Phono-semantic rebranding

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There's a new article on linguistic borrowing by Jane C. Hu in Quartz (10/23/16):  "The genius and stupidity of corporate America are on display when companies rebrand for new countries".  The article originally had a better title:  "Phono-semantic matching is corporate America's best option when trying to rebrand for new countries".

Even those who do not read Chinese may be aware of two of the best known and most highly successful American brand names in China:

Kěkǒukělè 可口可乐 (lit., "mouthable-happyable", i.e., "delicious-joyful" — Coca-Cola)

Bǎishìkělè 百事可乐 (lit., "hundred / all affairs happyable", i.e., "everything joyful" — Pepsi-Cola)

Both of these corporate names in Chinese are excellent examples of "phono-semantic matching" (PSM).  The originator of the term is Ghil'ad Zuckermann, who describes one aspect of it thus:

Phono-semantic matching by commercial brand names is like singing.  You’re looking for sounds that are beautiful, harmonious, attractive, romantic—but you don’t care about the [Mandarin] tones.

Most of the article is about Western brand names in Chinese, but it also touches on adaptations of European words in Turkic, Icelandic, Arabic, and Japanese.  Hu covers many different types of borrowing — some concerned more with meaning and others emphasizing sound — but focuses mainly on the mixed method of PSM, which is actually quite easy to do in Sinitic languages.

Zuckermann says that “[Phono-semantic matches] are a beautiful way of flirting with the West without losing your own roots”.


  1. leoboiko said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 8:08 am

    I've always just called it "morphological reanalysis".

  2. KeithB said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 8:19 am

    But does the article have "bite the wax tadpole" in it anywhere?

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 8:35 am

    @KeithB: In the first paragraph, of course. But why not click through and read it yourself?

  4. Zeppelin said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 8:38 am

    From the article: "Phono-semantic matches can occur in any language, but it’s rare in English. […] There are so few examples because in English, clusters of sounds don’t have inherent meaning, so it’s hard to borrow words from other languages that preserve sound and meaning."

    I don't understand what they mean by this. Surely an English monosyllable like "good" carries "inherent meaning" the same way "kǒu" does. More "inherent meaning" arguably, since English has fewer homophones.
    In fact the next paragraph seems to say that that's exactly the point: since a tone-less single syllable has very little "inherent meaning" in Chinese you can pick from a wide range of meanings by specifying the tone and character.

  5. Frank L Chance said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 9:47 am

    Probably the best phono-semantic (re)branding from Japanese into English is the naming of the giant beast Gojira (a Japanese portmanteau of GOrira (gorilla) and kuJIRA (whale)) branded into English as Godzilla. The "GOD" gives a feeling of supernatural power and while "zilla" did not have much meaning in 1954 when the film came out, it has come to mean powerful, immense, and over-the-top, used in such later brands as Mozilla and Bridezilla.

  6. huixing said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 10:16 am

    in the article you mentioned, i remember two thing, one is this article
    according to this article best name rendering English brand name is Uber ever created Coca-Cola. i think Uber is phono-semantic matching, but slightly slanted to Chinese because rendering "u" sound.
    i also remember forum posting regard to the Chinese-English dictionary tool "pleco".
    i'v never knew that pleco's chinese name existed, and i think poster feel 普利科 weird is that 普利科 is not quite phono-semantic matching.

  7. KeithB said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 11:15 am

    Because then I could not comment on it. 8^)

  8. John Rohsenow said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 1:10 pm

    Wikipedia's list of emoticons does not explain 8^) for me.

  9. KeithB said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 1:22 pm

    It is a smiley with someone wearing glasses.

  10. Gunnar H said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 1:53 pm

    Perhaps phono-semantic matching differs from regular morphological reanalysis in that it's a deliberate translation choice rather than a "blind" process of folk etymology? (But in that case the examples from English wouldn't seem to apply.)

    The article mentions "artichoke," which brings to mind the Swedish name, kronärtskocka (literally "crown+pea+skocka"; the third element has no plausible meaning that I know, but could also be analyzed as a bridging "s"+"cook").

    This was apparently borrowed from the Danish artiskok, reanalyzed as ärtskocka as though it had anything to do with peas. The addition of kron- is perhaps under influence of kronärt (the flower Coronilla/Hippocrepis emerus), or simply a description of the edible flower-head.

    The Jerusalem artichoke (itself an example of reanalysis in English) or sunchoke is called jordärtskocka ("earth+pea+skocka"); presumably the second part is translated from English and the "earth" part reflects that it is the tuber that is edible.

  11. hanmeng said,

    October 25, 2016 @ 10:10 pm

    The article claims that Lux was pronounced "lì shí", rendered力士 in mainland China, and 丽士 in Taiwan. Since when is "士" pronounced "shí"? Not to mention the fact that in Taiwan Lux is rendered 麗仕.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    October 26, 2016 @ 10:30 am

    That old saw about "bite the wax tadpole" is an urban legend.

    See Wikipedia:


    The name Coca-Cola rendered phonetically in Chinese can sound like the words for "bite the wax tadpole" (simplified Chinese: 蝌蚪啃蜡; traditional Chinese: 蝌蚪啃蠟; pinyin: Kēdǒu kěn là) or "female horse stuffed with wax" (骒马口蠟). Before marketing in China, the company found a close phonetic equivalent, kekou kele (pinyin romanization; 可口可乐), which roughly means "let your mouth rejoice". It was never marketed by the company using the other phrases, though individual merchants may have made such signs.


  13. January First-of-May said,

    October 26, 2016 @ 10:48 am

    The term "phono-semantic matching" gives the impression that it doesn't have anything to do with orthography.
    But it can – when the supermarket chain Auchan (whose name was already an alternate spelling of a French phrase) expanded to Russia, its Russian brand was Ашан, instead of the standard transliteration *Ошан, because it already included the initial A in its logo and did not want to lose that just because the standard transliteration rules would have its name spelled with an O normally.

  14. Keith said,

    October 27, 2016 @ 8:13 am

    @ January First-of-May

    According to Wikipedia, the first Auchan was established in the "Hauts-Champs" neighbourhood of Roubaix in northern France, and the original plan was to name it "Ochan" but this was thought to sound too "Japanese".

    There was already a bit of canting going on, there: choosing "Ochan" or "Auchan" as a homophone for "Hauts-Champs", which literally means "Highfields".

    Back to Russian, though. In French, the stress (tonos) is on the final syllable. In the Moscow accent, an unstressed letter O is pronounces as schwa and an unstressed A is not very different. Keeping the stress on the second syllable of Auchan means that there would not be much of a difference in pronunciation whichever letter was used.

    Is Spanish-speaking countries, the name is "Alcampo", yet another pun; you could read the French name as meaning "in the field", which is what the Spanish means.

  15. BZ said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 8:30 am

    Is the meaning actually retained by these translations? Coca-Cola does not mean "tasty fun" in English. It derives from the original active ingredients in the drink (coca leaves and kola nut). Polaroid evokes the polar regions (why?), while Lego was somebody's name, I think. Ditto for Miller. And Domino's evokes the game of the same name, not any sort of emotion.

  16. BZ said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 8:38 am

    Also, I actually know of English companies that try to do something similar when first coming up with their brand names. I used to work for a company called "Metavante" which, as they explained it, evoked positive concepts like "meta" and sounded good without meaning anything in any language.

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