English in Chinese: over了, out了, 太low了, 太out了

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Note from Gábor Ugray:

I just came across a hugely exciting conversation on Twitter, about English words mixed in with Chinese / adopted into Chinese speech – as seen in the subject line. There’s no easy way to extract conversations from Twitter, but it’s all in Liz Carter's feed today: https://twitter.com/withoutdoing

The character that occurs four times in the title of this post — 了 — is pronounced "le" (neutral tone).  In the first two instances its function is that of a particle indicating change of state.  In the second two instances it is part of a grammatical pattern — tàiXle 太X了– meaning "too X".

The thread initiated by Liz Carter provides many more examples of English words being used freely in Chinese.

One that is very fashionable (if I may) in Chinese, is the word "fashion" itself, as in this sentence:

Nà jiàn bìng bù fashion, zhè yī jiàn cái shì fashion 那件并不fashion, 这一件才是fashion ("That one is not fashionable, but this one is").

One of the tweeters, Nick Admussen, comments:  "I think there was a comedy sketch somewhere about this?"

There certainly was:  I discussed this usage in the following post:

"The Westernization of Chinese " (9/6/12)

In it, I described a viral video featuring "Miss Lin", who uses the word "fashion" and many other English words and expressions dozens of times, and makes excellent use of her trademark phrase "hold住”, where zhù 住 is a resultative complement signifying that the action of the verb is to be maintained firmly.

This is all part of what I call "emerging digraphia".  But what is happening is not just the concurrent use of words written in the Roman alphabet and in Chinese characters.  It is also the mixing of English words and morphemes with Chinese words and morphemes in writing and in speech, for which see the following posts:

"A New Morpheme in Mandarin " (4/26/11)

"Morpheme(s) of the Year " (12/17/11) (English > Japanese > Chinese)

"A Sino-English grammatical construction " (3/23/15)

If these trends continue, the simultaneous use of Roman letters and Chinese characters and the smooth resort to English in the midst of Mandarin or other Sinitic languages à la Miss Lin will become second nature, just as inputting Chinese characters with Pinyin is now nearly universal.


  1. John Rohsenow said,

    October 25, 2015 @ 4:15 pm

    May I say: "Enough about LE already! (sic)" ;-)

  2. Bob Ladd said,

    October 26, 2015 @ 2:40 am

    Surely it is putting the cart before the horse to describe Chinese with lots of English borrowings as "part of emerging digraphia". You can find L with lots of English borrowings in many parts of the world (e.g. for L=Italian, the Italian government recently set up a task force and conducted a spending review, and a few years ago renamed a government department the Ministero del Welfare). Obviously, where L=Chinese, this kind of thing is likely to entail digraphia if you want to write it down, but it's knowledge of English and consequent borrowing that is driving the digraphia, not the other way round.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 26, 2015 @ 8:37 am

    Does "emerging" imply causality? It just describes a phenomenon that is in process; it's happening. Familiarity with English is one of the driving factors, but more important is inputting with Pinyin **for Chinese**, which I referred to in the final embedded link of this post, and in the eight posts cited in the linked post. See especially "Creeping Romanization in Chinese" (8/30/12), where I discuss in great detail zìmǔ cí 字母词 ("letter words", i.e., words used in Chinese that consist partially or wholly of Roman letters).

    Also see "Zhao C: a Man Who Lost His Name" (2/27/09), where I cite the very important article by Mark Hansell, "The Sino-Alphabet: The Assimilation of Roman Letters into the Chinese Writing System," Sino-Platonic Papers, 45 (May, 1994), 1-28, which I have also referred to in other Language Log posts and comments. In these and other Language Log posts, I mention many other resources for the study of the emergence of Romanization in Chinese.

    And don't miss the wonderful treasury that is http://www.pinyin.info/

    Also don't forget the most famous Chinese story of the 20th century: Ā Q Zhèngzhuàn 阿Q正傳 ("The True Story of Ah Q").

    Digraphia has been slowly emerging in China for more than a century (actually for more than four centuries if we go back to Matteo Ricci, Nicolas Trigault, and the other early Jesuits who introduced Romanization to China) for a variety of reasons, not just familiarity with English. As for the pace of the emergence, it is on an upward curve.

  4. minus273 said,

    October 26, 2015 @ 1:14 pm

    “fashion” isn't fashionable for a couple of years anymore. It now sounds like a poor and “out”(dated) imitation of the fashionable.

  5. Sili said,

    October 26, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

    There’s no easy way to extract conversations from Twitter

    Don't twitter, myself, but this seems to be what people use: https://storify.com/

  6. minus273 said,

    October 26, 2015 @ 1:18 pm

    “out” and “low” are firmly entrenched in the language though. Seems that monosyllabic anglicisms have a better staying power.

  7. Bathrobe said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 1:32 am

    Will Xi Dada be able to stem the tide? If he has his way (e.g., in education and literature), the language will be lurching back in the direction of traditionalism and national pride…

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 9:52 am

    @Scott Robinson

    Start with the fundamentals of the Mandarin sound system. At least two weeks 8 hours a day with a teacher who is patient and willing to correct his errors, over and over again.

    One of my best Ph.D. students is an excellent young scholar and writes pretty good English, but it's very hard for people to understand what he's saying. At first I didn't want to hurt his feelings, and thought that the situation would improve after years of being in the United States. Finally, when it came time for him to start giving public talks and going on the job market, I told him that he really needed to learn to enunciate more clearly, and gave him precise tips about how to move his tongue and lips for each sound. I also helped him get several speech coaches. Now, after a year of conscientious efforts of working on the basics, there's a world of difference. People can understand what he says, and he himself is much more confident about presenting papers and joining in workshop discussions, etc.


    Intentional deformation of writing is hardly comparable to unintentional errors of speech.

    @Bob Ladd

    dāngrán 当然 ("of course!")

    @Jonathan Badger

    My wife used to be able to do it in her intensive classes at Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Harvard, Penn… while the students were taking a full load of other courses.


    Can Xi Dada force people not to use Pinyin for inputting?

  9. Eidolon said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 12:39 pm

    The mixing of English words into Chinese is not unique to Chinese but is, as @Bob Ladd directs, a popular trend across the world due, of course, to the contemporary association of the Anglophone world with what's modern and fashionable. You see it just as well in Japanese, Korean, Persian, Turkish, etc. and of course the various European languages. But the use of the Roman alphabet to write these English phonetic loans, while also not restricted to Chinese, is especially expedient in Chinese because 1) there is no standard for transcribing a lot of these English phonetic loans with the default script, thus causing misreading when people try to transcribe them idiosyncratically and 2) more importantly, because it's just so much easier to write them out using the Roman alphabet, and all Chinese students are taught how to read that alphabet via both pinyin and actual English classes in school.

    The latter method also makes it explicit that this is an English word and not the hanzi transcription of a different language/internet meme. As for whether Xi Dada is going to put an end to this "corruption of the language" – given the general failure of similar efforts by other countries to stop the advance of Anglophone culture and terms into their local societies, I wouldn't count on it. As long as Western civilization is ascendant and is represented by the Anglophone sphere, it will continue.

  10. Richard W said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 9:01 pm

    @Victor Mair
    At least part of your last comment seems to be directed to commenter(s) on the topic "Zuckerberg's Mandarin, ch. 2".

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