English as ruby annotation for Chinese

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Something very interesting is going on in this panel (as usual, click to embiggen):

"Firstable", I have to explain where I got this image. It originally appeared at the top of this page as an advertisement for the Singles' Day Sale which takes place on November 11 every year. This year sales by the Alibaba group alone on 11/11 supposedly topped $9.3 billion.

The advertisement is actually for a competitor of Alibaba's online marketing site, Taobao, called Suning (see the right portion of the panel, the part in red).

What intrigues me about the larger, left portion of the ad (the part in light brownish yellow) is the use of English as a sort of ruby annotation for the Chinese characters:



Here are the Pinyin transcription and English translation:

Kuàidì děng bànyuè, děngdào huā'er xiè.
Zhège “11.11”, nǐ gāi duō yīgè xuǎnzé.

[With their] express delivery [you'll wait] half a month, until the flowers have faded.
On this Singles' Day, you ought to have another choice.

Suning, of course, is counting on its express delivery to be faster than that of Alibaba.

But why put those ruby English annotations of the Chinese characters at the bottom? Mere decoration? Stylishness? Cosmopolitanism? I can think of other possible reasons for doing this, but I'd be interested in hearing what Language Log readers have to say about this arrangement.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng]


  1. yy said,

    November 16, 2014 @ 11:57 pm

    My response after seeing the banner was that I was similarly confused when I first saw http://inspirationalmandarin.tumblr.com/

  2. leoboiko said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 8:57 am

    Can I go on for a while on a tangent (hopefully not too off)? This is similar to, though not quite the same as, one topic I'm currently researching for my master's: A similar practice that's quite widespread in Japanese. Japanese readers are used to the idea that Chinese characters have many "readings" – i.e. that, used morphographically, they may be decoded to one of several different morphemes – because most characters can be read as a Sinitic morpheme or as a roughly equivalent Japanese translation (or more than one). This fluidity has generated linguistic play in which the writer assigns nonstandard "readings" to ruby annotations, creating a sort of parallel construction where two words share the same syntactic position (cf. Ariga, The Playful Gloss). For example, in a certain samurai manga, at one point one character tells another to “behave and stay here” (Otonashiku koko ni iro). The word “here”, koko, is given as a ruby “reading” of the word 東京 Tokyo, written in sinograms. What's meant by this is that the word the character said out loud was “here”, but the underlying implication of his “here” was “in this city, Tokyo (and not in Kyoto where a battle is going on, because you're weak)". (Source: Rurōni Kenshin v. 6).

    This technique of expression may be compared to English writers who use footnotes or misused html tags strike-through text for rhetorical effect; but the subjective feeling is distinct. My pet theory is that it leverages the fact that the Japanese reader is trained to look at the ruby position to get the phonemes and under it to identify the morphemes (possibly even with some neuronal specialization towards the two distinct routes of reading? cf. Dehaene, Reading in the Brain; and also Nakamura, Dehaene et al., Subliminal Convergence of Kanji and Kana Words). I've even seen the technique used with Latin characters in the base, sub-ruby position, though I regrettably failed to note down that one.

    In modern times, when Japanese borrows from English frequently, the practice arose of using English words as ruby “readings” in this kind of parallel construction. I propose that this is an inversion of the usual sinogram–ruby (or, generally, ruby base–annotation) relationship. In the normal case, ruby helps the reader to identify a morpheme they wouldn't known from the sinogram, because the character or the particular “reading” are rare (or because the target audience isn't expected to be character-literate, e.g. in manga comics). The reader knows the annotation, and it helps to decode the base. However, when the ruby is in English, it's the sinograms that help in assigning meaning to the foreign word (not because sinograms are magical meaning-granting ideographs, but simply because they're the usual orthography of Japanese words, and also because morphography is a good tool for this particular role). For example, I have a book on literary criticism which introduces the Western concept of national literature printing it as a ruby anotation (in English katakana, ナショナル・リテラチュア nashonaru riterachua) for the Japanese word 国文学 Kokubungaku. In this case, the part we expect the reader to know is the 国文学. Again, this is similar to glossing in parenthesis or footnotes, but there's a peculiar subjective feeling of simultaneity. Sometimes this even happens at morpheme level: English “super” (sūpā) is a popular ruby “reading” for the character 超 used as a prefix, because sūpā- was identified with the roughly equivalent native prefix 超/chō-.

    I consider this process to be a natural continuation of the kanbun kundoku (“explanatory reading of Chinese texts”) practice, which assigned native Japanese readings to sinograms in the first place. These are the lines that I'm working with; I don't want to hijack the thread, but I'd welcome criticism and comments (if going off-topic, please send them to leoboiko@namakajiri.net).

    The technique in the ad is a bit different. They aren't borrowing punctual English words into Chinese utterances; rather, the entire utterances are glossed into Anglicized sentences. And they aren't reverse-annotating English sentences with sinograms, either; English clearly isn't the point of departure here. I wonder if they though the telegraphic English would communicate better than pīnyīn Mandarin with their audience (because of topolect speakers, and possibly foreigners?) – that is, if they're using world-English as a lingua franca, and therefore as a true gloss of Mandarin. In this case it would be natural to gloss word-by-word like they did; Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese historically dealt with Chinese text in the same way, after all. But I think stylishness has a lot to do with it – in Japanese, advertising is one of the fields where we most easily find linguistic play with English words, because English is hip, and therefore English sells (in any non–English-speaking country, regardless of writing system). Perhaps the English ruby glosses were just easier to write than a real English translation?

    I find it interesting that they worked mostly at word level, not character– or morpheme-level, thus demonstrating the existence of .

  3. Ned Danison said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 5:35 pm

    Looks to me like they are going for an old textbook style, what with the color, font and painting of the girl. The English text seems to be there to make it look textbook-like.

  4. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 5:52 pm


    I was struck in Tanizaki's 細雪 (translated as "The Makioka Sisters") to find stretches of German dialogue written in kanji, with katakana ruby giving the pronunciation in German (or as near as the katakana syllabary can manage it, anyway.)

    This gives the peculiar sensation of reading with subtitles …

  5. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 6:24 pm

    For all I know this is standard stuff, but in case it surprises anyone else as much as me and they want to look it up it's in Chapter 21, where little Etsuko is playing with the German neighbours' child. "Stretches of dialogue" is a bit of an exaggeration, on looking at it, and the main text is in hiragana as well as kanji; but there is, for example

    速く  hayaku with ruby シュネル shuneru (i.e schnell)
    どうぞ douzo with ビッテ bitte
    まだいけない mada ikenai with ノッホニヒト nohho nihito (noch nicht)

  6. hwu said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 9:54 pm

    Well I'd say those advertisers from Suning are really good at playing cute.

    The ad used characters from a well-known Chinese comic "Mom, Slap me again please":


    The comic does use the style same as posters from the Cultural Revolution.

    The full advertisement can be seen here:

  7. Jacob said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 10:19 pm

    Wow. I haven't thought about that Zhang Xueyou song in a while…

    The text is eerily reminiscent of a 唐诗三百首 reader for kids. It just needs a superscript to explain what "laowers" means in MSM.

  8. yg1 said,

    November 18, 2014 @ 12:06 am

    Shaving with occam's razor you would assume standard ballsup between marketing, translating and editing departments mixed with an attempt at extra hipster quotient points by splashing around in the alphabet pool. But could it have all been deliberate in order to stave off a lawsuit? "Sorry, my message all mixed up -see even English terrible – I really meant no mischief at all." http://gd.qq.com/a/20141111/013193.htm

  9. Victor Mair said,

    November 18, 2014 @ 12:32 am


    Please tell us which Jacky Cheung song you haven't thought about in a while.

  10. Jacob said,

    November 18, 2014 @ 8:06 am

    That Jacky Cheung song would be 我等到花儿谢了 (I waited until the flowers faded/wilted) wo deng dao hua'r xie le where Jacky sings about waiting for a lost love to return, and it can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RePSDrqK4ss

    My knowledge of Chinese literature being limited, I am assuming that the ad in the post is referencing Jacky's karaoke classic.

  11. leoboiko said,

    November 18, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

    (I think my reply to David Eddyshaw stumbled on the spam filter; admins, if you would be so kind as to check it and delete this comment? Thanks for your time!)

  12. hwu said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 3:05 am

    The ultimate ruby annotation song: Say a Word in Heart (说句心里话)

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