HouseHold GarBage

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Dick Margulis saw this in a hospital waiting room in the University of Hong Kong Shenzhen Hospital:

shēnghuó lèsè (Taiwan) / lājī (PRC)


"domestic garbage" — in distinction to "medical waste", this being a hospital

What's going on here?

Basically, this intercapitalization is a result of the emphasis on the syllable at the expense of word in the common Chinese perception of language.  It also manifests itself in other forms:

house hold gar bage

house-hold gar-bage


The same practices pertain to non-standard Hanyu Pinyin orthography (see the "Selected readings" below).

Since the Chinese writing system is fundamentally morphosyllabic, and traditionally there was never any attempt to separate words with spaces, that naturally led to insistence on the primacy of the syllable in Chinese writing and language analysis in premodern times.  Indeed, there was no concept of "word" in Chinese until the first half of the 20th century, when a word that formerly signified a type of lyric, cí 詞 (also meant "diction", "utterance", "phrase", etc.), was chosen by modern linguists to stand for "word" in distinction to zì 字 ("character").

Since the very idea of "word" is a recent concept for a written tradition that is more than three thousand years old, it is not surprising that Chinese still focus primarily on syllables.  When I have taught and lectured in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, one of the hardest things to get across to audiences is the difference between zì 字 ("character") and cí 詞 ("word").  Here I may quote from an earlier post dealing with this subject:

In 2002-2003, when I was teaching at the University of Hong Kong, I had a Chinese linguistics class consisting of 72 students (the same number as Confucius' disciples!).  They were among the brightest humanities students in Hong Kong, but it was all I could do in the course of a semester to get them to comprehend the difference between a word and a character.  No matter which angle I addressed the matter from, their eyeballs would go rolling back into their head, and they looked as though they were suffering from a migraine.  Even now, a decade and a half later, when my classes are full of very smart students from across the Sinosphere, a curtain falls down over their gaze when I try to explain what the difference between a character and a word is.

All of this can be very confusing to young Chinese students.  Case in point.  I just gave the final exam for the first semester of Introduction to Classical Chinese.  All of the members of the class except one are M.A. students from the PRC.  One section of the exam had the heading "Shīcí xuǎn 詩詞選" ("A selection of poems and lyrics").  The first paper that I read had the following translation for that heading:  "A selection of poems and words"!

Selected readings


  1. Alison said,

    December 6, 2019 @ 9:32 pm

    I work in software development where we use a form of capitalization called CamelCase (capitalizing the first letter of words in identifiers where we are not able to put a space) and I often come across this sort of SuPerFluous usage from my Chinese colleagues. In reviews i point out that the point of using CamelCase is to make it easy for other developers to parse the meaning of an identifier, so capitalization by syllable works against that goal… but the point doesn't really sink in.

    On a side note, inside the software development world there is some debate about whether CamelCase is less readable than snake_case (or kebab-case). Instinctively I feel like underscores should be more readable, and at least one study backs that up: That said, having seen plenty of signs in China where unnecessary spaces are inserted between syllables, i am curious if these studies would show different results depending on the native language background of the developer.

  2. Mark S. said,

    December 6, 2019 @ 10:17 pm

    A couple more examples here:

  3. Jeffrey said,

    December 6, 2019 @ 10:52 pm

    I am currently taking an intermediate class in Chinese at a university in Zhejiang Province. Even the teachers here seem to be confused about the difference between a zi and a ci. Also, they seem to think that they actually speak hanzi. And yesterday the listening and speaking teacher told us that spoken Chinese has no grammar! I held my tongue, of course, not wanting our nice instructor to lose face in front of the other students.

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 12:05 am

    Readers of a certain age may be reminded of Jonathan Winters in his role as the fastidious trash collector who pronounces "garbage" to rhyme with "fromage".

  5. Victor Mair said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 12:06 am


    Everything that you say has been standard fare for run of the mill Chinese language teaching around the world for the past half century and more. Thanks for sharing your experience in a Zhejiang university Chinese language class at the end of the year 2019. We still have a long, long way to go!

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 5:23 am

    Alison — I too am a software developer (amongst many other things !) but of a generation for which ALL CAPS was the norm (there were no lower-case characters as far as computers were concerned at that time), and of course I therefore used the so-called "stropping" convention to differentiate between language words and identifiers ('FOR' I 'TO' n 'DO' … 'OD'). These days, whilst I somewhat grudgingly accept that CamelCase has its uses, I really detest what I regard as the appalling camelCase variant as in strMyStr = "foo". For me, a word (even a computer word) has either to start with an upper-case letter or not contain one at all, and I personally prefer to use a space (where the language allows it) or an underscore as an intra-word divider. The hyphen, whilst visually more elegant, is of course not normally available for this function because of the need for it to represent monadic negation or dyadic subtraction.

  7. David Morris said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 7:48 am

    @Jeffrey: "spoken Chinese has no grammar". At the next lesson, greet your teacher with "Hao ni!"!

  8. Jeffrey said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 10:55 am


    I'm a veteran ESL/EFL teacher who has taught both in the US and abroad, so it was really shocking to me (and the other students) when our teachers here entered the classroom and began teaching without a lesson plan at all. They just opened the textbook and began doing choral responses of dialogues and dictating a weekly tingxie.

    And you say this has been going on for at least half a century? Oh boy.

    One question. I know there is a new field of teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language and people here in China can now get a Master's in CFL. Do you think that Western methods of course and lesson design will filter into methods for teaching Chinese to foreigners here in the future through these CFL degree holders?

    With my background (as both a teacher and teacher-trainer), I have worked with a few of my teachers here at the university to help them design lessons with Western methodology, but all of it is very hard for them to incorporate. So, for example, I explain to them that they need to reduce their TTT (Teacher Talking Time) by creating activities that force the students to share information and communicate with each other in small groups. Right now, in all of my classes the TTT is between 80 and 90 percent. But the teachers are uncomfortable not controlling the class from the front of the classroom.

    On the positive side, motivated Western foreign language teachers could really help the Chinese learn how to teach their language to others. Right now, I can see the Chinese teachers are really struggling.

    @David Morris.

    Ha ha. Indeed. The teacher really did say that in spoken Chinese the order really didn't matter. Just toss out some words, I guess, and call it spoken Chinese. The identification of value only with hanzi is very strong, of course.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 4:24 pm

    David Morris — " At the next lesson, greet your teacher with 'Hao ni!' ". On reading that, I immediately did what you suggested, and found to my surprise that I had used the tone pattern of "Nĭ hăo" (including tone sandhi, of course) without even thinking that it might be wrong. As it happens, with both "nĭ"and "hăo" taking the third tone, what I said was correct, but I have a nasty feeling that had you suggested I should instead reverse the order of another pair of words with which I am very familiar, I might have automatically carried across the tone pattern without realising that the result would not be as intended …

  10. David Morris said,

    December 7, 2019 @ 4:37 pm

    "Ni hao" is one of the few Chinese phrases I actually know, so it's probably not the best example, but my point stands.

    I later found that there are people named 'Hao Ni'. I think that's given name – surname, so in Chinese name order they'd be 'Ni Hao'.

  11. Martin said,

    December 8, 2019 @ 4:05 am

    'poems and words' — this is surely just a slightly out of place use of 'words' to mean 'lyrics', as in 'the words of the song' (OED 2c) rather than evidence of any confusion about what a word is.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 8, 2019 @ 9:06 am

    That CamelCase approach to two-morpheme (or two-character) toponyms seemed standard in the hanyu-pinyin romanization used for street signs in Taipei when I was there a few years ago. This must have reflected some local political dynamic where proponents of that approach had yet to take control over signage more generally or nationally, because I didn't see it much on street signs outside the city limits and within the city limits where there was e.g. a subway station with the same name as the street the subway signage (presumably controlled by a different agency and accountable to different political masters?) didn't do it.

  13. Mark S. said,

    December 12, 2019 @ 6:20 am

    @J.W. Brewer:
    The use of InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion on Taipei street signs is slightly older than the use of Hanyu Pinyin in the city. It originated there in a brief plan to put up signs in Tongyong Pinyin, a romanization system that can be seen on the streets of Kaohsiung (though fortunately without the extra capital letters). But before many Tongyong signs went up in Taipei, the city changed administrations (and parties). Incoming mayor Ma Ying-jeou took the unusual step of actually asking foreigners what they wanted; the vast majority responded they wanted Hanyu Pinyin, a request Ma was happy to oblige. But the city, never content to leave well enough alone, thought it would be helpful to foreigners to add extra capital letters. Ugh.
    Not long afterward, Chen Shui-bian, who had been mayor of Taipei during the brief Tongyong days, became president of Taiwan. He pushed for Tongyong throughout the country. Taipei and other cities under the KMT resisted this and went, more or less, with Hanyu Pinyin.
    In the meeting at the Ministry of Education to set the standards for writing romanization throughout Taiwan (though some cities could still choose to deviate), one person proposed introducing Camel Caps throughout the country. Another person immediately responded passionately that, no, Taipei's extra capitalization should most definitely not be used. And so the measure was not adopted. I know all this because I was that second person.

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