Hands, hands, two hands

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Here's part of a page from a Chinese exercise book for learning English, with a student's notations added in blue ink:


The text reads:

1、 shúxī xiàmiàn dāncí 熟悉下面单词 ("familiarize yourself with the following words")

1. bus / bàsǐ 爸死 ("dad died") 2. yes / yésǐ 爷死 ("grandpa died") 3. girls / gēsǐ 哥死 ("older brother died") 4. miss / mèisǐ 妹死 ("sister died") 5. school / sǐguāng 死光 ("death ray; everybody died") 6. pea / pì 屁 ("fart") 7. yesterday / yēsǐtādiē 噎死他爹 ("choke his dad") 8. guess / gāisǐ 该死 ("damn!; go to hell!; lit., ought to die") 9. draw / zhū 猪 ("pig") 10. dangerous / dānjiǎolāshǐ 单脚拉屎 ("shit on one foot") 11. five / fèiwù 废物 ("waste; garbage; refuse; junk; trash; rubbish") 10. America / Éméi 鹅没 ("goose died / disappeared" or "goose doesn't have [any]") — the part that is hidden in the center of the book might be lǐkǎ 禮卡 ("gift card"), hence Éméilǐkǎ 鹅没禮卡 ("goose has no gift card")

2、 shúdú xiàmiàn jùzi 熟读下面句子 ("familiarize yourself with the following sentences")

1. Hands, hands, two hands. I have two hands. / Hànzi, hànzi, tōu hànzi. Ǎn hái lái tōu hànzi. 汉 子,汉子,偷汉子。俺还来偷汉子。("guy, guy, steal / filch a guy. I'll still come to steal a guy") 2….

The above photograph is available on many websites. I got it from this one, where it was accompanied by the following remarks:

Shuí jiā de hái zhǐ zhème yóucài! Zhè fānyì hái liǎo dé!! 谁家的孩纸这么油菜! 这翻译还了得!!

("Whose kid's paper [sic] is so talented! This translation is atrocious / outrageous / terrible / amazing!!")

The word I have translated at "talented" is yóucài 油菜, which actually means "kale; cole; rape", but is being used as a pun for y ǒucái 有才 ("talented").

The commenter refers to the student's funny notations as "translations", but, in fact, they are transcriptions. Such use of Chinese characters to record the sounds of foreign and dialectal words goes back thousands of years. Indeed, before the alphabet came to China, this was the only means for phonetic annotation of terms from abroad or from local and regional languages. Now that the use of Hanyu Pinyin, English, and IPA are widespread in China, the situation has changed somewhat, yet I still meet people who don't know how to record the sounds of what they are saying with Roman letters, but would prefer to write them in Chinese characters, even though it often leads to radical distortion. Not to mention that, whether intentional or not, there is often semantic interference from the surface meanings of the characters, which are inescapably powerful, as in the present instance.

When my Shandong father-in-law was trying to learn English, he had notebooks full of things like this: gǒutóu māoníng 狗頭貓嚀 ("dog's-head cat's meow"), i.e., "good morning". See "How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language", section V. I have in my office an entire textbook of English with this type of phonetic annotation in characters, and in my library at home I have late imperial textbooks for the study of foreign languages that also use characters in this way.

[A tip of the hat to Anne Henochowicz; thanks to Fangyi Cheng and Cao Lin]


  1. Yet another John said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 11:20 am

    But any guess as to the intention of the textbook author in including the phrase "Hands, hands, two hands." …? Why did they think this would be a useful phrase for beginners to learn, on a par with "How are you. What is your name" (that appears just below)?

    Maybe it's a poor rendition of "I have two hands" that got weirdly distorted in the translation?

  2. Gene Callahan said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 11:30 am

    Even if it is just a poor rendition of "I have two hands"… Why would you want to say that?! I don't think I have ever used that sentence in English in my life.

  3. Lazar said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

    @Gene Callahan: That sort of thing is called a postillion sentence – the prototypical example being "My postillion has been struck by lightning."

    Also – two blue hands rendered in garbled Chinese? I'm getting a distinct Firefly vibe.

  4. Ken Fasano said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

    "I have two hands"… I probably said that once – when I was two.

  5. Anita Huang said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    There are different ways to use Chinese characters to record sounds of English words. It is interesting to see how this particular student produces these absurd and ridiculous phrases. Could it be that this helps one remembers English words better? I have seen American college students who learn Chinese and transcribe yeye ‘grandfather’ and nainai ‘grandmother’ as ‘Yay! Yay!’ and ‘Night-night!’. They claim that this helps them learn Chinese, though their transcriptions are by no means absurd.

  6. Bobbie said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 1:12 pm

    My college roommate enjoyed learrning useful terms in several languages, using old WWII phrase books. I can still remember how she used catch phrases in English to remember the words. For instance, to count in Japanese, one starts with "Itchy knee" [for Ichi Ni or 1 -2] My favorite was "Look, Chut, bot [what] goes up " for the numbers 5-10 in Chinese.

  7. ===Dan said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

    This reminds me of the NYC radio ads in the early '90s for a program to learn Spanish. "S-O-C-K-S!"

  8. Sybil said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

    The Polish phrasebook I once owned had as one of its useful phrases: "I know it's not good for me, but I just can't stop."

    (That was after "Do you have a cigarette?" – presumably a good pickup line.)

  9. Jonathan said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 2:24 pm

    Mot d'heures: gousse, rames.

  10. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 2:38 pm

    'I have two hands' is a useful thing to say when trying to prove the existence of the external world.

  11. Mark Liberman said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

    This opens the subject of Effle, the language phrase-books, which came up on LL a decade ago:

    "Vintage Effle", 12/18/2003
    "Fieldwork Effle", 12/18/2003
    "Effleville: Why is 'I have a cold' an idiom?", 12/19/2003
    The dread hand of Effle — and boredom", 12/19/2003

    The Effle Page has moved.

  12. John Rohsenow said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

    For those who were too young, or missed it in the 1960's:
    Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames by Luis d'Antin van Rooten:


    (and DO note the price ranges>)

  13. Tom said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 4:22 pm

    Jonathan Stalling wrote a whole book of poetry this way, called Yíngēlìshī 吟歌丽诗 ("Chanted songs, beautiful poetry," but also a phonetic approximation of the word "English"). Basically, he takes sentences from an English phrasebook, "transcribes" them in poetic classical Chinese, then translates the result back into English. The result is usually silly, but sometimes sublime. Check it out here.

  14. maidhc said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

    I imagine a class exercise like this:

    Hands [students extend right hands]
    Hands [students extend left hands]
    Two hands! [Students raise both hands in the air]
    I have two hands!

  15. maidhc said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

    When I was young we used to exchange phrases like Pas de lieu aun que nous.

  16. Michael Vnuk said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

    Note the numbering in the word list. After 10 and 11, it's back to 10 again. And I could also comment about lack of spaces after commas, missing question marks, etc, but that's the editor in me.

  17. Apollo Wu said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

    Funny or grotesque transcriptions tend to help memorizing new languages expressions. A Cantonese speaking friend of mine once use 今晚打老虎 (beat the tiger tonight) for "comment allez-vous?" in French. It certainly helps one to memorize.

  18. Chris Waugh said,

    May 3, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

    孩纸 for 孩子 looks like that cutesy-speak common online, similar to 有木有 for 有没有 and other similar character substitutions. Same with 油菜 for 有才 – not really a pun in the strictest sense, as in the author was not trying to make a joke so much as follow a particular trend in online writing.

  19. JS said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 12:46 am

    We, too, have notebooks filled to the brim with such transcriptions lying about, work of an older language learner in the family. In his case, though, there is generally no attempt to create cute or memorable Chinese renderings; these strings truly represent his sincerest attempts at close transcription of English speech (often enough, mine).

    And in fact, Prof. Mair, I don't think mastering the Roman alphabet is the magic bullet here (my relative learned Pinyin from elementary school) as this is at heart not an orthographical issue but a phonological one: 該死 for 'guess' and the like are written renderings of what are truly phonological best-fits, as English phonotactics (esp. clusters and syllable-final consonants) differ so radically from those of Mandarin. One can learn that English orthographical words may end in "s" and still be quite incapable of producing final /s/ in one's speech…

    However, as he has grown slowly more familiar with English phonotactics, I have noted with interest my relative writing things such as"s鍋" (=sguo) for 'school'… so, some awareness of the specialness, relative to Mandarin, of consonant clusters.

  20. Peter Taylor said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 3:35 am

    Google auto-complete suggests "hands lyrics" to me as a possible completion for "I have two". It seems that there's a children's song called "I have two hands".

    It should not be confused, of course, with the Monty Python song "I've got two legs".

  21. Victor Mair said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 5:43 am


    When we learn a foreign language, we are taught to follow the phonology of the language we are learning, not the phonotactics of our own language. In my beginning Mandarin class, for example, we spent three weeks familiarizing ourselves with the sound system of that language before we embarked on grammar, vocabulary, or anything else. That included paying attention to diagrams of the structure of the mouth, teeth, vocal cords, and throat, with precise indications of how to produce the sounds of Mandarin, and endless repetitions of the four tones, sandhi patterns, etc. We did not waste any time trying to figure out how to fit Mandarin into English phonology. I think that's a fairly common approach for most foreign language pedagogy in the West.

    On the other hand, when it came to sentences, the first one most foreigners used to learn was wrong, namely, Nǐ hǎo ma 你好吗 (you good QUESTION PARTICLE). I don't think many teachers inflict that on their students any longer, but just tell them how to say Nǐ hǎo 你好 ("hello; how are you?"), the way Chinese really speak.

  22. Martin J Ball said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 8:07 am

    My hovercraft is full of eels

  23. Victor Mair said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 8:17 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    I have a Chinese almanac published in HK in about 2001 and a photocopy of a little book from about 1835 called《紅毛通用番話》with lists of Chinese characters that are to be pronounced in Cantonese and that have been used to transliterate English words for the benefit of Cantonese speakers learning English.

    These word lists are bilingual, that is, they include both the transliterated words and their Chinese glosses, e.g. 孖打 [maa1 daa2] = Mandarin 母親 ("mother").

  24. Joshua said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 8:42 am

    Frankly, I feel sorry for the student who has to learn English from such a poorly edited textbook.

    To print the sentences "How are you? What is your name?" as

    How are you. What is you name

    should not be acceptable in a textbook.

  25. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

    Dr. Mair, When you were first learning the sound system of Mandarin, did your teacher give you any orthographic tools to aid in this learning, such as bopomofo or pinyin, or was it strictly a rote system? When I began my Mandarin classes in the early '80's (with Ron Walton, RIP), we started with a combination of rote and pinyin.

    Unfortunately with the irregularity of English spelling, Chinese students don't seem to have a good equivalent to pinyin when first learning the English sound system. While using Chinese characters in order to master English pronunciation is a crutch (and a deceptive one at that) over the long term, it seems a very clever tool for these students in the beginning, before they have learned to map English pronunciation to English spelling, and well before they learn the many irregularities in our spelling.

  26. Jon said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

    Don't forget Paul Jennings' rallying cry for the French Navy: "A l'eau, c'est l'heure!"

  27. Neil Dolinger said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

    Of course, it could be argued that if one is serious about learning English (as opposed to limiting one's aspirations to being a tour guide), it is probably best to avoid the kind of bad pronunciation habits that can come fro relying on Chinese characters as proxy for the correct pronunciation of the English words.
    I was looking back through the the old LL posts to try to find the post showing a Chinese actor reading a whole paragraph of nonce Chinese that was surprisingly understandable as "English".

  28. Victor Mair said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

    @Neil Dolinger

    No rote for me. I leaned first with GR (National Romanization tonal spelling [Y. R. Chao's system], but also used Yale, Wade-Giles, and bopomofo).

  29. maidhc said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

    There is an example found at the fascinating Rio Wang website of German phrases written phonetically in Russian. It is of historical interest as well.


  30. befuggled said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 7:48 pm

    It reminds me of Dr. Seuss:

    Hands hands fingers thumbs
    Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum.

  31. JS said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 10:34 pm

    Shows a bit more text more clearly…

    However… why has our putative scribbler written 俺还来偷汉子 (with phonologically bizarre 来) instead of 俺还未偷汉子 ("correct" by its use of 未), the punchline of an unfunny English-learning joke?
    Given the graphical similarity of 未 and 来… do I smell a rat?

  32. JS said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 10:48 pm

    ^ sorry for missing image

    anyway I guess this is a fabricated-for-fun textbook page that cobbles together a bunch of well-worn Chinese “transcriptional" humor… often seen online in the company of the above are the likes of 奶死 ‘nice' and best of all, 由你玩四年 'university' (despite the phonological stretch for 年)

  33. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 6:34 am

    Many Chinese friends who have read this post tell me that they did exactly this sort of thing when they were learning English — and they thought it great fun.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 7:17 am


    "Given the graphical similarity of 未 and 来… do I smell a rat?"

    When I was preparing this post, I too wondered why the scribbler used 来 instead of 未, but I attributed it to a lapsus calami, not a rat.

    It's great that you found that joke site with the "correct" version.

    In both of your latest comments you mention an image that shows more of the cropped page, but I still haven't seen it. I'd love to read more of the page if you can still dig it up again.

  35. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

    From J. P. Mallory:

    My favourite from my UCLA days was the Latin epigram

    O Sybille, si ergo
    fortibus es in ero
    O Nobile, demi strux
    si vates enim, causa en dux

  36. William Steed said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 8:25 pm

    I have several 'dialect' phrasebooks for Chinese languages (Wenzhou, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Shanghai, …) that rely entirely on Putonghua readings of characters as a pronunciation guide. It comes out just as useful as trying to transcribe English with characters (or Putonghua with English orthography, for that matter).

    普通话: 先生,您的茶要放糖吗?
    温州话: 先生, 你的茶要放糖吗?
    译音: 西斯,泥各族意扩多阿法? (Xi1si1, ni2ge zu2 yi4 kuo4duo1 a1fa1)
    This seems about as effective as writing "Shee-sir, nee-guh dzoo ee kwor dwor afaa?"

  37. JS said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 11:15 am

    Clearest/largest I can find is here

    Parallel online jokes have 'draw' as 猪窝, "American" as 鹅没人啃, both of which look right for the photo (and the second of which I think I've heard before)… anyway, the collection of arbitrary-seeming "vocabulary" shown is just too perfect (lots of final 死, for example), another reason it was probably manufactured.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 7:58 am


    Do you think that the exercise book itself was "manufactured"? I rather doubt that anyone would go to all that trouble just to make some transcriptional jokes.

    As for the transcriptions themselves, as I mentioned above, many of my Chinese students told me that they themselves engaged in such fun when they were learning English, and my own Shandong father-in-law — who was seriously trying to learn English but not making much progress — often resorted to hilarious renderings when attempting to record the English that his children and I pronounced for him.

    As for the Sinographic transcriptions in the exercise book pictured in this post, as you yourself point out, many of them are shared among learners and have become almost a playful sort of "standard".

    I am grateful to you for giving us the full forms of "draw" 猪窝 and "American" 鹅没人啃.

  39. Anna said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 11:15 am

    My god, it took almost thirty comments before anyone realised that this image is manufactured for the sake of the joke. The fact the the vocabulary has the whole family die in transcription, all while teaching 'yes' but not 'no', 'yesterday' but not 'tomorrow', 'five' but not 'four' or 'six', didn't strike anyone as a bit too coincidental? Yes there are plenty of bad English textbooks out there and smart children, but this is an example of neither. Couldn't this just have been posted as the joke that it is, instead of stating that this is a textbook?

  40. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 3:48 pm


    Please see my last comment.

    There are any number of Chinese websites that post the above photo and refer to it as an English language textbook for elementary students.

    http://bbs.tiexue.net/post2_4448845_1.html (with larger picture and another sentence; the childish handwriting is evident)






  41. JS said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 10:12 pm

    ^ You would think a society's quickness to skepticism would remain roughly proportional to its capacity for artifice, but in the Chinese case, the former seems to lag rather behind — and to be fair, as the manufacturers have gone to a decent amount of trouble to what seems little effect, there's a reason the default response is acceptance here, especially when the basic phenomenon on display is so familiar.

    Who knows, though, how many extra click-through dollars were generated…

  42. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2013 @ 5:54 am


    I still wonder whether you (and Anna?) think that the textbook itself was manufactured.

    You will note that in the photographs of the page we've been discussing, there is a rolled shadow, where the center seam (gutter) of the book is located, and which accounts for the swallowed-up missing characters of "draw" 猪窝 and "American" 鹅没人啃 on the right margin, plus the fact that there is at least another page to this textbook on the right side of the gutter. Did the "manufacturer(s)" of this joke go to the trouble of making an entire fake English textbook? Is that what you're saying?

    I have no doubt that some of the sinographic transcriptions of the English words are shared and semi-standard and that the person who wrote these transcriptions was being playful. I've gone over this several times in my comments above.

    The same thing happens in other foreign language settings as reported by other commenters. There are shared mnemonics for approximating the sounds of the language one is learning in one's own tongue and script.

  43. JS said,

    May 8, 2013 @ 10:26 am

    ^ It doesn't look to me like this would require anything more than two sheets of paper (rather similarly numbered, incidentally), worth the trouble as the gimmick is much improved by creating the impression of a book. Considering the 100% recycled joke material, its arbitrariness in terms of the English vocabulary involved, the numerous absurd punctuation mistakes, "you" for "your," the misnumbering of what ought to be #12 "American," and the clear motivation to generate page-views… it kind of adds up.

  44. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2013 @ 11:34 am


    In light of what my students have told me about their own transcriptional levity when they were young and my father-in-law's stumbling efforts to write in Sinographic English, it doesn't add up to me.

  45. Anna said,

    May 9, 2013 @ 7:19 am

    'I still wonder whether you (and Anna?) think that the textbook itself was manufactured.'
    No, of course not, why bother producing an entire book for a joke like this? Photoshop will do.

    'There are any number of Chinese websites that post the above photo and refer to it as an English language textbook for elementary students.'
    I am now even more amazed that you would use these websites to back up the idea that this is a real book. None of the above websites are newspapers and none of them offer any proof, such as the name of the textbook, a school that uses it, or even a place or a date or the name of the person who should have seen it. It's all 某偏远地区, 日前, 某知名网站, 据说有一农村. The most precise description says it comes from 隔壁小学三年级. Stuff written on the internet is not always to be believed. One needs to check the source, because people make stuff up or just tell jokes with a straight face to make them funnier.

  46. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

    Well, then, Anna, since you do believe that at least two pages were "manufactured" and that great effort went into photoshopping the rolled shadow effect of the gutter, how do you respond to the fact that my own students have told me that they engaged in this kind of horseplay when they were young, and my father-in-law did it when he was old?

  47. JS said,

    May 9, 2013 @ 10:48 pm

    ^ Prof. Mair, clearly this practice is extremely widespread (…I, ahem, engage in this kind of horseplay myself…), but surely that has no bearing on the authenticity of the sample?

    Incidentally, I don't think this was PSed; it looks more like a photo of (adult!) handwriting on a print-out.

  48. Victor Mair said,

    May 10, 2013 @ 6:11 am


    Not PSed? Then how did they do the gutter shadow? Just stick your two pieces of paper in the center of a real book? Would the paper behave well enough for that purpose / effect? Maybe.

    That kind of handwriting could be juvenile, esp. the extra line that appears in the large photographs that I have supplied.

    Anyway, this has gone on long enough. You say that you yourself engage in this kind of horseplay, but my point is that young kids (and old men) do too. It's very common. My students told me that they did it themselves when they were in elementary, middle, and high school.

    You and Anna maintain that the whole thing is "manufactured", some sort of forgery. I think that it is indication of a very widespread practice. To prove your point you'd have to find the perpetrator and get him / her to confess that he photographed or photoshopped the "manufactured" pages. To prove my point, I'd have to find the same textbook without the handwriting. Until we can do that, I don't think that it's worth discussing this any longer.

    BTW, I think that the strongest evidence in favor of your argument (which you actually didn't spell out or emphasize strongly enough for most people to catch) is that the numbers on the page on the right side match those on the left side exactly. When I read that, I was almost ready to concede. Still, I'll keep waiting for some sort of irrefutable proof, but I doubt that it'll ever come.

    Thanks for the lively exchange.

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