Chinglish with tones

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4th tone – 3rd tone, it would appear:

Well, maybe not; the diacritics are probably meant to indicate vowel quality, but I don't know what system (if any) they are using.

Ben Zimmer writes:

The diacritics may be intended to evoke pinyin tone marks, but they're also reminiscent of dictionary-style phonetic respelling and stress marking. The grave accent on "ì" could be intended as an indicator of primary stress, though that's more typically marked with an acute accent. And the breve on the "ĭ" is a common enough way to represent /ɪ/ (the macron is used for long vowels and the breve for short vowels — see, e.g., Phonics on the Web). But this use of diacritics as typographical ornamentation is never very consistent — recall the styling of the play Chinglish as "Ch’ing·lish”.

The illustration appears at the top of this article:

It turns out that the image used by the People's Daily originally appeared as a promotion for the play Chinglish that Ben mentioned, specifically for its performance by the Singaporean theater company Pangdemonium in 2015. See the Pangdemonium website, as well as local coverage by PopSpoken and Today. So the People's Daily may have searched for a "Chinglish" image online and borrowed this one, without giving proper credit. (Credit should go to Olivier Henry of MILK Photographie.)

The six individuals in the picture seem to be aspiring to some idealized form of Chinglish in the sky above, overlying the cloud shrouded five star design of the Chinese flag, leading them on.  The thrust of the People's Daily article, however, is anything but adulatory of Chinglish:

Chinese authorities on June 20 issued a national standard for the use of English in the public domain, eradicating poor translations that damage the country’s image.

The standard, jointly issued by China’s Standardization Administration and General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, aims to improve the quality of English translations in 13 public arenas, including transportation, entertainment, medicine and financial services. It will take effect on Dec. 1, 2017.

According to the standard, English translations should prioritize correct grammar and a proper register, while rare expressions and vocabulary words should be avoided. The standard requires that English not be overused in public sectors, and that translations not contain content that damages the images of China or other countries. Discriminatory and hurtful words have also been banned. The standard provided sample translations for reference, and warned against direct translation.

There are perpetual plans for eliminating Chinglish in China, but they are unlikely ever to materialize unless professional translators are sought after for their expertise and paid accordingly.

Earlier calls for the elimination of English more generally are no longer heard from responsible persons:

Now the goal is more reasonably just to get rid of Chinglish, but that will not happen on December 1, 2017 when the new standards go into effect.  Although it will take many years for their full implementation and realization, the standards are admirable goals to aim for.

See also:

[h.t. Jim Fanell, Toni Tan]


  1. AntC said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 1:51 am

    Thanks Victor for the background.

    This initiative has washed up on the shores of the Pacific: there's a syndicated piece from The Times in my local paper in New Zealand.

    We have a significant Chinese population (of very mixed language background, many escaped from HK because of the hand-back). There's plenty of examples of confusing translations in shops and restaurants.

  2. languagehat said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 8:53 am

    the diacritics are probably meant to indicate vowel quality, but I don’t know what system (if any) they are using.

    I would be very, very surprised if they were not intended as pinyin tone marks, since 1) the image is in the People’s Daily, a Chinese publication; 2) pinyin is ubiquitous in China, and 3) the diacritics, if interpreted as pinyin, indicate the English pronunciation reasonably accurately.

  3. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 11:12 am

    The picture is fascinating: right-to-left gradient of age and modernity, fists clenched or holding a symbolic object; gaze, posture and gesture leading to the punchline, banner in the background sky, only figure in quasi-traditional clothing holding a newspaper as a mark of social or political engagement. The picture would have been essentially the same 60 years ago, but they would have a tractor or be making farmyard pig-iron and there would have been a PLA soldier and someone with a sickle.

  4. Andrew Usher said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 5:01 pm

    Could you expand on that? The word 'Chinglish' spoken in English has two identical vowels; the difference being stress, not tone. Or maybe stress and tone aren't as different as I thought?

    k_over_hbarc at

  5. languagehat said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 5:11 pm

    The word ‘Chinglish’ spoken in English has two identical vowels; the difference being stress, not tone.

    Well, yes, given that English has a stress, not tone, system. My point is that if you were going to reproduce the sound of the English word as accurately as possible in the Chinese system, that's how you'd do it.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 24, 2017 @ 9:45 pm

    I think the stressed syllable of stressed-unstressed English words is basically level (and relatively high) as far as pitch is concerned. So Chinglish is closest to tāmen or yīfu. I think.

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 9:20 am

    Ben Zimmer: recall the styling of the play Chinglish as “Ch’ing·lish”
    Would the Ch'ing be a reference to Wade-Giles?

  8. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 25, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

    @Coby: Yes, I mentioned the evocation of Wade-Giles in my post about the Broadway production of "Chinglish" (linked to above). As with the pinyin-ish rendering for the Singapore production, the Broadway version seemed to draw on both Chinese and English transcription conventions.

  9. Keith said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 6:49 am

    @languagehat and @Andrew Usher
    While it's true that tone does not have the same function in English as it has in Chinese (or Vietnamese, or a number of other languages) it is definitely present. When I read "Chinglish" aloud, the first syllable is higher pitch than the second.

  10. languagehat said,

    June 26, 2017 @ 6:52 am

    Exactly, which is why I said the diacritics, if interpreted as pinyin, indicate the English pronunciation reasonably accurately.

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