What's in a name — Pikachu, Beikaciu, Pikaqiu?

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Since I began writing blogs for Language Log around ten years ago, I have never received so many tips on what to write about as I have in response to the furor that has arisen over Nintendo's plan to change the Chinese names for some of the characters in their immensely popular Pokémon (ポケモン < Pokettomonsutā ポケットモンスター ["Pocket Monster"]) game series.

For example, much loved Pikachu (Pikachū ピカチュウ) was originally called Bei2kaat1ciu1 比卡超 in Hong Kong, which is very close to its Japanese name, Pikachu.  But now Nintendo wants to get rid of Bei2kaat1ciu1 比卡超 and force the people of Hong Kong to use the Mandarin name Píkǎqiū 皮卡丘.  This same policy extends to more than a hundred Pokemon characters, who will be renamed in accordance with Mandarin transcriptions.  You can imagine how alien that will sound to Cantonese speakers who have grown up with Pokemon characters having Cantonese names now to lose those intimate appellations in favor of names that have a Mandarin ring to them.

In the current political climate, with Hong Kong under increasing pressure from China to adhere to mainland norms regarding law, censorship, freedom of speech, and, worst of all, language (Mandarin over Cantonese) and script (simplified characters over traditional characters), the people of Hong Kong are acutely sensitive to anything that smacks of further mainlandization.  Mandarin written in simplified characters is truly repellant to nearly all people of Hong Kong, who consider the simplified characters pretty much of an abomination (this is what I hear from my friends, colleagues, and students there [not immigrants from the mainland]), and think that, while the many Mandarin topolects (with their reduced phonologies) may be all right for northerners, they sound uncouth to their southern ear that is accustomed to a greater range of tones and a different set of consonants and vowels (1,760 syllables vs. about 1,300 syllables).

Now Nintendo wants to unify them: Pokémon in Greater China will be officially called Jīnglíng Bǎokěmèng 精靈寶可夢 in Mandarin (Jīnglíng means "spirit" or "elf", and Bǎokěmèng is a transcription of Pokémon).  In Hong Kong, Pokémon used to be called Cung2mat6 siu2zing1ling4  寵物小精靈 ("Pet Little Elves / Spirits"), while in Taiwan, it was Shénqí bǎobèi 神奇寶貝 ("Magic Babies").

As noted above, Pikachu was originally transcribed as Bei2kaat1ciu1 比卡超 in Hong Kong. Now it will be named Píkǎqiū 皮卡丘. While the name Píkǎqiū 皮卡丘 in Mandarin allegedly sounds similar to the global name Pikachu, it is pronounced Pei4kaa1jau1 in Cantonese, which sounds very different.

If I were a Mandarin speaker, I wouldn't be happy with Píkǎqiū 皮卡丘 either, since the last syllable is way off.  I'd much prefer something like Píkǎchù 皮卡處.

Here's some of the news coverage on renaming of the Pokemon characters in the Sinosphere:

"Nintendo is renaming Pikachu in one of its largest markets, and Hong Kongers are not happy" (Quartz, 5/30/16)

Nintendo "should respect our local culture," Chu Sung Tak, a 18-year-old high school graduate at the protest said. Chu said he is a Pokémon fan, but he joined the demonstration mostly because he wanted to "defend local language." He vowed to boycott Nintendo if the company doesn't answer their demands.

From Nintendo's standpoint, a unified Chinese translation is probably a simple commercial decision. But to Hong Kong activists, language is also political.

"Our culture [and] language is threatened by the Beijing government, Mandarin, and simplified Chinese [characters]," said Wong Yeung-tat, founder of Civic Passion, a radical localist group which seeks independence from China….  "We're afraid Cantonese may be disappearing."

Video game renaming is just a tiny part of the shift to Mandarin—[only] 40% of Hong Kong's primary schools are teaching Cantonese, a recent survey found.

Since the release of Pokémon's Chinese names, Hong Kong have vowed to boycott Nintendo on its Hong Kong Facebook page.

"Pikachu is 比卡超, not 皮卡丘, I hereby vow I will never buy from Nintendo again, unless you finally understand what is Cantonese and the correct Chinese usage," one gamer wrote. "Nintendo, why do you want to insult Cantonese?," another asked.

… In a letter (link in Chinese), Nintendo (Hong Kong) Ltd. Games asked Hong Kong fans to read the Pokémon's name as "Pikachu," despite how it sounds in Cantonese.

On many levels, that is a callous sacrilege.  This is serious business, with demonstrations and protests in front of the Japanese Consulate in Central, Hong Kong.

"Why the plan to rename Pikachu has made Hong Kong angry " (BBC, 5/31/16)

"Hong Kong Pokémon fans protest over Pikachu translation:  A decision to cut the Cantonese version of 'Pokemon Sun and Moon' has caused a backlash among Hong Kong residents." (endgadget, 5/31/16)

"Hong Kongers Protest Over New Translation of 'Pikachu'" (WSJ, 2/31/16)  Excellent video in which you can hear the relevant pronunciations spoken clearly in Cantonese and Mandarin, and with this whammy of a closing sentence:  "I'd rather play the Japanese version of the video game."

The people of Hong Kong are up in arms over these name changes.  For Hong Kongers, it's not simply Nintendo's whim to compel Cantonese speakers to adopt a Mandarin name.  Rather, they see these changes as an attack on their language and culture.



26 Comments

  1. unekdoud said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 4:43 am

    Pikachu does say ("cry") its own name in the anime series, and as far as I can tell that last syllable always sounds closer to "chew" than "choo". (It's not so obvious when trainers say the name in the English dubs.) Here's an example that made it into the games: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSponyY0Pk4

    So while Mandarin 皮卡處 would be closer to the English spelling and pronunciation, 皮卡丘 is closer to the intended pronunciation based on the Japanese name.

    More on Chinese names:
    A list of Chinese and Cantonese Pokémon names can be seen at http://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/List_of_Chinese_Pok%C3%A9mon_names . One of the old comments on the talk page says "While the names are used in various official media, Nintendo's website noted that the names are only for reference."

    The Chinese version of that wiki gives a more detailed breakdown of the sources. Here are some examples of differences in names, using TW,CN,HK to indicate usage in Taiwan, Mainland China and Hong Kong, and listing TW names in Simplified Chinese to match CN.
    [58] Growlithe: TW/CN 卡蒂狗, HK 護主犬
    [110] Weezing: TW/CN 双弹瓦斯, HK 毒氣雙子
    [111] Rhyhorn: TW/HK/CN 铁甲犀牛, Nintendo's announcement calls this 獨角犀牛.
    [136] Flareon: TW/CN 火精灵, HK 火伊貝 (name diffference applies to all evolutions of Eevee, Nintendo's announcement calls this 火伊布)
    [590] Foongus: TW 宝贝球菇, HK/CN 精靈球菇 (name is a reference to Pokéballs and depends on the translation of "Pokémon")
    [673] Gogoat: TW/HK 坐骑山羊, HK 指路羊 (both have been used in Hong Kong for different official media).
    [717] Yveltal: TW/HK 伊裴尔塔尔, HK 伊秘魯塔路
    The differences aren't just limited to Pokémon names: names of trainers can also differ between translations.
    In my opinion, much of this confusion could have been avoided if the companies involved had chosen single Chinese names and made them official, so it's a good thing that this decision is being made now, before yet another batch of new Pokémon are added to the series.

  2. Joseph F Foster said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 6:26 am

    Never saw these written. I assumed that character was Peek at You.

  3. Spectator said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 6:31 am

    @unekdoud
    but… Cantonese is not the same language as mandarin.
    Not only it may seem disrespectful to be forced to play the game in a foreign language, but it's also a bad commercial move. If French players had to play the game in English, Pokémon would have been a lot less successful in France.

    Removing a language from a game is never a good idea. You may save some money, but it's really bad press and you'll lose potential buyers.

    Nintendo's commercial policy is catastrophic anyway. It's like they don't know how the world works outside of Japan.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 7:04 am

    Play the recording buttons for each of these:

    C. qiū 丘

    C. chù 處

    J. chū チュウ, as in Pikachū ピカチュウ

    The vowel quality is important too.

    Judging from this letter to Hong Kong fans written by Nintendo (Hong Kong) Ltd. Games, they seem to take the English "Pikachu" as global standard, in which case "Pikachū ピカチュウ" would be the katakana transcription of the English.

  5. David Morris said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 7:05 am

    "Since the release of Pokémon's Chinese names, Hong Kong have vowed to boycott Nintendo" (from the Quartz article).

    What's gone wrong here and what's the easiest edit? Victor uses 'the people of Hong Kong' and 'all people of' in his article. Is the phrase Hong Kongers in use? 'Hong Kong has vowed' would probably mean an official decision by its government.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 7:28 am

    @David Morris

    That usage of "Hong Kong" in the quotation to which you refer also bothered me, and I spent some time modifying it several ways, e.g., "Hong Kong[ers]", but, finding none of them satisfactory, just let the Quartz wording stand on its own. I'm glad that you've called attention to it.

    Note that "Hong Kong" — who/whatever that is — have apparently vowed to boycott Nintendo on its own Hong Kong Facebook page.

  7. Keith said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 7:58 am

    @David and Victor
    Is Hong Kong masculine or feminine? Or neither? Or both?
    English lacks a suitably ambiguous, ambivalent or neutral pronoun, so the clear solution is to use singular "they" followed by the plural verb.
    So, like, Hong Kong have,like, totally vowed to, like, boycott Nintendo!!1!!1!!

  8. Ellen K. said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 8:38 am

    @unekdoud

    What's the difference in pronunciation between chew and choo? For me, they are pronounced the same.

  9. JK said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 9:26 am

    This made me think of Doraemon, another Japanese cultural icon famous in China, according to the Cantonese Wikipedia (https://zh-yue.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%A4%9A%E5%95%A6A%E5%A4%A2) it was written as 多啦A夢, which is the same as the Mainland rendering. Was the Cantonese pronunciation similar enough in this case to not require a name change?

  10. Travis said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 10:02 am

    Thank you for sharing with us the hanzi in question. I may be off-base to be annoyed by this, but it did pester me that so many English-language articles should bother addressing the topic (at all) and yet not include the characters.

    Maybe those of us who read enough Chinese to get something from being able to see the characters, and yet do not read enough Chinese to want to just turn to the Chinese (or Japanese) news media on the subject, may be in the minority – and not only that, but a weird special case, admittedly. But, even so, it irks me… working on a blog post on this now. If it's alright, maybe I'll share the URL once it's posted.

  11. Gunnar H said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 12:01 pm

    There have been similar situations (though generally without the political dimension) for a lot of comic book and cartoon characters in a number of European countries, as established local names are abandoned, usually for the original/English names. Often this seems to be motivated by movie adaptations that popularize the English version.

    It can definitely be an odd feeling to suddenly lose the familiar localized names.

    Norway:
    Herbert & Hundbert –> Dilbert (& Dogbert)
    Lynvingen ("The Flash-Wing") –> Batman
    Edderkoppen ("The Spider") –> Spider-Man
    Demonen ("The Demon") –> Daredevil
    Vektere ("Guardians"/"Watchmen") –> Watchmen
    Prosjekt X ("Project X") –> X-Men
    Jerven ("The Wolverine") –> Wolverine

    In Spain there's currently a relaunch going on of the Belgian comic Spirou et Fantasio, which had previously been published as Espirú y Fantasio. This time they're sticking with the French version of the name, and the publisher is running a big series of art exhibitions/marketing events under the motto "…y se escribe Spirou"

  12. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

    Ellen K: It's a matter of different realizations of /t͡ʃ/. I think that pinyin <ch> represents a [ʈ͡ʂ] sound, but the sound represented in English and romaji by ch is more like [t͡ɕ], which corresponds to pinyin <q>. It's true that writing English "chew" and "choo" isn't helpful.

  13. unekdoud said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 1:43 pm

    I was trying to point out the difference in vowels between pinyin qiu and chu, but it didn't occur to me that "chew" and "choo" may not have distinct vowel sounds for many English speakers. (I perceive the difference between 丘 and 處 as both a consonant and vowel difference, but in comparison with the Japanese reading I find the difference in vowel sound more noticeable.)

    @Spectator: In this case, the issue isn't about removing a language from the game, since this is the first time Chinese has been officially supported in the game series (I haven't seen the specific release, but I assume that both Traditional and Simplified Chinese will be available). In the case of other media such as anime and manga series, the different localizations/translations have been released separately from the original and by local companies, so the issue of availability of that language doesn't really come up.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 1, 2016 @ 7:02 pm

    More on Pokémon protests in HK

    "Pokémon protests: what they tell us about Hong Kong-China relations (+video)
    Nintendo has declared its intention to unify Pokémon offerings across China, sparking the latest Hong Kong protests fueled by fears of diminishing autonomy." (CSM, 5/31/16)

    "Pikachu's name change in China is leading to protests in Hong Kong: They're not very happy with Nintendo" (Polygon, 5/31/16)

    "In Hong Kong and All Around the World, the #StarWarsGen Will Be Wooed, Not Coerced" (Huffington Post, 5/31/16)

  15. John said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 3:58 am

    @Spectator:

    but… Cantonese is not the same language as mandarin…. If French players had to play the game in English, Pokémon would have been a lot less successful in France.

    The sad thing is that HK people still perceive Mandarin and Cantonese to be dialects of a single language, so they won't make this logical jump.

    It is really the same thing as Nintendo saying "everyone in the EEA speaks English anyway, so let's just release an English version for them all"

    @VHM

    Mandarin written in simplified characters is truly repellant to nearly all people of Hong Kong, who consider the simplified characters pretty much of an abomination (this is what I hear from my friends, colleagues, and students there [not immigrants from the mainland]), and think that, while the many Mandarin topolects (with their reduced phonologies) may be all right for northerners, they sound uncouth to their southern ear

    As a Hong Kong Brit, I find that I perceive simplified characters to be as repellant as American spelling, and American accents have the same effect on me as Mandarin does (i.e. they sounds somewhat annoying and grating), though I would like to think I speak Mandarin better than most HKers and I am perfectly happy to use simplified characters in the appropriate situations (after all they are faster to write).

    A final note: when I was growing up in HK and playing Pokemon, everything was in Japanese. HK kids have it easy nowadays.

  16. leoboiko said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 9:26 am

    Bulbapedia has a list of Chinese Pokémon names.

    The problem with the Pokémon Chinese unification is that, like Pikachu, a lot of their names are just phonetic transcriptions – and the phonetics of the characters change between languages. For example, Xerneas (Japanese zeruneasu, [zeɾɯneasɯ̥], likely intended to suggest [zeɹneas]) is unified to 哲爾尼亞斯, which in Mandarin is read as Zhé'ěrníyǎsī /ʈʂe ɚ ni ja sɨ/. Not an exact match, but close enough. However, the same characters read as Cantonese result in Jit yíh nèi ha sī (/tsit ji nej ha si/, I guess; there's a Cantonese text-to-speech engine here; the ‹h› sounds more like a /ŋ/ to me in its rendering).

    Judging from the lists, Pokémon names were unified as far back as second-generation; so it's just the first 151 who have different names in the three languages. These 151, however, are the most iconic, so people will naturally reject kanji transcriptions of their favorite monsters when happen to sound all wrong in their language.

    Many Chinese Pokémon names aren't transcriptions, but actual translations, using the characters semantically. These don't break as easily as phonetic transcriptions; but it's still a change from the names they know and love. Bulbasaur, which in Japanese is Fushigidane "Wonderseed", became 奇異種子 "Wonderseed" in Cantonese, but 妙蛙種子 "Wonder-frog-seed" in Mandarin. Grimer is 臭泥 "Stenchmud" in Mandarin, but 爛泥怪 "Ooze-monster" in Cantonese. Parasect is phonetic in Mandarin, 派拉斯特 Pàilāsītè , but Cantonese got 巨菇蟲 "Giant Fungiworm".

    (Incidentally, Pokémon fans will smile at Scyther's Chinese name, which is the same in both languages: 飛天螳螂 "Sky-soaring mantis", "Apsara mantis". The joke being that Scyther looks like it can learn to fly, but, infamously, can't.)

  17. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2016 @ 9:35 am

    From Matt Anderson:

    I followed your link & looked at Nintendo's HK Facebook page, and found this nice passage in a comment by someone named Isaac Cheung to Nintendo's post that reads "繁體中文版Nintendo 3DS專用下載軟體 『Fantasy Pirate (日文版)』公開發售!".

    請問皮卡丘,又如何以pikachu記載讀音呢?那我是否又可以將貴公司名稱【任天堂】讀為【淫賤堂】(yumchintong)呢?
    [my rough translation:] May I ask, can 皮卡丘 really have the reading 'pikachu'? In that case, may I also pronounce your fine corporation's name, Nintendo (任天堂 Jam4tin1tong4), as 'yumchintong' (Jam4zin6tong4 淫賤堂, or 'wanton/obscene company")?

    (I'm not sure about the tone of 任 in 任天堂, but if it's not pronounced jam4 it's jam6, still close enough for the pun.)

    Isaac Cheung's full comment in Chinese on Nintendo's HK Facebook page is fairly dripping with satire.

  18. Shihchuan said,

    June 3, 2016 @ 4:17 am

    >> If I were a Mandarin speaker, I wouldn't be happy with Píkǎqiū 皮卡丘 either, since the last syllable is way off. I'd much prefer something like Píkǎchù 皮卡處.

    I am a Mandarin speaker, and after some consideration, I would still prefer Píkǎqiū 皮卡丘 over Píkǎchù 皮卡處. I feel that despite the difference in the vowel quality, it's the consonant quality that sets the tone in this case: the consonant of both "qiū" and "chu" are /tɕ/, with palatalization, whereas the consonant of "chù" is quite far apart: whether the retroflex /tʂ/ for people with a more (Northern) "standard" accent, or the plain alveolar /ts/ for people speaking Taiwanese Mandarin (which would still sound closer to the Japanese "tsu" instead of "chu").

    Besides, there do exist accents which pronounces "qiū" as /tɕju/, with /u/ instead of /ou/ at the end, so in my view "qiū" remains a better way to approximate Japanese "chu" than "chù".

  19. Victor Mair said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 3:14 am

    Those who are still proclaiming the superiority of Mandarin Píkǎqiū 皮卡丘 over other transcriptions of Pikachu have ignored the fact that Nintendo wants the English version to be the global standard, not the Japanese katakana transcription of the English.

  20. leoboiko said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 6:44 am

    the Japanese katakana transcription of the English.

    Well, the Japanese came first (and indeed pikachu is derived from Japanese words; pikapika is the phono-semantic expression for "glittering; sparkly", while -chu is an onomatopoeia for a rat's cry, like English "squeak"). So rather than "katakana transcription of the English", it would be more adequate to talk about "English pronunciation/adaptation of the Japanese name".

    Other pokémon have radically different names in the original Japanese and English translated releases, like Fushigidane "Wonderseed, Strangeseed" > Bulbasaur. Other translations have varied on which to follow; French is Bulbizarre, which seems to mix both, and German likewise got Bisasam (< Bi-Saurier-Samen, Bi-seed-saur). As far as I can tell, the official Chinese names have been so far based on the Japanese ones. Cubone and Marowak in the original Japanese are Karakara and Garagara; in Chinese, 可拉可拉 Kělākělā and Gālāgālā . Hitmontop is Kapoerā in Japan, 柯波朗 Kēbōlǎng in China. Garbodor, the "odorous" monster born out of "garbage", is Dasutodasu in the original ("puts out dust"; also a pun on "dust-to-dust"). Chinese got 灰塵山 "Dustmountain". Garchomp in Japanese is Gaburiasu, from gaburito "chomp" and asu "Earth" , while punning on Carcharias "shark". Chinese got 烈咬陸鯊 "fierce-chomp-earth-shark"; the presence of "earth" shows it's based on the original.

    So, if the official Chinese translation is to be based on the Chinese translation, that, too, is a change from what they've been doing so far.

  21. leoboiko said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 6:48 am

    Correction: "if the Chinese translation is to be based on the Chinese English translation"…

    Also, I suppose 陸鯊 is more like "landshark".

  22. Guy said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    @leoboiko

    I think that's like how seconds are officially defined in terms of the properties of a particular cesium isotope, even though the definition was obviously originally based on the rotation and orbit of the Earth, in that it was derived from divisions of the length of a day. English "Pikachu" was based on the Japanese name, which was a Japanese-based portmanteau, but that doesn't stop Nintendo from declaring the English version the standard.

  23. leoboiko said,

    June 4, 2016 @ 5:57 pm

    Sure, but again, that must be a break from what Chinese fans got used to in their childhoods because so far the Chinese names, both Mandarin and Cantonese, were derived from the original Japanese release, in sound as well as in meaning, and not from the English translation (as far as I can tell). So if you start tracking the English translation overnight, of course existing fans will dislike the change.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 12:22 am

    "if the Chinese translation is to be based on the Chinese English translation"…

    That is indeed the case.

  25. Mark Metcalf said,

    June 5, 2016 @ 8:31 am

    The South China Morning Post puts the controversy in perspective:
    http://cdn4.i-scmp.com/sites/default/files/styles/652×403/public/galleries/2016/06/05/harry05.jpg

  26. Q said,

    June 9, 2016 @ 8:08 pm

    Dear Dr. Mair,

    This is vaguely related to this post, so I thought I might as well put it here. There is a Cantonese children's word: I think the romanisation would be gu4gu1, and an appropriate translation might be "wiener" or "pee-pee". Do you know what the character for that would be? I tried looking for it on Cantodict, to no avail and now my curiosity has gotten the best of me. Would it just be written 菇菇 due to the similarity to certain species of mushroom?

    Do you know Cantonese? I thought I read elsewhere on here that you didn't. It was in the context of you mentioning a trip to China with your wife or something.

    Also, since I've already started a comment here, your "Strange Tales From Make-Do Studio" that you translated with another Mair, who I assume is of no relation (are you related? A part of me wondered if it was a father-son collaboration. It makes for a better story.) is terribly copy-edited on the English side. I can say nothing about the Chinese original on the facing pages as I can't and didn't read it, but Foreign Languages Press did your translation no favours. Duplicated lines abounded, spellings often were wonky and the punctuation had apparently done a little shuffle whilst no one was looking. You might find it interesting to know that the front page on the copy that I got from my local library had a stamp on the front of a red star in a red ring, which kindly informed the gentle reader that it was a gift from the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department.

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