Keep on -inging

« previous post | next post »

Jeff DeMarco writes:

From a Facebook post (timeline) by a young woman in HK:

卡拉ok ing ……😂🤣

GT deftly translates it as karaoke ing.

That's an interesting construction (where "kǎlā 卡拉" is a transcription for "kara").

My results with Google Translate differed:

卡拉ok ing –> Karaoke (though it did list "Kara ok ing" as an alternative)

卡拉ok –> Karaoke ok

卡拉 –> Karaoke

Here's the result from Microsoft Translator:

卡拉ok ing –> Karaoke ok ing

Baidu is best this time:

卡拉ok ing –> Karaoke ing

Speaking of "karoke", my first acquaintance with this expression was back in the 1980s, when I was visiting my brother Denis, who was then a translator for Foreign Languages Press in Beijing. He lived in the old Russian-built Friendship Hotel, a very spartan place compared to today's luxury accommodations in big Chinese cities. There wasn't much unusual, interesting, or attractive about the Friendship Hotel (though they had bidets in the bathrooms, as did many other Russian style accommodations in China at that time), but I was deeply intrigued by a small sign at the back of one of the buildings that led to a basement room. On it was written "卡拉OK". The best I could make of that novel expression was "card pull OK", and I thought that it might have something to do with documentation. I asked all my Chinese scholar friends what this mysterious sign meant, but not one of them knew (remember that this was back in the mid-80s). It was only when I returned to the United States that I realized " kǎlā OK 卡拉OK" was the Chinese transcription for Japanese "karaoke". It took a lot more time and effort before I figured out that "karaoke" is the abbreviated Japanese translation-transliteration of English "empty orchestra," viz., kara (空) "empty" and ōkesutora (オーケストラ). When I reported this to my Chinese linguist friends (Zhou Youguang, Yin Binyong, and others) back in Beijing the next year, they were absolutely flabbergasted. They had been convinced that the OK was simply the English term meaning "all right," but they had no idea what to make of the kǎlā 卡拉 portion.

A final note is my pleasant recollection of the UCLA Hittitologist, Jaan Puhvel, some years later demonstrating the origins of the word "orchestra" by doing a little jig before an admiring audience at an Indo-European workshop at the University of Texas in Austin. Much to our amusement, he showed graphically the Greek basis for our English word (orkheisthai "to dance"). I think that Jaan added a colorful Hittite aspect to his exposition, but I forget what it was. In any event, I thought it was simply fascinating that the origin of "orchestra" has more to do with dance than to music.

The above two paragraphs are adapted from this comment to the following post:

"The MaxPlanckForschung Cover Fiasco: How It Happened" (1/3/09)

Previous posts relating to the widespread use of the English present progressive ending "-ing" in Chinese:

In the final analysis, what do we have with "卡拉ok ing"?

1. "kǎlā 卡拉" is the Mandarin transcription of Japanese "kara 空" ("empty")

2. "OK" is the abbreviated English transliteration of Japanese "ōkesutora オーケストラ", which is the Japanese transliteration of English "orchestra", which is derived from Latin orchēstra, which comes from Greek orkhēstrā

3. "ing" is the English verb ending for the present progressive aspect

Such are the permutations and combinations of real language.  It is particularly exciting to observe these changes happening in East Asia, where languages from completely unrelated families are interacting intimately on a daily basis.  If this process continues the way it is going now for many years to come, it may lead to a kind of Mischsprache.  See my remarks about "China Babel" in these posts:

"Transcriptional and hybrid words in Mandarin" (3/6/14)

"A New Morpheme in Mandarin" (4/26/11)

Something there is about "-ing" that makes it particularly attractive to speakers of East Asian languages.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    October 30, 2017 @ 12:22 pm

    In the three-point summary of what we have with "卡拉ok ing ……" near the end of the o.p., I should have added a fourth point:

    4. two emojis

    Considering the seriousness with which fans of emojis advocate making them part of Unicode (see the discussion here) and the fondness many people (including the young woman from Hong Kong whose Facebook post I was quoting) have for them as part of written communications, I was negligent in failing to mention the two emojis as part of the "卡拉ok ing ……" statement.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    October 30, 2017 @ 12:29 pm

    Now that I have posted the previous comment, I can see that the two emojis dropped out in both places where I quoted the "卡拉ok ing ……" statement. In truth, I had a very hard time inserting them in the o.p near the beginning, and it was only with Ben Zimmer's help that they appear there now.

  3. postageincluded said,

    October 30, 2017 @ 11:34 pm

    Chinese speakers are not the only people who love "ing", Francophones love it too. Why is "ing" is so popular?

RSS feed for comments on this post