Say what?

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Mike Miller received the text below via WeChat recently, where it seems to be making the rounds:

Gěi dàjiā jiǎng yīgè gǎnrén de gùshì: Yīgè qiāng kōng hé jī shè jī cǎn chǐ dú ē, túrán, chài yī líng diàn máo bīn qǐ, lí yuè miè chán…ránhòu jiù sǐle. Tài gǎnrénle…! Zhè gùshì jiào “yīgè wénmáng de bēi'āi”. Dàjiā wǎn'ān, míngtiān jiàn!

给大家讲一个感人的故事: 一个戗箜翮齑歙畿黪褫髑屙 ,突然,虿黟囹簟蟊豳綮,蠡瀹蠛躔…然后就死了。 太感人了…! 这故事叫《一个文盲的悲哀》。大家晚安,明天见!

Let me tell everybody a touching story:  A blah blah blah blah.  Suddenly, blah blah blah, blah blah….  After that he died.  This is so touching.  This story is called "The sorrow of an illiterate".  Good night, everybody.  See you tomorrow.

VHM:  Pinyin transcription and translation added by me.

Mike reports that several Chinese friends with whom he shared this passage responded apologetically that they couldn't actually understand the "story."

Random comments from Chinese friends to whom I sent this passage:

This story doesn't make any sense to me. If someone want to "讲/speak/tell" such a story to me, I would think he is crazy, because nobody will understand.

The passage seems to covey a sense of nonsensical and probably there is a touch of humor in pointing out the illiteracy because of the failure to read tones. But I don't really understand "the touching story" in the passage.

It makes no sense at all! Mocking rarely-used Chinese characters?

This story itself does not make any sense. It contains Chinese characters which most people do not know. If one cannot read the story, then he is illiterate, thus comes the title of this story, "The sorrow of one who is illiterate". It is just an irony rather than a real story.

So what really is the point of this story?

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng, Rebecca Fu, Jing Wen, and Yixue Yang]


  1. Roscoe said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 9:48 am

    Perhaps it's a retelling of Lucy's story from this 1958 "Peanuts" comic?

  2. John said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 10:00 am

    I've seen a similar passage passed around on Facebook in Taiwan, under the title of "what English reading comprehension quizzes look like when you're bad at English."

  3. cameron said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 10:02 am

    The joke is on the reader. It really is nonsense, but the fact that it uses unfamiliar characters makes a reader who harbours doubts about their literacy feel that perhaps they're just not well-educated enough to understand the story. The story's title just underlines that point.

    I remember showing Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames to some native French speakers my own age when I was in high school. They didn't get the joke at all and were convinced that this was some seriously obscure poetry perhaps in an archaic dialect that they didn't understand. The idea that it really was nonsense didn't occur to them. After all, who would write and publish nonsense?

  4. Rube said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 10:08 am

    @cameron — So it's kind of like the joke, "How do you keep a moron in suspense for 24 hours? — I'll tell you tomorrow"?

  5. andyb said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 11:49 am

    @Rube: I think it's more like, "I'll tell you abfrobulatently", expecting that they'll assume that's a real word and be too embarrassed to ask what it means, increasing the suspense even further as they have no idea how long they have to wait.

  6. Guy said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

    'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

    Wow, my autocorrect did not like that.

  7. liuyao said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 4:10 pm

    I don't think anyone would really try to figure out the story; it is instantly clear that it's a joke.

    A better translation of the blah blah parts would be taking those characters to Google translate, and set the language to Latin. Or better yet, do it for each character individually, and then string them together in the same order.

    In fact, I'd bet that most readers of this passage do find one or two of the characters familiar, and after a few seconds of thought it may ring a bell as to which words they appear in (箜 as in 箜篌, a musical instrument; 黟 as in 黟縣, a county in Anhui; 囹 as in 囹圄, a fancy word for prison, etc.) Someone more versed may even recognize all the characters.

    That is to say, they could have made it much worse by picking the characters from, say, the latest additions to Unicode.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 8:12 pm

    At the suggestion of a commenter, the blah blah parts rendered as:


    XI Ji plectrum clausurae Khon KI aut LIQUET vestes capitis, subito, et scorpio Yixian carcere Bamboo grabattum cantharidum Bin plumarii vexillum, Li Yue minutis musca sequantur exemplum


    Closure Khon quill Ji Xi ki Can undress skull defecate, suddenly, the scorpion the Yixian prison bamboo mat Spanish fly Bin embroidered banner, Li Yue minute fly follow precedent

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 8:27 pm

    Mike Miller showed this little self-proclaimed "story" to Chinese friends, and several of them apologized for not being able to understand it. In that respect it is reminiscent of Xu Bing's "Book from the Sky", which countless people tried very hard to read and were upset when they couldn't make sense of the characters in the "Book".

    Here the characters are real, but still I haven't met anyone who can make sense of the passage.

    Most of my respondents opined that it was impossible to make sense of the passage, but there was no unanimity of opinion among them concerning what the joke or satire is about.

    The title of the "story" declares explicitly that it is about the sorrow of someone who is illiterate. If you don't agree with that self-confession, what is your take on this text?

  10. Roscoe said,

    April 29, 2016 @ 9:24 pm

    Another Anglophone equivalent might be the old parody of those even older secretarial-school ads: "If y cn rd ths, itn tyg h myxbl cd."

  11. cameron said,

    April 30, 2016 @ 10:15 am

    If the Book of the Sky was able to fool native Chinese speakers into taking it seriously as a text, how would samples of the old Jurchen script do. Would Chinese speakers make earnest attempts to try to decipher it, or would they immediately recognize it as foreign.

  12. Joshua said,

    April 30, 2016 @ 11:07 am

    I think this is the effect that the story is going for:

    Let me tell everybody a touching story: "The dukun abuccinated that she had nugged the hortensial mericarp and the lecyth. Then she jooked a sandesh nubivagantly. After that she died." The title of the story is "The Sorrow of an Illiterate".

    All the obscure words appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, although having selected the words myself, I wouldn't say that the story is actually worth looking up the words to find out their meanings. (I was structuring the story to be grammatical, not to have interesting content.)

  13. Richard Futrell said,

    April 30, 2016 @ 11:35 am

    @Joshua Interestingly, despite those English words being all incomprehensible, you can still understand the syntactic structure of the story and make some vague sense of it, like Jabberwocky.

    Do the Chinese passages make any sense even syntactically? Can Chinese readers pick out nouns and verbs in there or is it just a soup of unpronounceable characters?

  14. January First-of-May said,

    April 30, 2016 @ 6:00 pm

    @Richard Futrell: probably no, Chinese just doesn't really work that way.

    To be grammatical, English sentences usually have to include lots of short auxillary (perhaps not in the linguistic sense) words – like "that", "the", "and" – which helps a lot in that sort of stuff.
    Perhaps a better comparison would be David Morgan-Mar's "all-buzzword" sentence: "Realigning revenusability metrics encapsulates leveraging scalable synergistic functionality paradigms, proactivating robust scenario rolloutsourcing methodologies." Even so, you can tell a lot just from the word endings (which also aren't a thing in Chinese).
    (Yes, the all-buzzword sentence does have an actual underlying meaning, incidentally.)

    In Russian, there's no (or at least much less) helpful short words, but instead there's a lot of inflection. So you get sentences like "Глокая куздра штеко будланула бокра…" where the vague meaning can be puzzled out from the inflectional endings – even without any real words intervening.
    (The Russian version of the first stanza of Jabberwocky has four recognizable words in the Demurova translation, and two in the Yakhnin translation. The original English has eleven – twelve if we count the opening "'Twas", which is less intelligible to a modern reader.)

    But all of this doesn't work in Chinese, where connecting words are uncommon, inflections are rare, and the grammar heavily depends on word order. So to a Chinese reader (if they don't specifically recognize the characters, which defeats the point of the question) this is indeed a soup of unpronounceable characters (or, presumably, unintelligible pinyin).
    This is not limited to Chinese either, nor peculiar to the Chinese writing system; a Vietnamese equivalent would be just as unintelligible to a Vietnamese reader, for much the same reason. (A Japanese equivalent, however, would probably be quite intelligible to a Japanese reader, because all the helpful stuff would be right there in hiragana!)

    [Note: I'm a native Russian speaker, and a decent English speaker. I do not actually know any Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, or Pama-Nyungan; and even my French is rusty.]

  15. John Swindle said,

    April 30, 2016 @ 6:49 pm

    You mean we could do the whole thing with names of languages and language families?

  16. Ajax said,

    May 1, 2016 @ 7:26 pm

    Roscoe, how old are "those even older secretarial-school ads"? I'd always thought disemvowelling was invented at the Making Light blog to punish trolls…

  17. Terry Hunt said,

    May 3, 2016 @ 10:14 am


    Disemvowelling was indeed invented for this purpose by Making Light co-host Teresa Nielsen Hayden, but she did so while working as a Moderator on Boing Boing. [Disclosure, long time lurking ML reader.]

    As to Roscoe's secretarial school ads, I can confirm from personal observation that they long (by decades) predate disemvowelling as a tool, and were intended as a form of shorthand, as an easier alternative to systems like Pitman and Gregg. I recall often seeing the ads in London Underground carriages, where as near as I can reconstruct, the text read something like "If y cn rd ths, u cn bcm a sctry & gt a gd jb."

  18. Rodger C said,

    May 4, 2016 @ 6:55 am

    w/ mo pa.

  19. John said,

    May 10, 2016 @ 3:07 am

    By modifying Joshua's passage slightly, I think this produces something more akin to the Chinese.

    The dukun abuccinate nugg hortensial mericarp lecyth. Suddenly, jooked sandesh nubivagant. After that she died.

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