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Inspired by Geoffrey Pullum's plan to take Barbara her matutinal coffee at exactly 08:08:08 on the morning of 08/08/08, this morning at 08:08:08 a.m. I took 8 photographs of my wife standing next to our favorite orchid, which has had a total of 8 blossoms.

Yes, everything is coming up 8's today. The morning news made a big fuss over how the uniforms of the American Olympians consist of 8 pieces. And everybody (except perhaps Mark Spitz and a billion Chinese) is rooting for Michael Phelps to win 8 gold medals. And today, of course, is very special for New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee who, by the way, wrote an excellent article back in 2001 about the impact of computers on the ability of Chinese to write characters by hand.

The airwaves are full of instant pundits informing us how important 8 is for Chinese because BA1 八 sounds like FA1 发/發 and FA1, among many other things too numerous to list here, can mean "get rich, make a fortune, become wealthy." So as not to sound too crass, those who explain the Chinese attachment to 8 usually say that it signifies "prosper(ity)" — I guess a lot depends upon what one understands "prosper(ity)" to mean! One hears this sort of sentiment most often during Chinese New Year celebrations when people go around saying (and writing endlessly on greeting cards) GONG1XI3 FA1CAI2, Cantonese GONGHAI/HEI FAT CHOI 恭喜发财 ("Congratulations and May You Get Rich!").

As someone who has been studying and teaching Chinese language and culture for four decades, people often ask me what the connection between BA1 ("eight") and FA1 ("prosper") really is, and I say the standard, "Oh, BA1 sounds like FA1," when I know very well that the homophony is not very close, and it's not really germane to talk about the similarity of labial articulation in such a context of popular culture. So I always lamely, yet professorially, used to add that the resemblance is greater in Cantonese, whose speakers are particularly fond of the number 8 and the ubiquitous, felicitous greeting, GONGHAI/HEI FAT CHOI (I hear it both with HAI and HEI, more often the former).

Unfortunately, when I started to learn Cantonese, I found — both to my embarrassment and chagrin — that 八 doesn't sound any more like 发/發 in Cantonese than it does in Mandarin: BAAT3 vs. FAAT3. Now, in all honesty, I can't any longer go around saying that 八 sounds more like 发/發 in Cantonese than it does in Mandarin. Maybe there's some other Sinitic language or dialect in which 八 sounds more like 发/發 than it does in Mandarin. If so, I'd be grateful if someone told me which one it is. In the meantime, just get in the spirit of 8/8/8 and make the most of it.


  1. Oskar said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

    The area-code for Stockholm is actually 08, which has become sort-of a derogatory way for people in the rest of Sweden to refer to people from Stockholm ("I hate that 08, he's so vapid!"). In an effort to take the term back, Stockholm today is holding an 08-celebration, basically rubbing the rest of the country's noses in how bad-ass we are :)

  2. Sandra said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

    Putting on my native-Cantonese-speaker hat and not my linguistics hat (which I don't really have anyway), I'd have to say that they actually do sound alike to me. They're not the same word, but they rhyme, and I think in Chinese superstition, that's good enough.

  3. KCinDC said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

    Does the "joy" character discussed here, which is often written with what look like two 8's as part of it, have any connection to this, or is it just a coincidence?

  4. Bill Poser said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

    It may be that the place to look is not in any extant form of Chinese but in earlier forms. Unfortunately, I don't have the necessary resources to hand. 八 is proto-Sino-Tibetan *p-rjet. I don't know about 發.

  5. Bryn LaFollette said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

    I'm not as up on my Classical Chinese Phonology as I'd like to be, but I'd guess that the initial consonants in 八 and 发/發 weren't always as they are pronounce in the current spoken languages. I know reconstructing Classical or earlier pronunciations is sort of tricky business, but does anyone know if these two characters were pronounced more homophonously in antiquity? I'd think that certainly these numerological associations of good versus bad numbers have a pretty long cultural history, and all the explanations I've heard (especially in the news leading up to today) have struck me as sounding like folk-etymologies, or something along those lines.

    I've often wondered the same thing about the number 4, which is supposedly bad because its pronunciation SI4 四 sounds like SI3 死, which means "death", "to die", and so forth among other things. I learned this first in the context Japanese, in which the words (as borrowed from Chinese) actually are homophones (though if one ignores tone in Chinese, then they'd be homophones too). The reason I bring this up is that unless you don't count tone, these don't rhyme like 八 and 发/發 do, and the same goes for Cantonese I believe (though I really don't know Cantonese).

  6. JScarry said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

    There have been several articles about China lately and I was wondering if you could fix your site so that we can view the Chinese characters? You might need to change the encoding method that you use to save the posts since it looks like you are correctly using UTF-8 to display them.

    This is what it looks like


  7. Bill Poser said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 3:50 pm


    All of the Chinese characters look fine to me, both the ones you posted and ours. What is wrong with what you see?


  8. Josh Millard said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

    Children's humor, repurposed for this Glorious Occasion into a chilling vignette of self-loathing:

    Q: Why was eight afraid of eight?
    A: Because eight ate eight!

    I'm not sure how well it'll go over with the kids, though.

  9. John Cowan said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

    And that means Trouble, and that starts with a T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Pool.

    The Music Man

    So there you go: "trouble" and "pool" are associated not even because they rhyme, but because the names of their initial letters rhyme (along with every other stop consonant in English except K and Q).

  10. KYL said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

    Well, here's my perspective. I'm not sure how widespread this superstition really is. Western reports about this particular superstition always give it the impression that this is some kind of age-old superstition that occurs throughout China.

    My family is from Anhui, Zhejiang, Hebei, and Gansu, and asking around the extended network for up to three generations no one can remember the alleged tradition about either the number 4 or the number 8 being a superstition that they were aware of when they were growing up. Some of my relatives were not even aware of this superstition as something "Chinese" until they encountered it from their American friends.

    (I'm also told that "GONG1XI3 FA1CAI2" is not a traditional New Year's greeting in all parts of China. At least not in my family's ancestral provinces.)

    From what I have read of classical Chinese literature, the number 8 and 4 both are seen as lucky numbers, certainly starting in the Tang dynasty, and perhaps even before. Both have positive associations in Daoist numerology, and with Chinese folk religions (the number 8, especially, is seen as connected with imperial aspirations). I don't recall any explicit punning with "prosperity" though.

    I get the impression that these puns with 8 and 4 were probably superstitions of recent vintage and in limited locales. They may have been particularly wide spread in overseas Chinese communities and among the Cantonese, and with the recent success of Cantonese speakers in China, gained a great deal of popularity in the rest of the China. And it plays particularly well in the West because, I guess, it fits with Western images of the Chinese as superstitious?

    I also don't understand Victor's comment that "I guess a lot depends upon what one understands "prosper(ity)" to mean!" It seems to imply that the translation is covering up some embarrassment. But prosperity (or gaining lots of wealth) seems a perfectly valid translation for 发.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

    Sandra wrote: "…I'd have to say that they actually do sound alike to me. They're not the same word, but they rhyme, and I think in Chinese superstition, that's good enough."

    Does that mean, Sandra, that you consider all Cantonese words ending in -AAT3 as essentially homophonous? But shouldn't there be a distinction between rhyme and homophony? Or is rhyme enough for you to make a linkage between any two words? Think, though, how many words (we should actually be talking about characters here, not words) end with the same YUN4MU3 韵母 ("rhyming / final sound")? If it is enough for a character merely to have the same rhyme / ending to be considered homophonous, that would seem to set the bar very low, and we'd end up with homophony practically everywhere we turn.

  12. Joe said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

    I don't know about anyone else, but I installed Arial Unicode MS and set it to my default font a long time ago as a poor man's way to be able to read (well, look at) anything from Farsi to Futhork without messing around with other settings.

    Everything on this blog shows up just fine for me.

  13. KYL said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 4:16 pm


    I don't think it's enough for a rhyme alone for two words to be considered homophonous, certainly not in Mandarin. Lots of Chinese jokes and puns rely on words which sound similar except for the tone, or which differ only by phonemes that many speakers don't distinguish (e.g.: 老和尚住山洞——–没事。(没寺) from http://baike.baidu.com/view/453.htm). I'm not aware of any examples where a rhyme alone is enough to create an association (but there may be some, but they would have to be pretty deliberate jokes)

    In this particular case, I have often heard Mandarin speakers explain this particular pun of "8" as a pun that "only works in Cantonese." If indeed Cantonese speakers don't hear the pun either, then this would make the pun something like an urban legend that close to a billion people have bought into. Very interesting.

  14. mollymooly said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

    The Friday the 13th phobia is similarly more recent and less widespread than Jason Voorhees might think.

  15. Sili said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

    The Amazing Randi's take on the 8-woo.

    And Cosmic Variance (jr.) made some interesting observations on the "7 ate 9" joke.

  16. Carolanna said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 7:32 pm

    My Japanese professor (who was from Tokyo) explained the association of 8 with prosperity as deriving from the shape of the written number. Because it starts small and gets larger at the bottom, it symbolizes the increase of wealth, progeny, etc.

  17. Nancy Friedman said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 8:23 pm

    Somebody somewhere may be rooting for Mark Phelps, but swimming fans will be rooting for Michael Phelps.

  18. anonymous said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 10:22 pm

    Sandra wrote: "…I'd have to say that they actually do sound alike to me. They're not the same word, but they rhyme, and I think in Chinese superstition, that's good enough."

    Does that mean, Sandra, that you consider all Cantonese words ending in -AAT3 as essentially homophonous?

    My guess is tolerance for homophony is higher when digits are used to stand for similar-sounding words (plus the consonants B and F are grouped together in some alphabets). I'm from Taiwan but I'm sure this is true in China as well — it's very common to make up mnemonics to memorize digits, or to use digits as a shorthand for words. Back when beepers (predecessors to cell phones) were popular in Taiwan, people beeped each other with "521" which meant "I love you" (我愛你), "9421" for "just love you" (就是愛你) and a lot more cheesy ones I never picked up (the newspapers did though). In school there were mnemonics for special numbers (the square root of 2 is 意思意思量衣三五六). Of course everyone remembers Domino pizza's infamous phone number 882-5252 (爸爸餓我餓我餓)… mmm Domino's. Anyway, most of these mnemonics don't really sound like the thing they're intended to sound like. Just enough.

    So, I wouldn't be surprised if there were no dialect in which 8 sounded more like prosperity than the Mandarin version, though I would still buy other explanations (however the 4 = death thing works very well in Taiwanese and Japanese). By the way the way, today is Father's Day in Taiwan. That one came from Mandarin for sure.

  19. caffeind said,

    August 9, 2008 @ 3:12 am

    Remember Pinyin "B" is not actually voiced, but voiceless like "F".

  20. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

    Carolanna: Don't believe what your Japanese professor or anyone else tells you about the associations of the shapes of KANJI unless — at a minimum — he/she refers you to the oracle bone forms of the characters, since they have changed so greatly during the past three millennia and more.

    KYL wrote: "If indeed Cantonese speakers don't hear the pun either, then this would make the pun something like an urban legend that close to a billion people have bought into. Very interesting." Thank you, KYL, for having read my mind!

    Nancy: I was starting to think that "Michael" was semi-homophonous with "Mark."

    Finally, Bill Poser wrote to me and suggested the following: "I wonder if the idea that eight is good luck because it sounds like "prosperity" is perhaps a folk explanation for a phenomenon whose origins lie elsewhere. Note that eight is associated with good luck in Japanese as well. Of course, we have no attestation of this prior to the possibility of Chinese influence, but it does seem to me that the association shows up in contexts that make it seem native. It is, for example, associated with the Japanese number ya, not just with the Chinese loan hachi, and is found in waka, where things Chinese are avoided. For example, one has the cherry species yaezakura "many-leaved cherry tree", literally "eight-leaved cherry". I don't know the distribution of this association, but perhaps it is a broader old East Asian idea, not something specific to Chinese."

    I found Bill's suggestion to be stimulating and told him that I would look around to see if I could find anything to support it. So I went home and turned to Annemarie Schimmel's The Mystery of Numbers (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), originally written in German as Das Mysterium der Zahl (Munich: Eugen Diederichs, 1984). Lo and behold, the chapter on eight (pp. 156-163) is entitled "The Auspicious Number," and Schimmel documents her assessment of 8 as auspicious by referring to beliefs and customs in ancient Babylonia, Greece, Persia, Germany, India, China, and Japan. It is not too difficult to see how auspiciousness could morph into prosperity.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    It is conceivable that the idea that BA1八 and FA1 发 are homophonous began among Hakka (e.g., Meixian) or Min (e.g., Amoy, Fuzhou, Jian'ou) speakers. I discovered a very interesting phenomenon that exists in these topolects but not in any others that I know of. Namely, in the literary (WEN2 ) readings of these four topolects, BA1 八 and FA1 发 are no more homophonous than they are in Mandarin or Cantonese. However, in their vernacular (BAI2 白) readings, both BA1 八 and FA1 发 begin with a p-, and their endings — while not identical — are close enough (similar vowels and similar or identical entering tone stops, except Jian'ou, which has open endings for both syllables. Consequently, the idea that BA1 八 and FA1 发 are homophonous most likely arose in Hakka or Min.

    By the way, BA1 八 and FA1 发 were partially homophonous in Early Middle Sinitic (identical initials and identical stops, but different vowels in between), though not in Late Middle Sinitic (different initials and different vowels, but identical stops). Thus it is possible that the idea that BA1八 and FA1 发 were homophonous could have arisen in Common Sinitic of the 7th c. or earlier, but not in the 11th c. or later, after which partial homophony existed only in Hakka and Min, as explained in the previous paragraph.

    BA1 八 and FA1 发 would also have been partially homophonous in Han and earlier times (2nd c. AD and before).

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