Official digraphia

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More than twenty years ago, I wrote a science fiction novel called "China Babel" (still unpublished) in which I described a time in the future when Chinese would merge with English.  Judging from current usage, the future of the mid-90s is fast impinging on the present.

Donald Clarke sends "this evidence of the unstoppable tide of digraphia in China: even the Supreme People’s Court does it."  See part 5 of this document, which says:

jījí yùnyòng shǒujī APP


"active use of mobile apps"

Is there any language in the world that does not use "apps" in this fashion?




  1. Michael Watts said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 11:01 pm

    Is there any language in the world that does not use "apps" in this fashion?

    Arguably Chinese; in my experience that sequence would be pronounced by naming each letter individually.

  2. liuyao said,

    September 13, 2018 @ 11:09 pm

    Just to add: in Chinese, APP is pronounced /ei pi: pi:/

    or A in first tine, P in fourth tone, and P in fourth tone.

  3. B.Ma said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 1:04 am

    The above two comments may be true for Mandarin, but I have not heard APP pronounced that way in Hong Kong Cantonese. Though perhaps they say it like that in Guangzhou.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 1:31 am

    On a tangential note, I don't understand the emergence of a special word "app" for software that runs on a handheld computer at all. We've had software forever; every language including English that has adopted "app" surely already had a more or less native term that "app" replaced.

  5. melboiko said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 1:47 am

    Some less technically sophisticated people in Brazil also pronounce "app" letter-by-letter, as if it were an acronym. Or maybe they're not necessary unsophisticated, and it's just my ugly personal prejudice because this pronunciation grates on my nerves.

    @Michael: "App" has the advantage of being monosyllabic and convenient; it has that catchy je-ne-sais-quoi which makes buzzwords contagious. Indeed I've been observing it being used for "software" in general, expanding the original meaning of a pre-packaged program for mobile operating systems.

  6. Hungarian said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 2:04 am

    In Hungarian alkalmazás is much more common than app. It means application. It's the nounification of alkalmaz (to use for), which is the verbification of alkalom (occasion).

    354,000 google hits for "appok" (apps)
    5,600,000 google hits for "alkalmazások" (applications)

  7. RP said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 4:22 am

    What you call the original meaning isn't. The term 'app' was used in the software industry as shorthand for 'application' long before it came to denote a mobile app specifically.

  8. Alex R said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 4:27 am


    Software on Macs has been called 'applications' since the 1980s, and naturally got shortened to 'app' pretty quickly. On Mac OS X, the file extension for applications is '.app', and is often appended in speech and writing to distinguish between the application software and the task it performs, in the somewhat common case where those overlap. So you could say 'to check your mail, open Mail dot app'.

    When the iPhone launched, the 'app' term naturally transferred to it – it's the same operating system as macOS under the hood, after all. Hence it was obvious to call the place you bought the apps the 'App Store', and the iPhone's position as the originator of the modern smartphone popularised it from there.

  9. Alex R said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 4:33 am

    The Japanese rendition of 'app', アプリ (apuri) actually reflects the fact that it's short for 'application'.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 7:59 am

    I have lots and lots of students from China, and they all say "app", not "a-p-p", and they sure use them a lot! Ubiquitous.

    I don't think I've ever heard one of them say "a-p-p", but I must have heard them say "app" a thousand times.

    It's so much easier and faster to say "app" than "a-p-p".

  11. mark hansell said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 8:18 am

    I think the difference in pronunciation (app vs. a-p-p) is a wonderful illustration of two channels of borrowing of the same word. People who have a better command of English and more connection to an English speech community use the phonetic loan strategy, so they borrow it as a one syllable word. People who don't hear the word spoken in English, but only read it, use the graphic loan strategy, and read it letter-by-letter, in keeping with the Mandarin treatment of many other acronyms and abbreviations borrowed from English. Cantonese in Hong Kong, living in daily contact with an English speech community, has long preferred the phonetic loan strategy, so it's no surprise that they say "app".

  12. michaelyus said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 8:23 am

    My personal experience: I have heard a majority (though not an overwhelming majority) of mainland Chinese 80後 & 90後 (those born in 80s and 90s) use either "ēi pì pì" or "ēi pī pì" to refer to small programs on mobile devices, both among themselves and to clients (and even to their parents). Must be a generational difference between "spelling out the initialism" vs "pronouncing the initialism".

  13. Guy_H said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 8:28 am

    I can't speak for mainland China, but in Taiwan it is definitely pronounced a-p-p (欸批批). I think most people think its an acronym like WTO, SMS, USA etc.
    Also, it is usually written in capital letters and not lower case (making it even less likely they will pronounce it "app").

  14. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 8:35 am

    I wonder how they say it in Icelandic?

  15. Christian Weisgerber said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 10:08 am

    @Victor Mair

    I wonder how they say it in Icelandic?

    They say app or smáforrit according to the Icelandic Wikipedia.

  16. Bruce Rusk said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 10:26 am

    The French say "appli," which fits French contraction patterns well.

  17. Michael Watts said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 10:33 am

    I have lots and lots of students from China, and they all say "app", not "a-p-p", and they sure use them a lot! Ubiquitous.

    I may be going out on a limb here, but how many of your students are located within the US?

  18. cameron said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 11:46 am

    @Michael Walls, and Alex R

    The term "app" as short for application has long been normal among software developers – and not just in the Apple world.

    Originally, it's short for "application program". In IBM mainframe parlance a distinction was made between "application programming" and "systems programming". Application programs typically dealt with business functionality and were typically written in COBOL. Systems programs dealt with more infrastructure-related functionality (including stitching together application program components) and were typically written in PL/1 or in assembler.

    In the UNIX world, and later among microcomputers running DOS, or MacOS, there usually wasn't such a hard and fast distinction between application programming and systems programming – generally everything was written in C – but the term "app" lived on as the term for any program written for people who were not programmers or systems admins to use.

  19. Chris Button said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 12:03 pm

    I wrote a science fiction novel called "China Babel" (still unpublished) in which I described a time in the future when Chinese would merge with English.

    How about taking it one step further and playing with the notion that if all languages did in fact stem from a common origin, then perhaps one day they will all return back to a common form due to globalization? The interesting question would then be how different the two forms (i.e. the primordial versus the homogenized one) would end up being…

  20. Michael Watts said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 12:53 pm


    I'm a third-generation software developer, and my impression agrees with Alex R that the modern term "app" derives from the "App Store" on iPhones rather than any usage by software developers. The terms familiar to me were "program", as I see you yourself use, referring to software as a conceptual unit, and "executable" or "EXE" referring to the executable file (as contrasted with, say, resource files). EXE transparently derives from the DOS/Windows file extension in the same way that "app" derives from the Mac one.

  21. Michael Watts said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 12:55 pm

    (also "script" referring mainly to the language a program is written in, but deriving from the idea that an "executable" is compiled to native code whereas a "script" consists of raw source code and is interpreted by a runtime)

  22. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

    My students are highly mobile — they come and go. Sometimes they are in America, sometimes they are in China. They are also closely connected to other Chinese speakers scattered across the world through WeChat and other platforms. Most of their interactions outside of class are with other Chinese speakers. Even in labs, they are often in groups with other Chinese speakers. They have Chinese dance clubs, social organizations, and sports teams / activities. They join Chinese choral groups and put on Chinese plays (I often attend their performances). They go to Chinese churches and Chinese restaurants and Chinese grocery stores, they have Chinese hiking clubs, they organize their shopping trips with other Chinese, etc. They read Chinese newspapers and magazines and all sorts of online materials in Chinese. Many of my students communicate with their family members in China weekly, if not more frequently. There are always plenty of Chinese students and visiting scholars who have only recently arrived, just days or weeks ago.

    It would be going way out on a precarious limb to assert that Chinese who come to America have been cut off from the Sinophone world.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

    @Chris Button

    I love your idea! If I ever publish China Babel and it is moderately successful, I will write a sequel and call it The End of Babel.

  24. Michael Watts said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 1:53 pm

    I don't want to say that Chinese who come to America have been cut off from the Sinophone world. I want to say they've been exposed pretty heavily to the American world.

  25. Michael Watts said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 1:55 pm

    For example, Chinese-speaking Americans will ask about salary in terms like "几十K?". That would be grossly atypical of Chinese in China.

  26. philip said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 2:11 pm

    In the Irish language, it is not 'app'. It is 'aip', which is pronounced 'app'.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 3:44 pm

    "I want to say they've been exposed pretty heavily to the American world."

    Even if they just arrived?

    Read Mark Hansell's comment above.

  28. Michael Watts said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 5:39 pm

    Yes, even if they just arrived, they will quickly assimilate to the local norm.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 6:29 pm

    No, they come using "app", not "a-p-p", and when they go back to China they still use it.

    Please go back and read Mark Hansell's comment.

  30. David Marjanović said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 6:58 pm

    It's so much easier and faster to say "app" than "a-p-p".

    …if you're used to syllable-final plosives. If Mandarin (as opposed to Cantonese!) is the only language you're used to, it's not easy that way at all. I'm sure that's a factor in the popularity of "A-P-P" in China.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 7:29 pm

    Almost everybody in China under 30 knows English, because it's required of all students beginning from elementary school.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 7:34 pm

    Which takes more time and effort, "apū 啊噗 or "a-p-p"?

  33. Kennedy said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 8:41 pm

    I teach conversational and business English online to students from all over mainland China and all of them to a fault say “A-P-P” rather than “app.” I’ve taught hundreds of students by now from several different provinces ranging in age from late teens to early 50s, but that pronunciation is consistent for all of them. I’ve asked several students why they pronounce it that way and they all said that’s how they pronounce it in Mandarin.

    (Sorry if this is a double post; I think my first comment may have been eaten.)

  34. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 9:39 pm


    Since you are teaching them "conversational and business English", do you teach all of them "to a fault" to "say 'A-P-P' rather than 'app'"? If they come to you saying "'A-P-P" rather than "app", do you correct them?

  35. Michael Watts said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 9:40 pm

    Almost everybody in China under 30 knows English, because it's required of all students beginning from elementary school.

    The same kind of evidence would be sufficient to prove that 'almost everybody in the United States under 30 knows Spanish'.

    Being exposed to something in school doesn't mean much for whether you know it.

  36. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2018 @ 10:17 pm

    Spanish is not mandatory for all students in elementary schools in the United States, and they certainly don't have to study it through middle school, high school, and college.

  37. maidhc said,

    September 15, 2018 @ 2:26 am

    cameron provided a good explanation of IBM usage.

    It's a question like "What did they call acoustic guitars before there were electric guitars?"

    When more sophisticated operating systems and other "system software" began to be developed in the 1960s, a need arose to distinguish between this and the other kind of software. The latter came to be called "application software", not just at IBM but generally. The OS exists to facilitate the operation of the application programs, which perform tasks of interest to the users. A computer was shipped with system software installed, but users would have to provide their own application programs.

    IBM's OS/360 operating system was an important milestone in the increasing sophistication of operating systems, so naturally IBM parlance became quite influential.

    Michael Watts: In a software development environment, a program can exist in a number of different forms. For example, a compiler normally transforms source code into object code. An object program contains the information required to execute the program, but cannot itself be executed. At least one additional step is required to produce a module that is executable. Users only see the the executable version of the program because that's what you get when you buy an application program. Generally software developers are not keen to make their source code public.

    The use of file extensions was popularized by Unix, although other operating systems of the 1970s used it too. The .EXE extension used in DOS/Windows is derived from the commonly used term "executable". It is something peculiar to DOS/Windows and is not found in most other OS environments.

    In the early days of microcomputers, there was much talk of the "killer app". A killer app was something that would convince someone to buy a computer just to use that one application program. The killer app for the Apple II was Lotus 1-2-3, the first spreadsheet.

    So the term "app" was in popular use long before the Mac came into existence.

  38. Kennedy said,

    September 15, 2018 @ 3:39 am


    "Since you are teaching them 'conversational and business English', do you teach all of them 'to a fault' to 'say "A-P-P" rather than "app"'? If they come to you saying 'A-P-P' rather than 'app', do you correct them?"

    No, I don't teach them to say "A-P-P"; they come to me saying that already. I do teach them to say "app" and explain that "app" is how it's pronounced in English. Many are surprised when they learn this, but quickly adopt the new pronunciation when speaking English in class. I don't know if they carry that pronunciation over into Mandarin or their native topolect.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    September 15, 2018 @ 5:34 am

    So, whether pronounced "app" or "a-p-p", the use of this term in China seems to be well-nigh universal, which was the starting point of this post.

  40. Anna said,

    September 15, 2018 @ 7:49 am

    Forrit is the Icelandic word for application but smáforrit (small application) didn't catch on. People prefer app which is a nice loanword and rhymes with happ (luck).

  41. cameron said,

    September 15, 2018 @ 11:13 am

    @maidhc – You're right that the term "killer app" dates to the 80s, but you mis-remember which app was which. Lotus 1-2-3 was the killer app that led to the widespread adoption of the IBM PC. The corresponding app for the Apple II was VisiCalc – and it was VisiCalc that was probably the first spreadsheet.

    The term "killer app" got a lot of mainstream press in the mid 90s. The killer app that convinced corporate America that they could and should use the World Wide Web to interact with customers was UPS's package tracking app. The idea of using a website to provide a real-time window into your system's internal data in a way that would be directly useful to customers was revolutionary.

  42. David Marjanović said,

    September 15, 2018 @ 11:19 am

    apū 啊噗

    Oh, I didn't know this form was available. I take it it doesn't have any inconvenient (near-)homonyms?

  43. mg said,

    September 15, 2018 @ 8:46 pm

    Visicalc was the killer app for both PCs and Apples – Lotus 1-2-3 only arrived a few years ago, cribbed by someone who'd worked for Software Arts (company that made Visicalc).

  44. maidhc said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 1:37 am

    cameron: You're right, it was VisiCalc. I misremembered the name.

    I remember how excited our accountant was to get his Apple II. We were running Unix on a VAX 11/780 and there was no comparable software available for that. This was before the IBM PC came out.

  45. Philip Taylor said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 12:19 pm

    Michael Watts : "On a tangential note, I don't understand the emergence of a special word "app" for software that runs on a handheld computer at all".
    Nor I, which is why I eschew (and loathe) the ?word? and continue to speak/write of "programs" and "software". I even went to the trouble of purchasing the domain name "" but haven't yet got around to populating it …

  46. liuyao said,

    September 16, 2018 @ 10:53 pm

    Regarding the emergence of a special word “app” (can’t speak as a software programmer though):

    In addition to being the extension for applications on Mac, I think the word must have registered a sense of “small application” for the early adopters. (The alternative, applet, is already taken.) I remember the very early days when Apple does not allow third-party apps, and people had to create websites that ran as applications in a browser, and they were called WebApps. Also from a technical point, they needed a short name for their App Store to fit with the button on the screen. All in all, it was all very natural.

  47. A. Skrobov said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 3:44 am

    Nobody mentioned Russian yet? An app in Russian is "priloženie" — — with no calque of the English term in common use.

  48. Philip Taylor said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 5:09 am

    liuyao (re "applet") — I first heard the term "applet" around 20 years ago, and initially had no idea what it meant (I had to ask, despite working in IT for most of my professional life). I learned that it was intended as a diminutive of "app", but to the best of my knowledge "app" was itself extremely rare at that time. Certainly I continued to hear of "applet" for many years before "app" finally entered my stream of consciousness.

    The Google Ngram viewer confirms that "applet" emerged at exactly the time I recall, but also shews that "app" had been current and attested for well over a century before that, suggesting that it has (or perhaps had) a completely non-IT meaning in addition to its current one. Apart from "amyloid precursor protein", the OED offers only "an abbreviation for 'application'" as a possible meaning, and that only from 1970, so what the Ngram viewer is finding is not at all clear …

  49. Ben Olson said,

    September 17, 2018 @ 9:30 am

    Japanese typically uses アップリ (appuri) instead of "app".

  50. Robert said,

    September 18, 2018 @ 2:25 pm

    @Philip Taylor

    Applet was the official name of Java programs that were embedded in a web site to be run on the web browser. I don't know of it being used in any other circumstance, and it seems to have dropped out of use.

  51. Philip Taylor said,

    September 18, 2018 @ 4:54 pm

    Robert — Thank you, I thought it was a Java term, but it was just too long ago to be sure; now, I think, such things are termed "objects" in HTML.

  52. Steven Marzuola said,

    September 19, 2018 @ 2:25 am

    I first heard "app" in reference to smartphone apps. A couple of years later, some restaurant chains started calling appetizers "apps" in their TV and radio advertising. Confusing.

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