Impromptu biscriptalism on a Starbucks cup

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Photograph taken by a Russian friend of Nikita Kuzmin at a Starbucks in Shenyang, northeast China:

The handwriting on the side says simply:

wài's 外's ("foreigner's"), where the wài 外 is short for:

wàiguórén 外国人 ("foreigner")

lǎowài 老外 ("[old] furriner"), which we studied extensively in this post:

"Laowai: the old furriner" (4/9/14)

One might well ask why the barista didn't write "de 的", the Mandarin possessive particle equivalent to English "'s".  I submit that they felt the two strokes of "'s" were easier and simpler than the eight strokes of "de 的".  Not only that, using "'s" after the designation for a person at a Starbucks in Shenyang (Manchu name Mukden) shows that the English morpheme is thoroughly assimilated in Chinese and that it felt natural for the barista to do so.  We observed this already years ago in this post on the adoption of the English agentive suffix -er in Mandarin:

For digraphia, biscriptalism, and multiscriptalism, see — among others — the many posts listed here, and especially this intriguing early post:

A final observation is that I've never seen a Starbucks barista write "[so-and-so]'s" on a cup in any English-speaking country where I've been (they just write the name of the person without "'s"), so the barista in Shenyang was not emulating an English usage when they added "'s" to wài 外 ("outside[er]; foreigner").  Their "wài's 外's" ("foreigner's") is a thoroughly indigenous creation.


  1. liuyao said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 11:06 am

    It's more likely that the person who wrote this was reading in his mind "(lao)wai de" instead of wai's or laowai's, which would sound very strange. It's a little different from the phenomenon of "-er" or "-ing" suffixes.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 11:56 am

    1. How do you know what was in the barista's mind?

    2. They wrote "wài's 外's (foreigner's')". Why would they be more likely to pronounce that as "wai de" than as "wai's"?

    3. How is the "-'s" suffix "a little different from the phenomenon of '-er' or '-ing' suffixes"?

  3. EvelynU said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 5:30 pm

    So the puzzle, to me, is how is the barista going to call this out? because at least around here (So. California), it is still customary for them to call out: Tall whole milk latte for Evelyn! Suppose the foreigner isn't standing there…then what? "Tall Americano for the foreigner"?

  4. Matt said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 6:55 pm

    The barista would simply call over a busboy and say "Hey, take this one out." The busboy would look at the side of the cup and say "Oh, a wài's guy, eh?" Mission accomplished, high fives all round.

    Seriously, maybe it has to do with Shenyang Starbucks procedure. In the Starbuckses I've been to in Japan they don't call out names, just drinks. If the system is similar in this store, the note on the cup might have been for internal verification purposes (e.g. if the barista was dubious about the customer's ability to understand a called-out drink name) and not ever intended to be actually pronounced.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 7:46 pm

    I've been in many Starbucks in the Sinosphere where they call out people's names, but I haven't been in any that have busboys to take the orders to the customers.

    As to how native Chinese speakers pronounce wài's 外's ("foreigner's"), here are the results of a quick survey:

    1. i will pronounce 外's as "waiz"

    2. wai4s

    3. I'll pronounce it as "wais." It's actually partly Mandarin and partly English as in Mandarin, "s" is only used as an initial instead of a final.

    4. I would say it “wai-s”, pronounced like the English word "wise".

    5. I would pronounce it as "wai4 s". This type of Chinglish is almost standard practice nowadays with white-collar young professionals.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 8:17 pm

    6. I think it can be spelled as "waizi".

  7. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2017 @ 11:29 pm

    7. I would pronounce this as wai's (with the Pinyin of Wai and add the 's). I am not sure what's the context for this weird combination, but this reminds me of a popular usage of combining Chinese words with "-ing". For example, I can say 伤心ing*,后悔**ing,努力**ing to express the present tense of feeling or doing something. It's popularly used on the internet and other informal forms such as diary, online chat, etc. Maybe similar usage explains why this person combined Chinese word with English.



    *shāngxīn 伤心 ("feel sad")

    **hòuhuǐ 后悔 ("feel regret")

    **nǔlì 努力 ("make an effort")

  8. flow said,

    September 10, 2017 @ 7:06 am

    Which, prompts the question: "But 外??"

  9. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2017 @ 8:52 am

    But why what? What's the point of your question with two question marks?

  10. liuyao said,

    September 10, 2017 @ 9:30 am

    My initial reaction was that Chinese who don't speak good English have trouble pronouncing finals such as "s" without making it a syllable. As I said, wai's sounds really strange, and I was questioning if it could be really regarded as an instance where English has crept into Chinese, or rather just a shorthand for writing de (as you noted in the post). Come to think about it, both -er and -ing appear mostly in (informal) writing; yet they are expressing something would be a little harder to say in pure Mandarin.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    September 10, 2017 @ 10:25 am


    The commenters have responded resoundingly to your qualms.

  12. flow said,

    September 10, 2017 @ 10:44 am

    @Victor Mair: no point made here, just wanted to do the obvious, using a Chinese character in an English context. 外 not, I mean.

  13. Nicki said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 2:23 am

    My coffee usually comes labeled like that, although I order in Chinese and do have a Chinese name, they never ask. They do ask my Chinese (or Chinese looking) companions for their names, and I have a few photos of our cups sitting together, labeled 王's and 欧's and 外's.

    Yes, all three with the apostrophe s, from a Starbucks in Haikou, Hainan. As I recall, I ordered last.

    I don't know how to post the photo here, but you might be able to find it on Facebook by searching #Starbucks #Laowai if you'd like to see it, I believe it's set for public viewing.

  14. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 8:19 am

    @Nicki: I confirm the picutre is for public viewing. It is here:

  15. Nicki said,

    September 14, 2017 @ 8:29 am

    Thank you!

  16. satkomuni said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 8:30 am

    I agree with liuyao's interpretation and your observation that "I've never seen a Starbucks barista write "[so-and-so]'s" on a cup in any English-speaking country where I've been (they just write the name of the person without "'s", so the barista in Shenyang was not emulating an English usage when they added "'s" to wài 外 ("outside[er]; foreigner")."

  17. alex de paris said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 1:52 am

    Well at least the barista did not write 老's on the cup. It would have been somewhat disrespectful.

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