Italy is one big grain

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Venya sent in this photograph of an ice-cream parlor's sign taken in December 2014.  It was in the Anping district of Tainan, near the old Dutch fort.

It says:

Yīdàlì 一大粒
("one big grain / granule / particle / tablet / pellet / kernel / bead / seed")

And right below that it says "Italian" in English.

The usual way to write "Italy" in Chinese is Yìdàlì 意大利 or Yìdàlì 義大利. Those are both phonetic transcriptions in which the meanings of the characters are only subliminally present:

Yìdàlì 意大利
("meaning / intention / idea / thought, etc., etc. — big / large — profit / benefit / advantage")

Yìdàlì 義大利
("righteousness / justice / morality, etc., etc. — big / large — profit / benefit / advantage")

Yìdàlì 意大利 217,000,000 ghits
Yìdàlì 義大利 32,100,000 ghits
yīdàlì 一大粒 32,000 ghits (and very few of these would refer to "Italy")

Perhaps by Yīdàlì 一大粒 ("one big grain / granule / particle / tablet / pellet / kernel / bead / seed") they mean "one big scoop".


  1. Vance Maverick said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 1:02 pm

    So is Yìdàlì a transcription of the Italian name of Italy? Or the French or English name?

  2. Grover Jones said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 1:31 pm

    The scoop in the picture IS roughly shaped like the boot of Italy . . . okay that's a stretch.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

    Not from Italian: Italia.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 7:54 pm

    I'd be interested to know how Chinese chose a lot of country names. Germany 德国 de-guo is obviously from German Deutschland. England 英国 ying-guo is from English England. France 法国 fa-guo is from French France, with the suffix 国 "country" added for no apparent reason. The United States is 美国 mei-guo, from A"me"rica with another 国 suffix. Then there are countries without a 国; Spain 西班牙 xi-ban-ya is clearly from Spanish España. Portugal 葡萄牙 pu-tao-ya and Brazil 巴西 ba-xi are plausibly from the Portuguese. Ireland 爱尔兰 ai-er-lan is from English Ireland, except that the -land suffix has, despite the apparent desire for countries to be called something国, been transcribed rather than translated. The Netherlands 荷兰 he-lan seems to be from English Holland, again with -land transcribed rather than translated. That's weird.

    意大利 yi-da-li also appears to be from English. But other -ia countries get different treatment: Malaysia is 马来西亚 ma-lai-xi-ya, which appears to be "native". (At least, the English pronunciation is only three syllables, whereas wikipedia gives [malajˈsiə], a close match to 马来西亚, as the relevant part of the native name of the standard Malay language.) Indonesia is similar; 印度尼西亚 yin-du-ni-xi-ya. But Russia (wikipedia says: [rɐˈsʲijə]) is 俄罗斯 e-luo-si, which seems to just transcribe "rus".

    Mexico is 墨西哥 mo-xi-ge; I can think of two theories for that. One is that it's from English. The other is that mandarin "x" is often [h] in Cantonese, so maybe this is a cantonese transcription of the Spanish. Heck, for all I know, most of these are Cantonese transcriptions. :/

  5. Eli Nelson said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 8:42 pm

    @Michael Watts: historically, velar consonants were palatalized before /i/ in Mandarin, so /xi/ does not exist. I get the impression that this is still an active phonological restriction; at any rate, there is no way to represent syllables like /xi/, /ki/ or /kʰi/ using characters, and in loanwords these sequences are replaced by /ɕi/, /tɕi/ and /tɕʰi/ respectively.

    I found some description of this here in section 3.3.3:

  6. Michael Watts said,

    September 6, 2016 @ 9:10 pm

    The Chinese name, 泰国 tai-guo, could easily be from English Thailand, or from adding a 国 to the native term in much the same way as was done to France. (Wikipedia suggests the formal name of Thailand translates as "kingdom of Thai".)

    韩国 han-guo is South Korea, and seems like a reasonable representation of the South Korean term for Korea: wikipedia says "In South Korea, Korea as a whole is referred to as Hanguk (한국, [haːnɡuk], lit. "country of the Han")." (The Korean Han being a totally different people than the Chinese Han…) With near certainty, that 'guk' in the Korean really is 国 (compare the Japanese reading of 国, koku), which is more than I can say for England, France, Germany, Thailand, etc.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 3:31 am

    Actually, I should probably bring up that I recall someone telling me that 英国 refers specifically to the UK, and England proper is 英格兰 ying-ge-lan. The term for the UK in my idiolect is "england", so the distinction tends to be invisible to me.

  8. Rachel said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 5:45 am

    The interesting thing to me is that it's a cross-tonal pun: Yi1 punning on Yi4. It reminds me of a quandary many non-native students of Mandarin have probably been struck by: why does the teacher always tell me to get my tones perfectly right 'or no one will understand you', and yet so many puns (si4 = four:si3 = death; ni2ma1 = 'your mom':ni2ma3 = 'mud horse'; he2xie4 = 'river crab':he2xie2 = 'harmony; to be harmonized/censored', etc. etc.) depend precisely on people understanding meaning across tonal boundaries?

    I feel like there must be (or perhaps already has been?) a very interesting PhD thesis or two in when cross-tonal puns are acceptable, when they're unacceptable, when they simply won't be understood, and where they come from. (Some are certainly due to topolectal tonal variants, or to borrowings from other Sinitic languages, but I don't think that explains all of them.)

  9. michaelyus said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 6:41 am

    墨西哥 is Mak6sai1go1 in Cantonese. So it's even more likely to have come from the English (the -k of 墨 plus the s- of 西 = -x- of Mexico in English and not in Spanish).

    西班牙 is generally thought to derive Latin "Hispania" rather than from Castilian Spanish "España" (it's the -i- that makes the difference here).

    法兰西 is the "full form" of France, used for example when referring to "la République française", and especially when referring to France in formal historical settings (e.g. the nature of the First Republic).

    This 一大粒 is just a standard cross-tonal pun which just resulted in a good English name for the establishment. Advertising for an increasingly globalised audience.

  10. Michael Watts said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 8:15 am


    Obviously, the tones can't be necessary to understanding, or toneless pinyin, singing, etc. would be unintelligible.

    Similarly, as a native English speaker you should have no problem understanding this:

    If you feel dissatisfaction,
    strum your frustrations away
    Some people may prefer action, but
    gimme a folk song any old day
    The tune don't have to be clever,
    and it don't matter if you put a couple extra syllables into a line…
    it sounds more ethnic if it ain't good English,
    and it don't even gotta rine

    Pronunciation features such as the correct phoneme can be helpful to the listener, though, without being strictly necessary, and students are particularly likely not to be able to make up for any deficiencies in the way that a native speaker might. For example, I once asked a Chinese high school student "do you have chorus today?" and got the response "poss", which I didn't understand. When I responded with confusion, he corrected himself to "stop", which was much easier to understand, and prompted me to realize that he'd tried to say "pause" before, but still isn't correct. Then he complained (in paraphrase) "does the difference between pause and 'poss' really matter so much?"

    And the answer to that question is no. The difference between [s] and [z] is phonemic in English, but if he'd produced the word in a context where it could reasonably have occurred, I would have had no problem understanding him. The larger problem was that "pause" isn't a legitimate answer to "do you have chorus today?" — idiomatically, you need to say something like "not today" or "no".

    If you're going to use a contextually-inappropriate word (and as a language student, this is pretty likely), you can't rely on your interlocutor to make correct assumptions about what you're saying; you need to produce it well enough that they'll recognize it despite the context. You have a lot more leeway if you're producing a word anyone could have predicted you would say.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 8:24 am

    The disregard of tones in punning, as well as in singing and even in emphatic, emotional speech, is a subject that we have discussed many times on Language Log, e.g.:

    "When intonation overrides tone" (6/4/13)

    "Where did Chinese tones come from and where are they going?" (6/25/13)

    "Mandarin by the numbers" (6/8/13) — see the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph

  12. John said,

    September 7, 2016 @ 8:43 am

    I'm quite sure that the place is so named because gelato is known as Italian ice cream (義式冰淇淋) in Taiwan.

  13. Ken said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 5:29 am

    li4 粒 was the word I learned for counting scoops of ice cream when I lived in Taiwan thirty-odd years ago, and it was only later than I found out it otherwise generally referred to smaller objects.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 8:31 am


    Thanks very much for confirming my hunch.

    I will write a separate post explaining what I was thinking of all along when I wrote in the o.p.: "Perhaps by Yīdàlì 一大粒 ('one big grain / granule / particle / tablet / pellet / kernel / bead / seed') they mean 'one big scoop'."

  15. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2016 @ 11:10 am

    From Chau Wu:

    This reminds me of a similar play of words in the boutique food store specializing in Italian cuisine, Eataly, first in New York, now in Chicago also.

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