Cantonese and Mandarin interwoven

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Tom Mazanec noticed this ad for China Mobile by the baggage claim at the Guangzhou (Canton) Baiyun Airport a few nights ago:

What in the world is going on here?

As for the first line of the sign, you don't have to be Chinese to understand it. Although the vast majority of Chinese today can comprehend the first line, it's more easily understood as English than as Chinese. It's one thing for Chinese to use the heart symbol for the verb ài 爱 ("love"), which is quite common in China, and it's another thing for them to use internationally recognized numerical and Roman letter terms like 4G, but to substitute "I" for wǒ 我, leaving the first line with no part that is clearly Chinese, even though it is directed toward potential customers who are Chinese, is to make a very strong gesture towards cosmopolitanism.

Aside from the first two characters, Yídòng 移动, which just mean "mobile", but here stand for Zhōngguó yídòng 中国移动 ("China Mobile"), the second line is even more mind-boggling than the first. From my previous post, which explored the contrastive juxtaposition of characters and Pinyin syllables (see "Biscriptal juxtaposition in Chinese"), we are already familiar with using two completely different scripts alternately to write Mandarin.

But here we have Cantonese in characters jumbled together with Mandarin in Pinyin, and in a most bizarre fashion.

In this context, Cantonese zi3lek1 至叻 means "smartest; brightest; sharpest". The first character indicates the superlative degree and the second one is a protean adjective that we have studied several times on Language Log, e.g., "A variable, transcriptional Chinese character".

The staggered romanized Mandarin term, with tones indicated no less, zuìniú 最牛, literally means "most bovine", but more precisely signifies "most cow cunt" (I'm not kidding), though it is usually bowdlerized in translation as "awesome" or some such. It is extremely vulgar, but also extremely popular, especially in the mouths of young men. We have touched upon niúB 牛B ("cow cunt"), whence zuìniú 最牛 ("awesome", etc.) derives, in many Language Log posts and comments. See here, here, here, here, and here.

What is most curious about the way zi3lek1 至叻 and zuìniú 最牛 are arranged on this sign, namely 至(zuì)叻(niú), makes it seem as though zuì were annotating 至 and niú were annotating 叻. But these are semantic annotations, not phonetic annotations like furigana. As far as 至 and zuì go, fair enough; they're both superlatives. But when it comes to 叻 and níu, their implications may be roughly similar, but their register is starkly different.

[Thanks to Bob Bauer and Fangyi Cheng]


  1. Wentao said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 9:41 am

    I'm wondering whether there is a purpose behind the linguistic peculiarity of this ad. Is this an attempt at teaching Cantonese-speaking natives a Mandarin catchphrase? Or the other way round? It's a rather poor way to promote Cantonese, and I suppose some uninformed travelers would think 至叻 is pronounced something like "zui4niu2". Or is it simply an inside-joke for Cantonese speakers?

  2. cameron said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

    Could we translate zuìniú 最牛 into French as vachement terrible?

  3. tsts said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

    My (limited) understanding is that zi3lek1 can also be used colloquially to mean "the coolest" or "the niftiest". Which is sort of how I would understand zui4niu2. Basically, they were looking for a popular expression for cool or awesome in both languages.

  4. Richard W said,

    August 20, 2014 @ 8:15 pm

    "these are semantic annotations, not phonetic annotations like furigana"

    But actually, Japanese does use non-phonetic furigana quite often. They are called "gikun". The Wikipedia article on Kanji says:

    Gikun (義訓) and jukujikun (熟字訓) are readings of kanji combinations that have no direct correspondence to the characters' individual on'yomi or kun'yomi, but rather are connected with their meaning – this is the opposite of ateji. […] Gikun are when non-standard kanji are used, generally for effect, such as using 寒 with reading fuyu (ふゆ, "winter"), rather than the standard character 冬.

  5. DMT said,

    August 23, 2014 @ 2:48 am

    The use of Japanese furigana can sometimes be even closer to the Mandarin/Cantonese example here, when juxtaposing furigana that represent non-standard dialect against kanji that render the text comprehensible to speakers of standard Japanese. Inoue Hisashi wrote a whole novel in this register:

  6. Richard W said,

    August 23, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

    Yes, Inoue's use of furigana indeed corresponds better to the example raised in the blog.

    It raises various questions in my mind about the extent of creative use of furigana. There's no technical barrier to inserting any text at all in parallel with the main text. In a Japanese-capable word processor, there is no restriction on the text added in superscript glosses. In materials intended to have some educational value for younger readers, the glosses are typically pronunciation guides, but in other kinds of material, writers can feel free to provide any sort of parallel text they like. It doesn't even have to be hiragana; and the glosses can be applied to phrases as well as single words, if so desired. I imagine that in advertising, manga for adults or older children, roleplaying games, and other creative contexts, the usage of furigana might be relatively unconstrained.

    There is a mental reaction in the mind of the reader when the gloss is not simply a guide to the standard pronunciation of a word, and this is what writers sometimes like to exploit. Of course, the effect is greater when used sparingly.

    Potentially, the (text)/(parallel gloss) combination could be
    – what one really thinks; what one says
    – formal language; colloquial or slang equivalent
    – Japanese; English (or other language) translation
    – foreign language; Japanese translation
    – standard Japanese; dialect

    Chinese has a similar glossing tradition in Taiwan, of course, where zhùyīn (phonetic) symbols are placed alongside the characters. I wonder if they get creative there too?

    Googling a bit, …
    "… in a work of science fiction, some astronaut could use the word ふるさと, furusato, meaning 'my hometown', when referring to planet Earth. To clarify that for the reader, the word furusato (hometown) might be written in hiragana over the kanji for chikyuu (Earth)…"

    "…Furigana get used for some very creative purposes in video games, especially RPGs where the fantasy world has its own jargon…"

    "Hence, 'sanpogai' (streets for walking) is glossed as 'burubādo' (boulevard) and sakaba (bar) as supiikuisshi (speak-easy) and so on … Meiji period writers like Futabatei Shimei were highly creative in their use of furigana."
    Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913-1938, edited by William Jefferson Tyler (Google Books)

    "On occasions a writer can use furigana to create a totally custom pronunciation or give extra information – which is actually extremely common in Japanese entertainment! […] To be honest, there’s actually a LOT more to furigana than what we’ve seen here; it can often be used for jokes, word play, creating catchy phone numbers, memorable marketing slogans, and more."

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