Happy NIU2 Year!

« previous post | next post »

At the bottom of our New Year’s greeting letter to friends, I put this picture of a very special Dutch Belted cow:

When I looked at a few of the letters my wife had signed, I noticed that she had added “Happy” on one side of the cow and “Year” on the other side of the cow. I thought that was extremely clever, because she was using the cow as a cross-lingual pun: “Happy 牛 Year!” Upon being read out as “Happy NIU2 Year,” any speaker of English will immediately understand the greeting. And, this being the Chinese “Year of the NIU2,” which was why I put that animal at the bottom of our New Year’s message in the first place, Liqing’s formulation is particularly fitting for the beginning of 2009.

This morning when I came to the office, I received the following note from Bruce Balden:

According to my correspondent in Dalian, "Happy 牛 Year" seems the latest cross-lingual pun over there. (Of course since Year 2009 is 牛年 it becomes almost a visual pun too).

Apparently Liqing wasn’t the only person to have thought of this exceedingly apt pun! Indeed, when I Googled “Happy 牛 Year!” I found that millions of people in China are ringing in the New Year with this salutation. The short text messages (STM) consisting of precisely this wording will undoubtedly run into the billions. In fact, “Happy 牛 Year!” is the most popular STM New Year’s greeting in China this year.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this phenomenon, however, because I’ve long observed how English is increasingly being inserted into Chinese sentences. For example, “我有個paper要hand in.” (“I have a paper to hand in.”) What is somewhat unusual about “Happy 牛 Year!” is that this is fundamentally an English expression with an inserted Chinese word being employed for its punning value in English, and that this English expression is being used ubiquitously in China by Chinese speakers.

A couple of notes before closing. First, NIU2NIAN2 牛年 is usually rendered as “Year of the Ox” in English, but NIU2 actually refers to any bovid. Second, although the Chinese graph for NIAN2 年 (“year”) looks somewhat like that for NIU2 牛, they are completely unrelated. The earliest form of 牛 is the schematic representation of a bovid, whereas the earliest form of 年 depicts a man carrying a bundle of crops on his back (the original meaning of the graph was “harvest”).


  1. Wolfgang Behr said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 5:03 pm


    while it is true that the character for nian2 年 “year” in oracle bone writing is composed from ren2 人 ” man” below he2 禾 “panicle, millet, crop”, I doubt that the primary role of “man” was semantic in this case: ren2 < Old Chinese *nin is simply phonophoric in nian2 < OC *nnin (reconstructions according to the Baxter-Sagart system). Best, Wolfgang

  2. Dougal Stanton said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

    I think it also works on a less sophisticated level for the non-Chinese-reading English speakers – Happy Moo Year. ;-)

  3. Cephi said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

    in addition to Dougal’s suggestion it also works for english monolinguals because the cow isn’t wearing any clothes.

  4. Daniel said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

    Something related that I’ve seen in Catalan New Year’s Greetings:

    Feliç Any 9!

    The word for 9 in Catalan is “Nou”, which is also the masculine form of the word for “new”. An especially apt pun for the year 2009.

  5. Nathan Myers said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

    I was confounded by the heart-shaped spot. It’s not entirely unlike the Greek letter “nu”.

  6. mondain said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

    I’ve heard lots of Mandarin speakers pronounce `new’ in the exactly same way they say NIU2 (with different accents), while some pthers would say Happy NIU1 Year. Sometimes, e.g. at the end of a sentence, I’ve heard people say `It is NIU4′.

  7. Lazar said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

    Just out of curiosity, why does Language Log write Chinese words in all caps with numbers instead of diacritics?

  8. Matt said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

    I have seen this in Japanese contexts too, although the pronunciation intended is “Happy gyū year” so the pun is more of a stretch.

  9. DRK said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 12:09 am

    OK, I’m a complete know-nothing, but is this, basically, Happy Gnu Year?

  10. Rachel said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 6:00 am

    Or in German: Happy Kuh Year.

  11. Martyn Cornell said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 7:12 am

    And in Scots English: Happy Coo Year.

  12. Aaron Davies said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 8:10 am

    the numbers indicate tone. (i don’t know the mapping.) the caps, i couldn’t say.

  13. Bryn LaFollette said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    @ Lazar & Aaron:

    All caps followed by number indicating tone is a standard transcription method that, like many similar ones, is commonplace due to its ASCII-compatibility. The Pinyin diacritics (or PIN1YIN1 if you like) are not part of the standard US English Keyboard layout and so require extra work to use, plus they may not be rendered correctly by everyone’s browser.

    The Caps make it stand out as being a symbolic representation of a character, and this is used in other logographic transcription schemes (like for Sumerian logographs in cuneiform). The numbers 1 through 4 are used for Mandarin to represent the four contrasting tones in the language, and is just easier to type than trying to mark diacritics on vowels (at least, in my experience).

    So, to sum up, it’s not a Language Log practice per se, but a widespread convention.

  14. Lazar said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    Oh, okay – I guess I’m spoiled with my OS X “US Extended” keyboard. :)

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    Bryn, I couldn’t have said it (about the use of caps and numbers for tones) better myself; thank you so much for explaining my usage so well!

    The cross-lingual pun I discuss above is a case of a Chinese word being inserted in an English expression, but I also frequently come across English words being inserted in Chinese expressions. Here’s one that occurs often in Guoyu Ribao (Mandarin Daily): “好 young 人物“ (HAO3 young REN2WU4). Explaining this takes a bit of unpacking: HAO3 is “good,” of course, and REN2WU4 means “character, person,” but what to do with the “young” between them? On the one hand, we can take it at its English face value, hence “good, young person.” However, the “young” is also meant to be understood simultaneously as signifying the Chinese word 樣 YANG4 (“model, pattern, type”), with the result that 好樣/young HAO3YANG4 stands for “good model.” 好樣/young 人物 HAO3YANG4/young REN2WU4 consequently means both “good, young person” and “a person who is a good model.” The Taiwanese are particularly fond of such cross-lingual word play, but I’m starting to see increasing amounts of it on the mainland too.

    Finally, I appreciate Wolfgang’s comment about the probable non-semantic nature of the REN2 人 ” man” component in the earliest form of the character for NIAN2 年. The current trend in studies of the construction of Chinese characters is that there are essentially no pure ideograms, or — if there are any ideograms — they are exceedingly rare. Scholars who subscribe to this point of view include Peter Alexis Boodberg, the late and much lamented John DeFrancis, William Boltz, J. Marshall Unger, and David Prager Branner. On the other side of the fence are those, including Herrlee Glessner Creel, Chad Hansen, Françoise Bottéro, and David Lurie, who are quite comfortable with the idea that the Chinese script is replete with ideograms. Because the battle is still being waged, and because I have friends on both sides of the fence, I shall refrain from declaring either a winner.

  16. Neil Dolinger said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 1:19 am

    What a clever idea! I am surprised that none of the online card sites have not run with this (I spent a few hours looking last night). If any one has, I’d love to see a link.

  17. William G. Boltz said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    Wolfgang Behr is no doubt right about the phonetic role of the /ren2/ 人 in the early graph for /nian2/ 年. But the explanation can be explained in still a bit more detail. The /ren2/ 人 is actually likely to have been a phonetic determinative, added to an originally polyphonic graph 禾, standing iconically for the word /he2/ ‘panicle, millet’ and indexically for the semantically related word /nian2/ ‘harvest’, to fix unambiguously the second of these two readings. The graph 禾 alone is attested in OBI standing (in some palaeographers’ opinions) for /nian2/ ‘harvest’.

    Sometimes the similar (in the Shang script) graph 千 /qian1/ is used as the phonetic determinative instead of /ren2/ 人. It works phonetically just as well as /ren2/.

RSS feed for comments on this post