Biscriptalism on Starbucks cups, part 2

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In "Impromptu biscriptalism on a Starbucks cup" (9/8/17), we encountered a Starbucks cup from Shenyang, northeast China that had the following handwritten notation on the side:  wài's 外's ("foreigner's").  I referred to the "'s" as impromptu because I thought that it was essentially a one-off phenomenon.  Nonetheless, I considered the "'s" to be linguistically significant in two major ways:  1. evidence of biscriptalism; 2. incorporation of an English morpheme in Chinese.

It turns out that that this use of "'s" on a Starbucks cup in the far northeast of China was by no means a unique or rare occurrence.  One of the commenters, Nicki, wrote in:

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.

[*VHM:  "Wang's", "Ou's", and "foreigner's".]

Nicki mentioned that she had posted a photo that documents what she wrote in the first paragraph of her comment.  With the help of others who are more familiar than I with the ways of Facebook, I tracked the photo down.  Here it is:

So here, from Haikou in the far southeast of China, which is roughly 1,500 miles to the southeast from Shenyang, we have not one Starbuck's cup using the "'s" suffix, but using it with Chinese surnames as well as with the Chinese word for "foreigner".  All the more, this shows how widespread and natural this usage is.

[Thanks to TK Mair, Yixue Yang, Jinyi Cai, and Frédéric Grosshans]


  1. Terry Hunt said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 6:46 am

    I wonder if Starbucks (in China) actually train their baristas to employ this "'s" as a standardized, economical method, though strictly any indication of the possessive case in these circumstances is surely superfluous. (When labelling staff glasses at a beer festival, for example, mine will simple read "Terry", not "Terry's".)

  2. flow said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 7:13 am

    The picture also shows how globalized we've become. That cup in the middle with the spherical lid with a hole at the top is the exact same model that bakeries (that nowadays advertise themselves as 'Back Shop', go figure) here in Berlin sell their mueslies in. The variant without a hole is great for making ayran because you can vigorously shake the yoghurt and the water without leaking liquid; they're astoundingly rigid as long as the lid sits tight.

  3. nick m said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 8:02 am

    I seem to recall that the Japanese の can often be seen on packaging, posters, etc., in Taiwan (and, by now, mainland China?); sometimes it's meant to convey the same sense as " 's", but sometimes it seems to be there purely as exotic decoration.

    I don't remember any dual-script usage of " 's" in Japan. One main reason for this is presumably that it doesn't fill any gap, since the semantic and syntactic overlap with it of の is so convenient. (Although this fact causes many Japanese writing in English to assume the overlap is 100%, resulting in constructions like "the crowd's wisdom".)

  4. WSM said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 9:03 am

    Very interesting. It's also interesting that " 's " is written in a way that looks like a further abstracted form of "的"

  5. John Swindle said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 4:19 pm

    @WSM: Or a backwards 之。See the picture with the earlier post. But wouldn't a 的 or a 之be a little odd there?

    So why the 's? It's extra work. It's not grammatically required in Chinese or English. It might look cool, but is it THAT cool? Does it distinguish the customer's name from other things a barista might need to write on a coffee cup?

  6. Rubrick said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 5:18 pm

    I wonder if Starbucks tried an ill-conceived "Start a conversation about ethnicity with your barista" over there…

  7. WSM said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 7:12 pm

    ”老外的” makes as much sense to me there as "老外's", and regardless the larger point wrt efficiency is valid. I am curious in any deeper explanations why exactly the same orthography has popped up in two different places (vaguely analogous to how you write 的, so 's seems sensible to multiple people?),, seemingly independently of each other, unless both are the reflection of a behind the scenes training program.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 8:57 pm

    The English possessive suffix "-"s" is known to every person in China under the age of about thirty who has been to school as well as to very many people over thirty who are educated. As has been demonstrated in earlier posts, it is not uncommon for English suffixes to be added to Chinese words.

  9. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    September 16, 2017 @ 10:03 pm

    I'd assume it's the same sort of fad that was found in France in, I believe the 70s. I've seen at least one Mafalda strip (Argentina) that also comments on the practice, and would have been from either the 60s or early 70s.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 5:54 am

    I don't think that any barista would have written lǎo 老's ("old's") on the side of the cup, since it would have been unidiomatic and just wouldn't have made any sense. The "'s" goes with the noun in the phrase, not the adjective. You can say Wáng's 王's ("Wang's"), Ōu's 欧's ("Ou's"), and wài's 外's ("foreigner's"), and you can say lǎo Wáng's 老王's ("old Wang's"), lǎo Ōu's 老欧's ("old Ou's"), and lǎowài's 老外's ("old foreigner's"), where the "lǎo 老" ("old") doesn't necessarily refer to the chronological age of the individual so addressed but is rather an expression of cordiality and even intimacy, but you cannot say just "lǎo's 老's" ("old's") as a term of address.

  11. Mr Punch said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 8:23 am

    Maybe they're just doing this to annoy the Quebecois

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    September 17, 2017 @ 9:03 pm

    People are surprised by this not because they assume Chinese are not familiar with English, but because incorporation of foreign morphemes this way is such a weird concept to us (especially is they're spoken and not just a written shorthand).

    nick m:
    Note that "the crowd's wisdom" is fine if speaking of some particular crowd, but not crowds in general (which is the idiom). The fine points of translation are very difficult to get by any mechanical rules, which is why so much English written by Asians seems so off even in the absence of glaring errors.

    k_over_hbarc at

  13. Terry Hunt said,

    September 18, 2017 @ 11:04 am

    @ Andrew Usher
    On reflection, incorporation of foreign morphemes doesn't seem such a weird concept to me. In my own writing for self-consumption (research and lecture notes, essay drafts, cover descriptions on library index entries and so on) I often incorporate mathematical/logical symbols and Latin, French and Norman-French words and syntax where they happen to be more concise than using pure English (though essentially a monoglot English speaker, I studied Latin and French at school, and have an interest in Heraldry).

    Since, as Prof. Mair reminds us, such elements of English as "-'s" are familiar to most Chinese people (who are likely to be Starbucks baristas, anyway) and the context is a fairly pressurised working situation, the saving of time/effort in employing it seems sensible. as I intimated above, it would be interesting to discover if the instances so far spotted are unconnected and spontaneous, or if the practice has become standard throughout Starbucks in China.

  14. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 20, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

    I was suspicious of this (because totally superfluous) and indeed internet research indicates that in Chinese Starbucks (e.g.) "李'r" = Mr. Li and "李's" = Mrs. Li. It is not hard to find pictures of X'r / X'R cups online. So it provides real information. Perhaps this makes the biscriptalism even weirder though

  15. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 20, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

    An "'R" cup
    though the post was mostly a joke b/c guy's last name is 駱 not 駝

  16. John Swindle said,

    September 20, 2017 @ 3:59 pm

    Jonathan Smith, yes, great!! A Google search for 李's 李'r is enough to start the explanations coming. The 's and 'r are abbreviations for Miss (or Mrs. or Ms) and Mr., respectively.

  17. Eidolon said,

    September 20, 2017 @ 6:43 pm

    With these additional examples, Jonathan Smith's explanation begins to make more sense to me. The reason being, 's adds no extra semantic value to the cup when combined with a Chinese surname – the barista should be able to tell that the cup belongs to a Chinese person of that surname. But the 'r and 's make a decisive difference, since when calling out the customer upon the completion of his or her drink, it is customary in Chinese etiquette to avoid personal names and to instead append a gendered honorific: 先生, 女士, etc. This would then require the barista to know whether the customer is male or female, necessitating the use of 'r or 's. Of course, the choice of the English abbreviation is still for the sake of time and effort.

    All we need now is the verification that the above gendered pronouns were used correctly. Nicki is described as a "she" so that makes sense, although her Facebook front page photo is that of a man, so I am a bit confused. What about the other customer?

  18. Victor Mair said,

    September 20, 2017 @ 8:31 pm

    If you poke around on Facebook and elsewhere on the web, you'll see that Nicki is identified as Erik-Nicki Johnson (Nicki Bennett). That "AHOY MATEY!" fellow is her beau.

    This Nicki in Hainan is definitely a woman:
    See also these websites:

  19. Nicki said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 4:31 am

    Yes, I can confirm that I and my companions at Starbucks that day were all women. How interesting! I'll have to take that ahoy matey fellow (he's so handsome) over to Starbucks again soon and see if we can get a his and hers Starbucks cup notation set!

    Since you have also confirmed my Hainan connection, I'll add that I'm the editor of the website Explore Hainan, for anyone curious about my very southern China location!

  20. Nicki said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 4:43 am

    I was thinking about this more and now I'm wondering, what do they do when the gender of the customer is not readily apparent? Assuming someone's gender identity and preferred pronouns is rather fraught. I wonder if they've run into any trouble with unhappy customers!

    They will need to begin asking customers not only for their names but also for their preferred pronouns!

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