Pinyin without Chinese characters

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Occasionally one encounters pinyin with no hanzi (Chinese characters); see at the bottom of this photograph taken by Randy Alexander at a small mall right across from the main entrance to Xiamen (Amoy) University:

It looks like a strange contraption, but the picture on the side tells us that it has something to do with umbrellas, and the three Chinese characters explain that it is a sǎndàijī 伞袋机 ("umbrella bag machine").

Those are enough hints to make sense of the otherwise challenging pinyin sans tones or spacing:

YUDIBUZAIFANWO

Randy and I think the pinyin is a transcription of yǔdī bù zài fán wǒ 雨滴不再烦我 ("raindrops will no longer bother me").  But that is fairly literary, making the toneless and spaceless pinyin all the more difficult to understand.

Here is a less literary, more colloquial rendering:

yǔdī bù zài ràng wǒ fán(nǎo) 雨滴不再让我烦(恼)
("raindrops will no longer bother me")

Though it sounds rather weird, the following has also been suggested:

yǔdī bù zài máfan wǒ 雨滴不再麻烦我
("raindrops will no longer bother me")

I like Maiheng Dietrich's commonsense comment:

Wow, speaking of awkward Chinese! Grammatically, all three are legitimate. The second (with "恼") sounds the best to me, but it's rather poetic. The first and third are both what I would call awkward Chinese. What does this machine do? Produce a plastic bag for your wet umbrella? I don't know what I would say really, maybe "湿伞不再成为问题*" or "解决湿伞问题**." I definitely wouldn't call it 雨滴*** as I associate 雨滴 with the rain drops falling from the sky, not a wet umbrella. However, there is one potential problem with 湿伞**** showing in pinyin because there are several homophone combinations, and people would immediately think of 十三*****、失散****** etc. instead of wet umbrellas. I guess I didn't solve your problem.

* shī sǎn bù zài chéngwéi wèntí ("[your] wet umbrella will no longer be a problem")

** jiějué shī sǎn wèntí ("solve [your] wet umbrella problem")

*** yǔdī ("raindrops")

**** shī sǎn ("wet umbrella")

***** shísān ("13")

****** shīsàn ("scattered")

Probably what they're trying to convey is something like this:

bù zài dānxīn (yǔsǎn) nòng shī dìmiàn 不再担心(雨伞)弄湿地面
("there's no longer a need for [you] to worry that [your umbrella] will make the floor wet").

Randy observes:

…I really doubt that many people would notice what it said there [in pinyin], but the graphic designer apparently thought it was hip. I've seen things like this around but hadn't thought to keep track of them. As far as I can tell they seem to appear in trendy places. I'll try to take more pictures as I come across more examples.

On an unrelated topic: I've been jamming with some local musicians every now and then. They included me in a WeChat group that they use to tell people when to meet, and to discuss equipment and so forth. They're certainly not shy about throwing in English words when they write: jam, hang (out), bass. They're all between 20 and 30 years old. I don't notice that happening at all with people in their 40s and 50s.

As we have seen many times before, use of Roman letters is perceived as cool and cosmopolitan, even if what is written in the alphabet is not understood.  See, for example:

I have occasionally bought products made in China whose packaging (and sometimes even instructions) have no characters and no English, just pinyin.  Usually the pinyin is run together in long strings like "YUDIBUZAIFANWO" or will have all syllables separated by a space. Seldom does it come with tones marked.  Rarely is there both correct spacing of words and tones indicated.

Keep your eyes open for all types.  I'll be especially pleased to receive instances of pinyin only, no matter whether it is correctly parsed or not and whether it has tones marked or not.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng and Rebecca Fu]



17 Comments

  1. Brendan said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 7:53 pm

    "不再烦我 " doesn't strike me as particularly strange — transitive 煩 is pretty common in constructions like 別煩我 "bié fán wǒ" ("Quit annoying me") or adjectives like 煩人 "fánrén" ("irritating, annoying, obnoxious").

    I remember seeing plenty of items — school supplies, clothes, store signs — with run-together, toneless Pinyin, and am pretty sure I remember once hearing someone refer to this as 外文 "wàiwén." None of these was particularly fancy or classy, and I got the sense that the addition of MEIYOUKONGGEDEPINYIN was a quick and easy way of adding some foreign cachet.

  2. Ken Miner said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 9:34 pm

    Colleagues of mine who devised writing systems for unwritten tone languages used to complain to me that "you cannot get native speakers to write tone marks consistently or even at all". I saw this once in the classroom: a speaker of an African tone language was demonstrating his written language on the blackboard. He wrote no tone marks even though they were part of the system.

    Is this generally the case with users of Pinyin?

  3. Vincent Chen said,

    July 21, 2015 @ 12:50 am

    Generally I agree with Brendan. As a Chinese native speaker (in Taiwan, though), somehow I think the original version is better then the second and the third alternatives. It's "wierdness" at first glance is exactly the reason for me to feel more suitable in that case rather than the rest ones. It is an understandable way to use a less formal writing style with a kind of amusing short, cathy language. If you have already chosen "raindrops" as the subject, "雨滴不再烦我" gives people a more personified image and thus more interesting. In this sense, "雨滴不再让我烦(恼)" is actually the "wierd" alternative, for it stucks between actual formal language of official notices and a humourous reminder. A "not-so-awkard" Chinese I could think of is QINGYONGSANDAIYIMIANNONGSHIDIMIEN, but it nevertheless loses the purpose to use ONLY Pinyin as a more casual/friendly way of announcement. To me here is an interesting mechanism: Untoned and jointed Pinyin actually seems more "formal" and more "suitable" in such case, for it resembles English writings more, and it also gets rid of the "childish sense" of toned Pinyin which is mostly for kids or Chinese learners.

  4. Bill said,

    July 21, 2015 @ 1:58 am

    That device puts a plastic sleeve over your umbrella when you come in out of the rain, so it doesn't drip water all over the place.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2015 @ 7:12 am

    From a Chinese teacher, commenting on these three sentences:

    1.
    yǔdī bù zài ràng wǒ fán(nǎo) 雨滴不再让我烦(恼)

    2.
    yǔdī bù zài máfan wǒ 雨滴不再麻烦我

    3.
    yǔdī bù zài fán wǒ 雨滴不再烦我

    ======

    The first two sentences are both legitimate, though with slightly different meanings. The first one is "Raindrops no longer make me worried", while the second is "Raindrops no longer trouble me".

    The third sentence is also legitimate, meaning "Raindrops no longer bug me or annoy me", but I actually think it's a rather casual and colloquial expression. 烦, when used as a verb, is very colloquial. For example, young people often say 别烦我 (Stop bugging me! Leave me alone). However since raindrops are not humans, it sounds very strange to say 雨滴不再烦我. I would say 雨滴不再困扰我 (Raindrops no longer bother me) instead.

  6. michael farris said,

    July 21, 2015 @ 12:20 pm

    "Colleagues of mine who devised writing systems for unwritten tone languages used to complain to me that "you cannot get native speakers to write tone marks consistently or even at all"."

    In my experience Vietnamese speakers are pretty conscientious about writing tones (they may do so out of a feeling of proper spelling than anything else). So are Thai speakers (though thai script more hints at tones through various spelling techniques than marking them outright and unambiguously like Vietnamese).

    It does seem true that it's an uphill battle to get speakers of pitch languages to write pitch (since usually things are completely clear without marking it).

    For pinyin i think the question is word divisions. Running all the syllables together or writing each one separately both seem confusing while pinyin with word divisions and no tones is supposedly not hard to read most of the time.

  7. John Swindle said,

    July 21, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

    Why, how do you say "umbrella sharpener" in Chinese?

  8. Guy said,

    July 21, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

    @Ken Miner

    I'm reminded of when poetic meter was first taught to me in school and was surprised to learn how many of my classmates were completely unable to identify which syllable of an English word is stressed. In my experience, Spanish speakers often don't bother to write accent marks even though it's part of the spelling system and frequently is of lexical significance, even appearing in the verb paradigm (e.g. first person singular indicative present "hablo" v. third person singular indicative preterite "habló", or first person singular indicative preterite "hablé" v. first-or-third person singular subjunctive present "hable").

  9. Xiao Shi said,

    July 21, 2015 @ 5:21 pm

    Agree w/ bokane… it doesn't strike me as literary either, and it also looks like the Pinyin might be there for aesthetic as opposed to linguistic effect.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2015 @ 5:28 pm

    Among my many Cantonese speaking friends, very few of them can tell me for sure how many tones are in their language, nor how to mark the tones, nor how to spell their language in Romanization — with the rare exception of those who have received special training in linguistics or in pedagogy.

  11. Hiroshi said,

    July 21, 2015 @ 8:51 pm

    I'm guessing the lack of tone marking in Pinyin could be a technology issue—most people simply don't know how to type Pinyin with tones or they think it's too much trouble. If you ask people to write Pinyin with pens, my guess is that many of them would write with proper tone markings, as they were taught (and tested on) in elementary schools. On the other hand, I've often seen people using numbers to indicate tones when they need to type Pinyin. For example, I got a text message from a friend the other day saying "wo3 de shou3 ji1 huai4 le"(我的手機壞了 my phone is broken). Jyutping influence?

    As for the sentences, I concur with several other commenters that "雨滴不再煩我" seems very natural to me. But if I were just casually looking at the machine, I'll probably mistake the bottom line of Pinyin as name of the manufacturer and won't pay much attention. The designer doesn't seem to be putting much emphasis on those words—it's more like a random decoration. But I see nothing wrong with the language in that phrase. (Also, Xiamen/Amoy is a Taiwanese/Hokkien speaking region… not sure if that's relevant, though.)

    Here is another fun example of Pinyin usage. There happen to be a standard student English notebook in my possession that says "YING YU BU"(英語簿 English Notebook) on its cover.
    http://hiroshi-astra.github.io/assets/yingyubu1.jpg
    http://hiroshi-astra.github.io/assets/yingyubu2.jpg
    http://hiroshi-astra.github.io/assets/yingyubu3.jpg
    The notebook is made in mainland China (somewhere near Xiamen/Amoy, actually) and appears to be a school-issued item, as it says the production is overseen by the county bureau of education. I found "YING YU BU" funny because I would expect them to use English rather than Pinyin considering it's an ENGLISH notebook. In fact, they do use English words ("weekday", "date") on the inside. (An unrelated detail that interests me is the mixed use of both traditional and simplified characters.)

    Victor Mair said, July 21, 2015 @ 5:28 pm
    Among my many Cantonese speaking friends, very few of them can tell me for sure how many tones are in their language, nor how to mark the tones, nor how to spell their language in Romanization — with the rare exception of those who have received special training in linguistics or in pedagogy.

    But I thought Jyutping and Cantonese Pinyin (教院式) are widely taught in Hong Kong schools… Or is that a recent thing? It would be true for Taiwanese/Hokkien speakers, though.

  12. Rolig said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 4:47 am

    Just curious: Could the statement "Raindrops won't bother me anymore" be alluding to some Chinese version of the Bert Bacharach song "Raindrops keep falling on my head / but that doesn't mean my eyes will soon be turning red"?

  13. Victor Mair said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 11:15 am

    Bearing in mind that the pinyin on the umbrella bagging machine is written down very low next to the floor, here is an ingenious suggestion from Don Clarke:

    On the question of "yudibuzaifanwo", I wonder if we could interpret it as the floor speaking, with "fan" as fàn 犯 ("offend; commit an offense against"). You can certainly say "X 犯我"; one of the Party's favorite nationalist slogans is 人不犯我,我不犯人;人若犯我,我必犯人 (although no doubt many people who have faced the Party's wrath for inoffensive activities might beg to differ).

  14. Hiroshi said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 6:23 pm

    Aha! I wonder why it did not occur to me earlier… So I googled "伞袋机 雨滴不再", and here are some results I found:

    1. 114批发网–厂家促销/著名品牌雨伞包装机UPM-02/雨滴不再烦我!

    Highlight on the "雨滴不再烦我"!!!

    2. A blog article on blogbus.com/aoikitty-logs dated 2011-07-17

    There's a photo showing the umbrella-bagging machine which looks identical to the one seen in Xiamen/Amoy University. Though it appears that this one is spotted in Beijing (since the blog article referenced "四惠").
    "是个店门口的雨伞机 分长伞和短伞 上面的字是 雨滴不再烦我(我记成雨滴不再孤单了 哈哈)"

    3. 四川新闻网-成都商报–为孩子着想 省科技馆所有警示牌都比普通的大

    "因此,伞袋机外面幽默地写着"雨滴不再愁"的提示语。"

    4. 中国供应商首页–深圳洁臣士清洁系统有限公司–伞袋机

    "我们也可以在伞袋机外面幽默地写着"雨滴不再愁"的提示语。" (My attempt at translation: "We can also humorously add "no more worry about raindrops" on the outside of the umbrella-bagging machine.")

    So I think YUDIBUZAIFANWO probably means 雨滴不再烦我 given evidences. On a separate note, the new popular nationalist slogan relating to "犯我" is "犯我中华者,虽远必诛". Some examples:

    1. "犯我中华者,虽远必诛" as seen on a poster for the movie 戰狼.
    2. "犯我中华(云南除外)者,虽远(只限国内)必诛" as seen on a parody poster, referencing to the news that bombs dropped by a Myanmar warplane killed 4 Chinese and wounded 9 in Yunnan Province of China. There's also a variation of "虽远必(口)诛" but I cannot find it now.

  15. Hiroshi said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 6:31 pm

    Wait, there's a slight difference between the two machines (the one seen in Xiamen and the one on aoikitty-logs's blog). The latter has big Chinese characters "雨滴不再烦我" printed across the middle part of the machine–and in bright yellow color and a cheeky font (comic-con equivalence?).

  16. j2h said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

    Hiroshi – If you look closely in the same spot on the Xiamen machine, it looks like the characters actually were present originally, but have faded/worn away over time. So maybe not a case of pinyin without characters after all.

  17. Hiroshi said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 6:12 pm

    j2h — I think you are absolutely right! Now that you mentioned it, I can clearly see the faded characters (at least the first three, "雨滴不"). But it's interesting how the yellow characters faded so badly while other printings held up pretty well.

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