Digraphia and bilingualism in a Nissan ad

« previous post | next post »

Photograph of a Chinese ad spotted in a Beijing elevator by David Moser, who also provided much of the analysis that follows:

This ad offers some interesting digraphia / bilingualism phenomena. Note that the brand name "Nissan" appears prominently in English, but in characters ( 日产) only marginally and minimally. The company logo and slogan at the upper left is all in English: "Nissan: Innovation that excites".

Nissan automobiles are produced in China by the Sino-foreign joint venture, Dongfeng Nissan 东风日产 (see the bottom right of the ad), headquartered in Wuhan.

jiàgé 价格 Duang ("price Duang") where the "Duang" is in pinyin, of course, and is a trendy use of our friend Jackie Chan's famous "duang" exclamation (see here and here).

pèizhì 配置 Wow ("equipment / extras / accessories / configuration [not sure of the proper car terminology here]) are Wow / amazing")

lìxí 利息 0% ("interest 0%")

More interesting examples are in the smaller text below:

jiàgé zhǐ duang bù zēng, gāo é bǔtiē 价格只 duang 不增, 高额补贴
("prices are only 'duang' and will not increase; high subsidies / allowances / bonuses" [not sure of the car business jargon here])

[Grammar note: it's interesting that "duang", which started out as an exclamation, here seems to have become a stative verb.]

pèizhì zhǐ zēng bù Down, Ōuguān bǎn quánxīn shēngjí 配置只增不Down, 欧冠版全新升级
("extras / equipment only increase not "down", brand-new European Cup-style [?] equipment upgrade [?] [again, not sure of the right automotive terms here])

lìxí zhíjiē guī líng, 0 xī kuàidài, kuángrè lái xí 利息直接归零, 0息快贷, 狂热来袭!
("interest rate directly goes down to zero, 0% interest quick loans, madness strikes")

David, who's been living and working in China for decades, comments:

I'm sure none of the Chinese who read this ad on the elevator even notice or care about this kind of language/script mixing, reading it comes as naturally as it came to the ad writer who produced it. Gives the ad a trendy, foreign, modern look, while being totally comprehensible to any reader who can afford to buy a car.

This was my comment to David when he first sent me the ad:

I'm speechless, David.
I never thought it would go this far so fast.

This is what I've been talking about with regard to an emerging digraphia and rising diglossia / bilingualism in China. Here are a few of the many relevant Language Log posts on this topic:

For more posts, search the Language Log archives under my name and "Diglossia and digraphia", "Bilingualism", "Multilingualism", etc.


  1. K. Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 2:28 pm

    I think American auto industry refer to that as "optional equipment"…

  2. DWalker said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 3:16 pm

    I think his guesses at proper car terminology were very close, and completely understandable.

  3. cameron said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 3:16 pm

    Or just "options" . . .

  4. Jens Ørding Hansen said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 3:28 pm

    Interesting post.

    Allow me to point out an inconsistency in the tone given for 息 in the pinyin: "lìxí" (Taiwan style) vs. "0 xī" (mainland style).

  5. Rubrick said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 5:46 pm

    I'm not clear on how something can be "only 'duang'". Isn't that like being "only amazing"? Are they being ironic?

  6. Xiao Shi said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

    Another interesting kind of digraphia I don't know if you've looked at is the use of pinyin to provide a running commentary/subtext on a "main idea" expressed in characters. Here's an example: http://chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/12762/what-is-the-socio-linguistic-function-of-mixing-pinyin-and-characters-together-b

  7. Matt said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 8:34 pm

    Would it be reaching to assume that "Down" is used because it sounds like "Dwang", giving you a neat "X zhǐ A bù B, Y zhǐ B bù A" pattern for "jiàgé zhǐ duang bù zēng – pèizhì zhǐ zēng bù Down"?

    Also, perhaps I am just jaded from living in Japan, but is this really a good example of the sort of "emerging digraphia" your previous posts describe? It might be a big sociological change that enough people dig this sort of wordplay to make it worthwhile using in advertising, but as far as orthography goes, it's just a couple of loanwords and trendy neologisms in Roman characters slotted into an otherwise ordinary piece of written Chinese for effect, isn't it? The fundamentals remain unchanged. This strikes me as qualitatively different from the previous examples you link to, where perfectly normal Chinese words with long-settled character representations (unlike "Duang") are replaced with pinyin because the writer isn't sure what those characters are.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 9:30 pm


    I too had a slight pause when I read "only Duang", because — as I explained in the OP– they've taken an exclamation and turned it into a stative verb. However, because I'm such a fan of "Duang", it was very easy for me to accept that transformation, and then take the further step of understanding that prices are only "Duang", i.e., will remain "Duang" ("amazing[ly low]").

    They've done something similar with "Wow".


    @Xiao Shi

    Thanks very much for calling that novel kind of kundokuish reading to our attention.

    The Chinese characters in the example you give say huíjiā 回家 ("return home").

    The corresponding pinyin is xīnyì.

    There are at least 20 terms pronounced "xinyi" in various combinations of tones. See V H Mair, ed., An Alphabetical Index to the Hanyu Da Cidian, p. 1212c. Of these thirteen have the combination 1-4, i.e., xīnyì.


    Here I'll list the 5 that are in the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, p. 1075c, in order of their frequency with ghit numbers:

    心意 ("feelings of [my] heart; intention; regard; kindly feeling; purpose") — 12,700,000

    新意 ("new idea") — 2,890,000

    新异 ("novel; unusual") — 404,000

    馨逸 ("perfume / aroma / fragrance lingering / extending a long distance") — 200,000

    心译 ("mental translation") — 118,000

    Considering that, not only is 心意 ("feelings of [my] heart; intention; regard; kindly feeling; purpose") far and away the most frequent lexical item pronounced xīnyì, it is also the only one of the 5 items listed that make sense as a kundoku explanation of huíjiā 回家 ("return home").




    Digraphia is emerging in many ways and for many reasons. Clever ads one of the most prominent and obvious. The type you describe is the most direct and conventional.

  9. minus273 said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 8:12 am

    @Matt: Spot on. "Down" is pronounces dang4 in the usual adaptation.

  10. flow said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 11:58 am

    @minus273, @Matt—As far as I know dang4 當 has been in Taiwanese "student's slang" (for lack of a better term) for decades (it reportedly is/was used as a verb: 老師當了我, "teacher gave me a bad grade").

    To me this is one small piece of evidence that part of the (Mandarin) Chinese interpretation of the 旦-type syllable finals vs. the 當-type finals resides in the vowels as much as in the nasal consonant: to an English speaker, 'down' does not have a velar ending, so writing 當 seems not appropriate; to a Chinese speaker, there's velarity (backness) in the vowelly part, which then is carried over into the final nasal. Thus, features are preserved, but reordered.

    Turns out it's easier to come up with characters for "down" (當) and "wow" 哇 (?) than for /duang/.

  11. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 11:59 am

    The use of "wow" as a stative verb makes me think of the Doge meme on the anglophone Web. How likely is it that the writers of this ad were familiar with it?

  12. Eidolon said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 4:19 pm

    It strikes me that loanwords are ultimately just a form of entrenched diglossia, in which the foreign expressions have been sufficiently 'internalized' so as to be no longer considered 'foreign," and so enter into common usage. In that respect, it's not all that different from us in America using French & German buzzwords in ads.

    I think the more interesting aspect of China's use of pop English expressions is their increasing literacy in the English alphabet, which has allowed them to freely substitute letters for characters. In the past, phonetic loans in China were transliterated in the native script ie by using characters' sounds, but that was because it had to be read by people who were basically literate only in that script. Nowadays, with the advent of pinyin and English language classes, it looks as though enough of the population knows the English alphabet for them to actually pen English words in the English alphabet, and still be understood.

    That is, I think, without precedent in Chinese history before the age of mass literacy and Westernization.

  13. Jeff W said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 9:55 pm

    The way I’d view it, in a “rising tide” of diglossia/digraphia/bilingualism, duang and wow are two words that would be among those that would “float the highest” for different reasons.

    As the first Jacky Chan post indicates, there is no sinographic form of duang yet in any electronic font—so if you’re going to produce a print ad, pinyin is probably the easiest way to write it, along the lines of what Matt said. And the word still seems pretty hot—just yesterday I was searching using some Chinese keywords and hit a splash ad with at least two duang bouncing across the page. (I felt particularly “in the know,” being a Language Log reader.)

    As for wow: my impression, just from chatting with my Mainland friends in English, is that they’ll use wow, more than any native speaker I know, as a synonym for “impress” or “amaze”—e.g., “you really wowed them with…” (as well as using it just as an exclamation). I’ve always ascribed that use to some standard textbook, perhaps, giving it as a “typical” American example. (I’m not saying that is the case—it’s just my speculation.) Maybe there’s some influence as well of Hollywood movies and TV (i.e., Friends) with wow seeming very American (obviously used more as an exclamation).

    So we have (1) these two words, one of which (duang) is really popular right now and can’t easily be rendered in sinographic form, the other of which (wow) can be taken as “amaze/amazing” and might be seen in its English form as “typically American”; (2) the general cachet of “foreign branding” in China, so that the sprinkling of a few words in English gives the product an upscale image; and (3) as Eidolon says, enough of the population learning pinyin and some English in school—certainly, presumably, those in the demographic of buyers of Nissan automobiles—so that the ad is entirely comprehensible and not even remarkable to the target audience. (The use of Down and the slogan in English would be consistent with (2) and (3) also.) That's pretty much a “perfect storm” for producing the diglossia/digraphia/bilingualism in the ad.

RSS feed for comments on this post