The sociolinguistics of the Chinese script

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Jonathan Benda posted this on Facebook recently:

Reading [Jan Blommaert's] _Language and Superdiversity_ in preparation for my Writing in Global Contexts course in the fall. Does anyone else think the following conclusions about this sign are somewhat wrongheaded?

Written with a calligraphic flair, the notice says:

gōngyù chūzū
shèbèi yīliú
shuǐdiàn quán bāo
měi yuè sānbǎi wǔshí yuán


apartment for rent
first-class furnishings
water and electricity included
350 Euros per month

Michael (Taffy) Cannings' response:

Wow, that's very thin evidence for a conclusion like that. The simplified diàn 電/电 is common in handwriting in Taiwan, and presumably among the diaspora too. Yuán 元 as a unit of currency is not unique to the PRC either, and the simplified form used here is really common in traditional characters (i.e., instead of 圓). Both handwriting simplifications predate the PRC character changes and indeed were probably the basis for those changes. The author may be right that the intended audience is made up of younger PRChinese, but that's simply an extrapolation of demographics rather than something implicit in the sign.

Mark Swofford provides an older example of this sort of confusion in this post:

"Mystery of old simplified Chinese characters?" (10/7/05)

I haven't lived in Taiwan continuously for a long period of time since 1970-72, but I still go back occasionally.  I can attest that almost no one except an obsessive compulsive like myself writes 臺灣 for Taiwan.  Nearly everybody writes 台灣 or 台湾.  It really doesn't matter, because the name does not mean "Terrace Bay" as the characters seem to indicate.  They are simply being used to transcribe the sounds of a non-Sinitic term, as I explained here:

"How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language"

The very name "Taiwan" is perhaps the best example to begin with. Superficially (according to the surface signification of the two characters with which the name is customarily written), "Taiwan" means "Terrace Bay." That sounds nice, even poetic, but it is an inauthentic etymology and has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual origins of the name. (This is a typical instance of the common fallacy of wàngwénshēngyì 望文生義, whereby the semantic qualities of Chinese characters interfere with the real meanings of the terms that they are being used to transcribe phonetically.) The true derivation of the name "Taiwan" is actually from the ethnonym of a tribe in the southwest part of the island in the area around Ping'an.4 As early as 1636, a Dutch missionary referred to this group as Taiouwang. From the name of the tribe, the Portuguese called the area around Ping'an as Tayowan, Taiyowan, Tyovon, Teijoan, Toyouan, and so forth. Indeed, already in his ship's log of 1622, the Dutchman Comelis Reijersen referred to the area as Teijoan and Taiyowan. Ming and later visitors to the island employed a plethora of sinographic transcriptions to refer to the area (superficially meaning "Terrace Nest Bay" [Taiwowan 臺窝灣], "Big Bay" [Dawan 大灣], "Terrace Officer" [Taiyuan 臺員], "Big Officer" [Dayuan 大員], "Big Circle" [Dayuan 大圓], "Ladder Nest Bay" [Tiwowan 梯窝灣], and so forth). Some of these transcriptions are clever, others are fantastic, but none of them should be taken seriously for their meanings.

As my Mom used to say when she couldn't get things through our thick skulls, "I can tell you till I'm blue in the face, but you just won't listen":  the sounds of Chinese words are more important than the characters used to write them, since the latter are comparatively adventitious and secondary, whereas the former are absolutely essential.


  1. J said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 11:01 am

    I lived in Taiwan in 2003, and I saw plenty of people using simplified characters. Of course, they were none too pleased when I pointed it out! I have to agree that this is bad sociolinguistics!

  2. Jonathan Benda said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 11:22 am

    I made this comment on FB later on: Some more context for the photo (though I'm still suspicious of the interpretation): Quoting from Blommaert: "The picture I added as a caption to this text shows that it also occurs in my own neighborhood in inner-city Antwerp, where a local Cantonese restaurant-owner, member of an older diasporic generation, addresses potential customers for renting a flat, and does so in an unstable hybrid of Cantonese and Mandarin and of simplified Chinese script and traditional character script. The global shift in “who is the Chinese in the world” forces him to readjust not only his linguistic and literacy repertoire, but to change his economic orientation, towards a new and very large community of immigrants from Mainland China – a population virtually unknown in most places in the world until the 1990s."

  3. flow said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 11:37 am

    I'd like to second Mr Canning's observations. I'm not so sure about 电 for 電 (but it's not strikingly mainland-only either), but 元 for currency units was definitely a thing in Taibei around the late 80s and early 90s. You'd find those on the sheets that bus drivers pasted to their cash boxes; basically, with all the fancy variants that the writing system has to offer, the same slogan "(throw in) New Taiwan Dollars 10.—" could be written in a gazillion ways, and people did it. You'd see "10$", "10元", "拾元", "十圓", "NT10元", everything in every which way. Also 点 or 㸃 for 點 (though I do not remember 奌 from Taiwan).

    As such, the handwritten sign is unremarkable. I'd even venture to say it could have been a person from the PRC who targets people from Taiwan or "overseas Chinese" who wrote the sign. To me, what is rather more remarkable is the choice of the writer to mix 'small' and 'large' numerical characters within the same number.

  4. B.Ma said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 4:33 pm

    I see 电 in Hong Kong frequently, where the text is meant to be written in traditional. I consider it similar to using 旦 for "egg".

    People have been "simplifying" characters for years. The PRC just made some forms official.

  5. Terrence G. said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 4:43 pm

    @flow I think you are right. There are many possible conclusions to draw from that little advertisement. The whole ad could be written in traditional Chinese characters as well. It could also be written by someone who knows the simplified script better but tried to use traditional characters for whatever reason. In fact many older Mainlanders used to learn traditional Chinese characters before switching to simplified. When these older people write, they tend to mix in a lot of traditional characters. But in one word, the origin of most simplified characters is the same as many variant forms used in China before the 1950s. If we look at old calligraphy works, we find many "simplified" characters.

  6. John Swindle said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 6:59 pm

    What if a writer of American English slipped in a British spelling or two, or vice-versa? Maybe the author of the sign was Canadian.

  7. Guy_H said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 4:42 am

    I would echo everyone else's comments – the author's conclusions are a bit of a reach. People in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau use simplified, variant or substitute characters in writing all the time. For example, I've seen people write 米国 instead of 美國 for USA – it doesn't mean they are suddenly writing Japanese.

    Also the comment that the writing is an "unstable hybrid of Mandarin and Cantonese" doesn't make sense either – the register used simply isn't colloquial enough to conclude that the the words are particular to one or the other. For all we know, they could be Hakka or Sichuanese.

    The noteworthy thing to me is how nice the handwriting is. It's probably a stereotype, but it leads me to suspect an older person – it's rare to see younger people write with such penmanship!

  8. John Swindle said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 5:17 am

    And familiar with traditional characters. The form "設" isn't something you'd throw in at random if you only knew simplified characters. I'd still say the sign is unremarkable.

  9. Elizabeth Yew said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 6:33 am

    I remember a Chinese teacher in one of my first courses in Chinese at Hunter College telling us we had the choice of using either traditional Chinese characters or simplified characters in our writing, but she would not allow us to mix the two up. After contemplating the difference in the time involved to write 影响 instead of 影響, the choice was clear.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 7:20 am

    Agree with all of the points you raise.

    Responding to your three paragraphs seriatim:

    1. I've seen people write things like Xīnjiāng 新江 for Xinjiang, tiàowǔ 跳午 for "dance", and wǔhuì 午会 for "dance party", and none of those would even be "standard" simplified writing on the Mainland. Not to mention that the first one could potentially mean "new river" and the last could mean "noon meeting". All of which goes to show the priority of sound over symbol when it comes to language.

    2. By its very nature, writing in Chinese characters tends to iron out topolectal wrinkles / differences.

    3. "how nice the handwriting is" — yes, that's what I meant by "calligraphic flair".

  11. Tao said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 7:28 am

    I second others above who note there's nothing remarkable about the sign at all, and the inferences in the text reproduced are a flight of fancy. Were I editing the article I'd suggest cutting several paragraphs here. The use of "元" implies nothing, since it could be short for "歐元," a common way of writing "Euro" in many forms of written Chinese. I was a little surprised to see 設備, which seems less natural than 設施 or 裝修. That wording could be a clue to the author's origin, but then again maybe the author simply thought the phrase would be clearer for a wider audience. As to "calligraphic flair" — um, this is simply typical handwriting with a magic marker. If I had to guess, I'd say the writer is male.

  12. Terrence G. said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 10:23 am

    Regarding the "calligraphic flair", I have to disagree. The handwriting is clearly done by someone who has had little to no formal training in calligraphy. The structure is all wrong and out of balance, and the strokes are all wrong with weird shapes, probably partly due to the limitations of the marker used.

  13. 艾力·黑膠(Eric) said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 7:08 pm

    I believe that only Traditional Chinese is Right and Good, and even as a partisan of traditional (heil complex characters! Professor Poser’s post touches on a lot of good points) I don’t think I’ve ever seen 圓 used, in handwriting or in print, in the United States. In fact, it never occurred to me that 元 wasn’t “traditional” until I looked up 円 for one nerdy reason or another and realized that it and 元 are alternate simplifications of 圓.

    The idea that 元 means “[renminbi] yuan” but not “euro” is ridiculous; as commenter Tao points out above, “euro” is just 歐元! What else would you even call it?

    元 is obviously used in Mainland China, but it’s also used in Hong Kong to refer to 港元, in the U.S. to refer to 美元, in Taiwan to refer to NT$, and it’s been a while since I’ve been to Mexicali, but I’d bet that Chinese in that country also use 元 to refer to the Mexican peso.

    P.S. I swear had a post comparing the relative frequency of 台灣 and 臺灣 in a random sampling of signs but now I can't find it.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 8:47 pm

    I asked a number of advanced graduate students and Chinese teachers from China and Taiwan to assess the handwriting of the notice in the photograph. Note that all of the respondents specialize in the humanities (Chinese language, literature, history, art, and so forth), and some are particularly proficient in calligraphy, so their standards are higher than that of most native speakers.



    I find it quite legible and agreeable to look at in general. But maybe the writer really wanted to have the apartment rented so as to make too much effort in writing the strokes! I guess the writer might be a young female.


    I think this handwriting is better than average, and shows practice. The characters are also well proportioned. But I can't tell if the person is M or F, young or old. I guess it's an older female, just guessing.

    This handwriting is below average. The proportion is generally correct, but far from being perfect. That said, I think an adequately educated Chinese could write in correct proportion (unlike non-native speakers). The gender of the writer is not clear. [VHM: This commenter studies the history of calligraphy and practices calligraphy seriously at least one hour every day.]


    It’s difficult to determine the sex of the person simply based on the handwriting. My instinct says it’s a male because the characters are rather square and bold. The handwriting is common, average at best. It does not show diligent practice, but it is well-proportioned and it does look like from a native speaker. I couldn’t tell the age of the writer from the handwriting. [VHM: This commenter has a Ph.D. in Chinese literature and has been teaching Mandarin for more than 30 years.]

    I think the handwriting is at least better than average. The characters are well proportioned. I can see from the strokes that the writer must have learned some calligraphy. It is hard to tell whether the writer is male or female, but it seems this is the handwriting of someone older.

    I think the handwriting is probably from a young male. It's pretty good. The curves show a hint of calligraphy practice. It's not eye-catching good but for a random post for apartment renting, this handwriting is far from messy. I would say it is above average. [VHM: This commenter is a Chinese language teacher with more than 25 years experience.]

  15. Jonathan Benda said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 9:25 am

    Interesting comments from the respondents. (I'm interested/amused, too, in how the discussion of this text has turned how good the handwriting is!) Despite those evaluations or interpretations, I'd reemphasize Blommaert's description of the writer as "a local Cantonese restaurant-owner, member of an older diasporic generation…" I'm going to assume he's right about that, even though I disagree with just about every other thing he says about the text.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 9:48 am


    I think the quality of this handwriting is better than average, well proportioned, middle age male. The sign should be in Taiwan, right? [a college teacher of Mandarin and Taiwanese with more than three decades of experience]


    I think the handwriting is between average and better than average (at least to me because I have terrible handwriting). It suggests some practice to me since all the characters have 棱角 as if the writer is writing calligraphy with a soft brush. It also seems to be written by someone not so young because most young people don't write rigid characters like these. The rigid and firm strokes also suggest it's written by a male.

    [VHM: I was hoping someone would notice the léngjiǎo 棱角 ("edges and corners"), which struck me as soon as took one look at the handwriting. They are always a clear sign of a writer's attention to calligraphic niceties.]


    In my opinion, the quality of this handwriting is common/average (maybe a little better than average). In addition, it looks male and shows practice. Perhaps, the writer tries to achieve the effect of Yan-Liu style 顏(顏真卿)-柳(柳公權). I have attached a sample of Liu-style calligraphy. Also, I think the pen s/he used strongly influenced his writing, particularly the thickness of the title. I attach an image of the pen as well. [This commenter is a historian and critic-esthetician of Chinese calligraphy.]

  17. Rachel said,

    August 23, 2017 @ 3:18 am

    flow, that character(奌) is extremely common in Taiwan. I saw a sign in a restaurant using 奌歺 "order food" just the other day, in fact.

  18. DWalker07 said,

    August 23, 2017 @ 10:26 am

    @Victor Mair: Did you specifically ask the students and teachers to guess the gender of the writer, or did they throw those guesses in "for free"?

    Do people really expect to be able to guess the gender based on handwriting? (In any language under the sun?)

  19. Victor Mair said,

    August 23, 2017 @ 10:46 am


    That's a reasonable question.

    The only reason I asked the students and teachers to guess the gender is because that issue had been brought up in the comments. Judging from the responses of the students and teachers, the gender of handwriting is not easy to guess. I have to admit, though, that about half of the time when I look at English handwriting I can correctly guess the gender of the person who wrote it. But that is become increasingly difficult because so many people print now instead of writing longhand, and printing is rather genderless in comparison with longhand. We've discussed printing versus longhand on numerous occasions here on Language Log.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    August 23, 2017 @ 3:21 pm

    In my family, my Mother, older sister, and younger sister all had better handwriting than my father, my four brothers, and me. My father's penmanship was better than that of the five brothers, but that's a special case, for which see below. Of the five brothers, only Dave had decent, but still very masculine, handwriting. It's interesting to note that Dave was the sole left-hander among the five brothers. Overall, the left-handed people I know tend to write better than those who are right-handed, despite the fact that they have to position the paper and their left arm in a rather contorted way.

    Among close acquaintances I know well, the same is generally true outside of my family: the women and girls tend to have conspicuously better handwriting than the men and boys. Am I stereotyping? Am I being sexist? I'm simply reporting what I see.

    My brother Denis and I (who are the most advanced in terms of our education) have notoriously, laughably execrable handwriting, whereas my sisters Sue and Heidi, like my Mother, have particularly exquisite handwriting.

    In a comment to this recent post, "Learning to write Chinese characters" (7/29/17), I remarked:


    I confess that I (and my brother Denis) have terrible handwriting. My second grade teacher in elementary school, Mrs. Kiefer, loved everything else about me as a student (especially my lexicographical and etymological bent), but she almost cried when she begged me to develop better handwriting skills. My sister Sue, on the other hand, has beautiful handwriting, and sister Heidi's letters and words are well formed. My mother's handwriting was divine, while my father's longhand was quite legible, smooth, and well-proportioned (it might have something to do with the fact that he was born in Austria and learned to write there, even though he lived in a small and relatively remote Tyrolean village).

  21. Silas S. Brown said,

    August 29, 2017 @ 9:06 am

    Could that picture be edited to redact the last 5 digits of the phone number? We're all capable of looking up the international dialling code for Belgium, some of us have long-distance calling cards, and the hapless Huaren renting out the room might be unnerved by amateur linguists from all over the world calling up to check their pet theories. It's not what you'd reasonably expect from putting a private ad in a local shop window.

    That said, if any linguist reading this actually has a legitimate need to stay in Antwerp (or knows someone who does), it might be possible to enquire about the room and incidentally find out something about the person. But you must ask their permission before posting any new information about this individual.

  22. Jonathan Benda said,

    August 29, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

    Silas S. Brown, that would be a good idea, but this image was copied from an image already published on the web and in at least two of Blommaert's books dating back to 2010. (It does raise the question of whether the writer of the sign gave permission for the image to be published, though! What kind of IRB process do they have in Belgium?)

  23. Victor Mair said,

    August 30, 2017 @ 11:05 am


    I like this handwriting, it reminds me of my handwriting in primary school, very clear and shows caligraphy practice,haha, I'm not trying to praise myself though…

    My guess is , it's written by an old male, judging from the traditional and serious style of the stroke tunrs.

    If I were to rate this handwriting, I would give it "better than average".

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