".

These "tales" were apparently found on anti-cnn.com, which Coonan describes as "a foreigner-baiting website set up after a commentator on the US broadcaster made anti-Chinese comments following the crackdown in Tibet in March". However, he doesn't cite any specific examples, and I strongly suspect that the tales are jokes or urban legends. Reading Hanzi Smatter certainly convinces me that tattoo artists are very unreliable guides to Hanzi characters and Hanzi texts. But all the examples that I've seen are cases where both the tattooers and the tattooees are clueless, not cases where the tattooers actually know Chinese and use that knowledge to mock customers who lack it. (Please give us links to specific counter-examples, if I'm wrong.)

At least the relationship between these mythical drunken teenage tattoo victims and their mythical victimizers would be analogous to the relationship between MPI's editors and their expert. But given the fact that the teenagers probably don't exist, juxtaposed with the confused and confusing statement about Chinese tone, a better analogy might be the relationship between the Independent's readers and Clifford Coonan.

Coonan's other example of a bamboozled foreigner at least has the virtue of being based on a partly-true story:

Another web-user wrote: "I recently met a German girl with a Chinese tattoo on her neck which in Chinese means 'prostitute'. I laughed so loud, I could hardly breathe."

I wonder whether the "web-user" in question actually met such a girl. A "prostitute" tattoo is documented here and here, but the tattooer and tattooee in this case seem to be American, not German. Since the tattoo in question was prominently featured on the Hanzi Smatter front page for some time before the MPI story broke, I strongly suspect that Coonan's source "improved" the story, in the usual sort of way of urban legends, by turning it into a personal experience ("I recently met …") and inventing relevant circumstantial detail ("… a German girl …").

And as the commenters at Hanzi Smatter explain, this was almost surely an attempt to translate into Chinese a genre of inverted-prestige tattoo that is also common in English:

I've seen plenty of tattoos on BMEzine.com saying things like "Slut for life" in English.

Also, although 妓 (jì) does mean "prostitute" in Chinese, one of the commenters at Hanzi Smatter explains that

In Japanese and Korean (and apparently in its original Chinese usage as well), it has a sense of a "woman of the arts" (i.e. geisha, etc.), and, according to Kojien, it's even possible to use it in kabuki, which is normally 歌舞伎, but can also be 歌舞妓.

This suggests an alternative explanation — though I think that the "Slut for life" model is more plausible, since the person posting the picture at checkoutmyink.com described it as  "My girl's 'Bitch' tattoo. So fitting", with this additional picture as evidence — but in neither case is there any indication that the tattooee was culpably ignorant of the meaning of the tattoo, or was being fooled in this respect by the tattooer.

[Hat tip: Linda Seebach]



17 Comments

  1. Christian said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 10:10 am

    To me, it seems the article was researched and written rather sloppily:, copying various bits from news agency releases, then adding random "facts" about Chinese at the end.

    Apart from the statements you mentioned, I am also disappinted that the Independent would accept the explanation of MPI at face value. Looking at the text, it is very clear that it was not checked by a scholar beforehand — the two "K"'s are a dead giveaway that the text canot traditional Chinese, but must be something else. (Apart from the fact that the writing doesn't look very nice.)

    The Independent should have commented on that. German media have reported that MPI used a stock photo. My guess is they just bought a stock photo called "Chinese Poem" and published it, without bothering to check.

  2. JR said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    In Mexico, it seems like everyone thinks the English word "bitch" means "puta," or prostitute. Maybe native Chinese speakers think the same, thus offering the word for prostitute for "bitch."

  3. Kate Gillogly said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

    I don't want to nitpick, but this point is significant in that what appears to be two separate cases are, in fact, only one. Your text states that "A 'prostitute' tattoo is documented here and here, but the tattooer and tattooee in this case seem to be American, not German." Please note that both of those links are to the same photo and caption. Your argument would be stronger if these were different cases.

    [(myl) Please note that when I wrote "A prostitute tattoo is documented here and here", I meant that a single case of such a tattoo is documented in two places. I thought my sentence was clear enough (though I admit that the quantifier scope is ambiguous), but the fact that the pictures are self-evidently the same, and that the first link refers to the second one, should remove any doubt. And my point was that although there is one prominently documented case of this, it lacks two of the features that Coonan attributes to it; so the fact that there is just one such case makes my point stronger rather than weaker. ]

  4. rpsms said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

    After reading the article, I was left wondering how chinese people could communicate in writing. I mean, if you can't be sure what something written down means until it is spoken out loud, how do you order food at a restaurant?

    Is the ad written in a sufficiently discreet way that one could be fooled into thinking it is not an ad for a strip club?

  5. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

    Is the ad written in a sufficiently discreet way that one could be fooled into thinking it is not an ad for a strip club?

    Possibly, but there's no way anyone with more than cursory knowledge of Chinese could be fooled into thinking it's Classical. As Christian points out, there are Latin alphabet letters crammed in alongside two of the characters. I would think that would be sufficient to make any "expert" look closer, at which point it would be pretty clear what they had. (See Victor's earlier post for a full translation.)

    After reading the article, I was left wondering how chinese people could communicate in writing. I mean, if you can't be sure what something written down means until it is spoken out loud, how do you order food at a restaurant?

    By number?

    Seriously, there's no confusion. Coonan just didn't explain lexical tone very well. As Mark points out, it's an integral part of the proper pronunciation of a word, just like vowel quality in English or nasalisation in French. If anything, the confusion would work the other way since one of the biggest difficulties with modern Chinese is that words which are unambiguous in writing are confusingly similar in speech.

  6. Karen said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    In other words, rpsms, the written language doesn't have the ambiguity. The "same" word with different tones will be written with very different characters. The characters are so independent of any phonological input that they can be used by different languages – in fact by different language families.

  7. Nick Lamb said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

    And you might be surprised how little it would matter anyway. Humans are really good at using context to eliminate ambiguity. English is full of ambiguities in written or spoken form that native users never notice. Unless… http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=qu9MptWyCB8

  8. Timm! said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

    Here is one possible example of a tattoo artist intentionally using the wrong symbols

    http://www.hanzismatter.com/2004/10/i-am-stupid-enough-to-think-this.html

    Tried to find the original article on metro.co.uk but was unable to.

  9. rousseau said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

    "Is the ad written in a sufficiently discreet way that one could be fooled into thinking it is not an ad for a strip club?"

    Possibly if you were a naive preteen in Hong Kong, in which case you wouldn't really know what the point of the flyer would be. Otherwise, definitely not.

  10. Abe Buko said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

    I speak Chinese. When I turned 18 I got a non-sense Chinese tattoo on my neck that didn't make sense in Chinese, but made sense to me. I don't know, at the time I thought I was being hilarious because to everyone but me it made no sense. I've since then covered it up with something else.

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

    Besides Chinese 妓 (jì), there are other cases of a word that means 'prostitute' in the most commonly spoken variant of a language but originally meant 'girl' and still does so in other variants. One example is the German Dirne (compare Bavarian Dirndl). Another is the French catin, which still means 'girl' or 'sweetheart' in Cajun French. In fact the French fille can mean 'prostitute' in some contexts.

  12. Stephen Jones said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

    In Egyptian Arabic 'sharmuta' means a rag, but amongst most other Arab speakers the original meaning has been lost and the metaphorical meaning of 'bitch' or 'prostitute' is the only one in use.

    When a Syrian friend of mine spilt something in his hotel room in Cairo and management offered him a cloth to mop it up, a rather amusing conversation ensued.

  13. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

    In all fairness to Coonan, there are some cases where the same character is used for different syllables that are pronounced the same in every respect except tone; for example, the simplified character 干 is "gan" with either a high tone or a falling tone. Also, since tone is a suprasegmental feature, it might be more fair to compare it to something like stress placement; and Coonan might actually feel, if one were to ask him about it directly, that "compact" and "compact" are "words sounding the same [but that] have very different meanings depending on how they are spoken".

    But the only reason I can even bring up these points is that his statements are so vague that one can assign almost any interpretation to them. If he ever wants to change careers, he might consider fortune-telling.

  14. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    December 16, 2008 @ 10:57 pm

    Here is one possible example of a tattoo artist intentionally using the wrong symbols…

    Given that the only reference is in the eight-page freebie published by the fine folks responsible for the Daily Mail (itself not exactly the paper of record for the English-speaking world), I'm calling shenanigans pending further corroboration.

  15. One Fine Jay » Yet another reason why I would never use foreign characters in graphic design said,

    December 17, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

    [...] sounding the same can often have very different meanings depending on how they are spoken." Mark Liberman expounds: "But what's really puzzling about this sentence is not its misleading way of [...]

  16. Carrie S. said,

    December 18, 2008 @ 10:53 am

    Besides Chinese 妓 (jì), there are other cases of a word that means 'prostitute' in the most commonly spoken variant of a language but originally meant 'girl' and still does so in other variants.

    Consider also "mistress", "madam", "working girl"…heck, even "ladies" can have a bad connotation in the right context.

  17. KYL said,

    December 19, 2008 @ 4:00 pm

    It's interesting to note that Coonan immediately jumps to the conclusion that this was done to send a message of some sort: he brings up examples of the Chinese (allegedly) insulting Westerners with Chinese characters. I suppose the point he's making is that this was an attempt by somebody at the MPI to get back at China. But if his Chinese examples are urban legends only, then the speculation makes little sense. In any event, the point seems very confusingly made.

    Mark brings up the point that the original prankster may have meant to play a joke on MPI as well as the Chinese. Hmm, intriguing. That's even more subversive than I thought.

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