What does your tattoo mean?

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On reddit:

My friend's tattoo. When asked "what does that mean?" He replies, "I don't know, I don't speak Chinese." That is literally what it means. from funny

Wǒ bù zhīdào 我不知道 ("I don't know")

Wǒ bù huì shuō Zhōngguó huà 我不會說中國話 ("I can't speak Chinese")

No comment, but comments welcome.

[h.t. Tim Leonard]



20 Comments

  1. Lew Perin said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 9:32 pm

    My hunch is that it’s magic marker, not tattooing, and the person whose arm graces the photo is in on the hoax.

  2. Dimitri said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 9:42 pm

    @Lew: Apparently color's been added to the text (see the Reddit thread): https://imgur.com/a/dhcCe

  3. B.Ma said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 10:25 pm

    The reddit thread includes several comments that "中國話" is an odd way of saying "Chinese". What does Language Log think?

    I'm a Cantonese speaker and nobody would ever say 中國話 in Cantonese. But when I was learning Mandarin (with other ethnic Chinese children in an English-speaking environment), although my textbook used 汉语 it mentioned that 中國話 was an acceptable alternative.

    I have heard a native Mandarin speaker use the term 中國話 in speech, but only once.

  4. Lai Ka Yau said,

    November 5, 2017 @ 10:29 pm

    @B.Ma: Same here – I would be surprised if anyone born in Hong Kong said 中國話 in Cantonese, but I did hear it from a Mandarin speaker once (during a linguistics seminar, in fact).

  5. Nathan Straub said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 1:17 am

    Zhongguohua 中国话 (Chinese language) is the name of a popular 2007 song by Taiwanese band S.H.E., and also the title of one of the most famous Chinese grammar treatises, "Zhongguohua de wenfa 中国话的文法" (A grammar of spoken Chinese) by Zhao Yuanren 赵元任 (1968). So it's a pretty well established term. Other terms for the Chinese language include:
    Guoyu 国语 'the national language', used during the Guomindang party rule in China and still in Taiwan and by some descendants of Guomindang soldiers in Myanmar and Thailand.
    Hanyu 汉语 'the language of the Han ethnic group', used in China and in textbooks, etc.
    Huayu 华语 'the Chinese language', using the literary name for China. This corresponds to Huaren 华人 'Chinese people', a cover term used for people of Chinese ethnicity living outside mainland China, such as in Singapore.
    Zhongwen 中文 'Chinese writing/literature', referring mainly to the written form, but also sometimes to the spoken language in conversation.

  6. leoboiko said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 1:18 am

    To be fair he didn't know; he can't speak Chinese.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 3:36 am

    In my experience, the word of choice for "Chinese" is overwhelmingly 中文 zhongwen. 汉语 Hanyu is what textbooks say (and one person has told me they think 汉语 is fancier / more sentimental than the plain term 中文). I think I heard someone on the street say 中语 once.

    Also in my (much lesser) experience, Chinese outside China are more likely to be called 华裔 than 华人.

  8. Michael Watts said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 3:40 am

    If the tattoo is meant to apply to itself, I'm minorly surprised that it would say "I don't speak Chinese" as opposed to something like 我看不懂汉字 or 我看不懂中文 "I can't read Chinese". The distinction is often not drawn in English, but the Chinese of my acquaintance have been fairly scrupulous about it.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 7:32 am

    Everybody should reread Nathan Straub's informed comment, including the concluding sentence:

    "Zhongwen 中文 'Chinese writing/literature', referring mainly to the written form, but also sometimes to the spoken language in conversation."

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 9:31 am

    Nathan Straub's citations use simplified characters, while the "tattoo" uses traditional ones. Any inferences?

  11. bfwebster said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 9:58 am

    "junggwo hwa" (in Wade-Giles, no less) is how I learned "Chinese [language]" back in 1971 in Mandarin 101. In fact, one of the few phrases I remember from that lone semester nearly half a century ago is "Wo bu shwo junggwo hwa." :-)

  12. Neil Dolinger` said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 11:14 am

    I think one of the first lessons in my my DeFrancis textbook had us asking "Ni hui shuo Zhongguo hua ma?" (sorry for leaving out the tone marks!) It was several months into our first year before our teacher told us that most Chinese people wouldn't actually say "Zhongguo hua"; they would most likely say "Zhongwen", less likely "Hanyu". He also said the more natural formation was "Ni hui buhui shuo Zhongwen". Not sure about the rest of my classmates, but I always wondered why Dr. DeFrancis started us off with the non-standard forms.

  13. BillR said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 11:28 am

    bfwebster, by any chance did you take that class at U of M (Michigan)?

    I also took one semester of Mandarin about that time. The one phrase I remember (without proper notation, I’m afraid) is “women chi fan badian jong”, which is supposed to mean, “we’ll eat dinner at 8 o’clock.”

    I can also, more or less, count to 5.

  14. BillR said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 11:33 am

    I also asked two Chinese friends, one Han immigrant to the USA and the other a Vietnamese immigrant who identified as Chinese, to write for me something to the effect of “I don’t know what this means” for a t-shirt, and got two very different responses. Unfortunately I don’t still have either one to show here.

  15. Neil Dolinger` said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 11:54 am

    Actually if my 30+ year old memory serves me, the actual phrase from DeFrancis was "Ni hui shuo Zhongguo hua bu hui?" Not at ALL standard, but a pleasure to say for a total newbie to producing spoken Mandarin. Not a tongue twister exactly, but along those lines.

  16. Rodger C said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

    @bfwebster: That's not Wade-Giles, which would be "Chung-kuo hua." I don't know what that actually is. Michigan Romanization?

  17. Thorin said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 12:24 pm

    Being from Michigan myself, I'd pronounce the Wade-Giles up dere as Chung-koʊ huæ

  18. Michael Watts said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 7:52 pm

    We could describe 中文 as "referring mainly to the written form" in that the etymology of 文 is related to writing, but the fact remains that the ordinary way to refer to spoken Chinese in speech as "Chinese" (as opposed to some more specific term like 粤语 or 上海话) is "中文".

  19. John Swindle said,

    November 6, 2017 @ 8:11 pm

    @Rodger C.: Yale romanization, used in some parts of Michigan.

  20. Eidolon said,

    November 9, 2017 @ 7:02 pm

    > We could describe 中文 as "referring mainly to the written form" in that the etymology of 文 is related to writing, but the fact remains that the ordinary way to refer to spoken Chinese in speech as "Chinese" (as opposed to some more specific term like 粤语 or 上海话) is "中文".

    Which is, ironically, more accurate than it would first seem, since the unifying language of China is the written form of Standard Mandarin. That is what every Chinese student is required to know, regardless of whether their pronunciations of that language can actually be understood.

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