Mandarin by the numbers

« previous post | next post »

As spectacularly demonstrated by this YouTube video, it is amazing how much one can say in Mandarin simply by punning with numbers alone:

We've heard about speaking in tongues or glossolalia. Perhaps we could call this "speaking in numbers" or "numerolalia". Yet this is not babbling in numbers; it really conveys intelligible meaning.

I doubt that it would be possible in most non-Sinitic languages to convey with relative ease such a wide range of sentiments and meanings through punning with numbers alone. Of course, punning with numbers also occurs in other languages (e.g., 8 = ate, 4= for, 1 = won), but I think it is usually on a much more limited scale than in Chinese.

It has been suggested, for example, that Japanese is especially good for punning and spoonerisms, and there is even a word in Finnish for this sort of verbal play, sananmuunnos or kääntösana, but this is to confuse punning in general and spoonerism with number punning, which is so incredibly easy to do in Chinese.

It seems to me that the astonishing ability of Chinese to pun with numbers alone is due to the high degree of homophony in their languages, but especially in Mandarin. This is something that has already been pointed out by David Moser in "How Technology is Changing Chinese, One Pun at a Time".

I only wish to add that the puns that are worked on the numbers are not just with homophones, but with near-homophones, since the Chinese play fast and loose with the initials, medials, and finals when engaging in number punning. For example, 5 (wǔ) can stand for wū 呜 ("sound of sobbing"), wú 无 ("no; not"), wǒ 我 ("I; me"), and so forth, but that is just the beginning. If the punning is so free with regard to the phonemes, one can well imagine that the tones count for next to nothing.

And now, 5188 (wǔ yāo bābā || wǒ yào bàibài 我要拜拜 ["I wanna bye-bye"]).

[A tip of the hat to John Rohsenow]


  1. Carl said,

    June 8, 2013 @ 10:47 pm

    This punning happens a lot in Japanese because every number in Japanese has at least two pronunciations, if not more. There is the indigeous counting system and the Chinese derived counting system.

    A well known example is that yakuza (the Japanese mob) is 893. 8 is ya or yo in the indigenous system. 9 is kyu or ku in the Chinese system. 3 is san in the Chinese system, but it can be shortened and voiced as za.

  2. Pinton said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 12:17 am

    Here's a Wikipedia page of Japanese number puns with some examples:

    Also from Wikipedia are these three examples showing how numbers can be read in multiple ways, as Carl mentioned:

    4-6-4-9 – yo-ro-shi-ku ("hello," "best regards")
    3-3-4-1 – sa-mi-shi-i ("I feel lonely")
    8-8-9-1-9 – ha-ya-ku-i-ku ("hurry up, let's go")

  3. MikeN said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 1:02 am

    Or the Taipei pizza parlor (Domino's, I believe) that got the telephone number 5252-2882 : Wo e wo e -e ba ba e ="I'm hungry I'm hungry- hungry daddy, hungry."

  4. Jason said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 1:34 am

    I'm inclined to agree with the early Western missionaries. A language this hermetic and self-referential is clearly the work of the devil.

  5. Daniel Tse said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 2:54 am

    Additionally, 了 = 6 is indirect. The pun is between 6 (liù) and the secondary reading of 了 (liǎo) and not the usual reading (le).

  6. leoboiko said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 6:01 am

    I suppose it could be argued that Japanese number punning (goroawase) benefits a lot from the Sinitic component, which is kind of cheating. But i wonder to what extent the current tolerance for homophones needed the impact of Literary Chinese. Speaking in a purely impressionistic manner, it certainly seems possible to me to pun a lot on the Old Japanese lexicon using the native number system.

    If it is the case that Old Japanese was good for number punning, then perhaps its sinification (which added not only of Sinitic numerals but the entire written lexicon in potentia) made it the language for punning!…

    If you relax the phonological matching a little (as they're used to), the punning can be used for quite long sentences, which is useful for mnemonics, as in this example from the Japanese wikipedia for the first 40 digits of pi:

    (1) 3.14 159 2 65 35 8979 32 3846 2 64 33 83 2 79 50 2 88 419 71
    (2) san-ichi-shi ichi-go-ku ni MU-go san-go YAkuNAku. sanFU, MIYAshiroku ni MUshi sanzan YAMI ni NAku. gorei ni hachihachi YOichiku naichi.
    (3) San-ishi Ikoku ni mukō. Sango Yaku-naku. Sanpu, Miyashiro ni Mushi Sanzan Yami ni naku. Kore ni Haha Yōiku nai.
    (4) 産医師異国に向こう産後厄なく産婦宮代に虫散々闇に鳴くこれに母養育ない
    (5) Birth-doctor foreign-country [to] let's-turn. Birth-after misfortunes [none]. Pregnant woman, Miyashiro [in] bugs harshly darkness [in] cry. This [in], mother upbringing [isn't].
    (6) "Obstetrician, let's turn to the foreign country. No postnatal misfortunes. Pregnant lady, in Miyashiro bugs harshly weep in the darkness. In this, there's no maternal education."

    In line 1 I listed the digits, and in line 2 how they would be read without adaptions. Capitals denote the native number system, and lowercase the Sinitic one.

    Line 3 is the proposed reading for the pun to work. If it seems to be pushing it, notice most changes are devoicing or voicing (go/ko), dropping of final syllables (ichi→i), and change of syllable quantity (yo→yō), all of which are natural processes in Japanese. (fu→pu might seem weird, but modern "fu" corresponds to Old Japanese "pu", and to this day it geminates to "ppu".) The dropping of final chi or tsu is particularly easy due to historical processes (these are typically remnants of Middle Chinese consonant finals, and often disappear in Japanese compounds, causing gemination.)

    In line 5 I added a more-or-less word-by-word rendition to allow comparing the numbers and words. The original Japanese sentence is somewhat convoluted, but the word-by-word English rendition makes it seem much worse than it is. Line 6 is my attempt at a translation, trying to keep the overall feel of the original (e.g. "harshly" a bit out of its usual place in syntax, but allowable). There's more than one way of parsing this, and I defer to those with more fluency to correct any of my mistakes.

  7. leoboiko said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 6:13 am

    (Clarification: in line 2 the readings are without phonological adaptations, but they are not how a naïve Japanese would read the list of digits without priming. There are several possible readings for each digit, and in this line the intended ones are already picked. To understand such a complex example of goroawase, a Japanese person would need a linguistic transcription; but, once aware of the possibility, she'd probably be able to recover the utterance from the digits.)

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 10:14 am

    One of the number versions of "thank you" sounds the same in Chinese and Japanese, but is written differently:

    Chinese "3 Q" or "QQQ"

    Japanese "3 9" (san kyuu)

  9. Bruce Rusk said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 11:00 am

    This is akin to what William Steig did in his children's book C D B, using the English names of letters to stand for similar-sounding words.

  10. Ned Danison said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 11:25 am

    MikeN ~ I will never forget Kaohsiung Domino's ba-ba-e-wo-e-wo-e (882-5252) 爸爸饿,我饿我饿, even though I haven't heard it for more than 10 years!

  11. Rodger C said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 11:57 am

    Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, while bugs harshly weep in the darkness.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 1:20 pm

    Somebody just signed off an e-mail message to me thus: L8R. If I hadn't written this post, I might not have known what he meant.

  13. AntC said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 10:17 pm

    @Victor … Chinese … high degree of homophony , the tones count for next to nothing, coupled with your many reports of 'lost in translation', and indeed plenty of examples of public signs using a chinese character with the same sound but the 'wrong' sense.
    I'm left wondering: is the rate of successful oral communication in Sinitic languages affected? Do listeners more often need to prompt for disambiguation/clarification? (Compared to less homophonic languages — for example on poor-quality phone lines where the listener can't see the context.)
    Or perhaps are listeners more adept at 'solving' ambiguities and resolving homophony/polysemy? (How could one design an experiment to probe that?)
    "… and always looked grave at a pun." [Lewis Carroll]

  14. wkvun said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 3:41 am

    Despite having a high density of homophones, the actual spoken language is not so ambiguous at all. For example, 我愛你 /wǒ ài nǐ/ can be pronounced /wǔ ài lǐ/ and still be understood by most people. Even if you have an accent and merge both /n/, /ɻ/, and /l/ into either /l/ or /n/, most Mandarin speakers still understand what you're trying to say.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 5:29 am


    Perceptive questions!

    Two things that struck me after I first started to go to China in the early 80s (I didn't notice it as much when I began going to Taiwan in the early 70s, but then again, my Chinese at that time still wasn't good enough to pick up a lot of what was going on):

    1. public announcers (e.g., personnel on airplanes and trains or tour guides) repeating the same information in situations where personnel in other countries would only say it once

    2. a conspicuously high rate of occurrences of people in conversations with others requesting clarification or repetition

    This phenomenon had such a powerful impact upon me that I collected examples of it that filled up a small notebook.

  16. richardelguru said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 6:33 am

    @Bruce Rusk
    like the conversation overheard in Sainbury's…

    Shopper: F U N E M N X?
    Shop girl: S V F.

  17. Faldone said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 7:07 am

    The full version of richardelguru's example is:

    S, VFX,
    S, VFM
    OK, MNX

  18. Belial said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

    I learned the last line as OK, LF MNX. Perhaps this is a dialect difference.

  19. Richard Chapling said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

    Or perhaps it's a Two Ronnies sketch.

  20. David B Solnit said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 4:07 pm

    You might like to know that Thai speakers also use 555, but it's pronounced hâ hâ hâ, so it's more or less equal to LOL. Just the opposite of the Chinese meaning given in the video for 555: wū wū wū or 'boo-hoo-hoo'.
    Not only that, but the Thai and Chinese words for 'five' are undoubtedly cognate.

  21. William Steed said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

    Most of these are even closer to homophones in Shanghainese and Shanghai Mandarin, where (at least according to Qian Nairong), these may have originated. Qian's 2500 Sentences in Shanghainese has a sizeable list of these at the back of the book with their Shanghainese translations. I wonder if, like LOL, OMG, and other texting abbreviations, these are becoming dated and uncool for teenagers.

  22. Matt said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

    You might like to know that Thai speakers also use 555, but it's pronounced hâ hâ hâ, so it's more or less equal to LOL. Just the opposite of the Chinese meaning given in the video for 555: wū wū wū or 'boo-hoo-hoo'.
    Not only that, but the Thai and Chinese words for 'five' are undoubtedly cognate.

    The Japanese "555-with-Sinitic-pronunciation" is used for "Go, go, go!" (As in "… Speed Racer!", pretty much exclusively.) I wonder if Korean and Vietnamese have their own 555 traditions.

  23. Alex said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 12:07 am

    Carl: as I understand it, 8-9-3 is actually the etymology of yakuza. It refers to a game with kabufuda cards where (like baccarat) your score is the sum of the cards in your hand modulo 10. So a hand of 8-9-3 scores zero, and the development is "worthless" > "worthless person, gangster".

  24. Dan Parvaz said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 4:29 am

    I remember something similar in the days before widespread availability of cell phones (the late 80s in this case). American Sign Language signers would pun on the numeric or alphabetic value of signs' handshapes. So:

    258 would be a code for

    VERY ("V" handshape = 2)
    INTERESTING (starting with an open hand 5, and ending with the thumb and middle finger contacting, 8)

    This is related to ASL acrostics ("ABC stories"), where the handshapes of each sign in the story is also a letter in the manual alphabet (although strictly speaking, the handshape often has nothing to do with the first letter of the word in written English), and the story either spells out a word or runs through the letter of the alphabet in sequence.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 5:49 am


    "worthless" > "worthless person, gangster"

    Because of its etymology, I've often wondered whether "yakuza" is an endonym or an exonym.

  26. Andrew said,

    June 16, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

    I'm reminded of an ad I saw in the back of a cab in Tokyo some time around 1994, for a motorcycle courier service. Katakana above each digit of the phone number provided a handy mnemonic for remembering it (and I do, to this day): 0120-37-8199

    0120 being the standard toll-free prefix, then the rest of it reading out as "mi-na-(no)-ba-i-ku-kyuu" — Meaning, (if my very rusty Japanese is correct), "everyone's (motor)bike express"

    Some Googling turns up the company's website: By-Q. Seems they've changed the mnemonic slightly to refer to the company's name rather than their specific service (though the company name itself sounds like bike express)

    Another example that has burned itself into my memory: Cabs in Shanghai were once plagued by annoying recorded ads for a restaurant reservation service with the phone number 5757-5777 (我吃,我吃,我吃吃吃吃!). Thankfully, I haven't heard one in a while.

  27. Fluxor said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 3:39 am


    Anecdotally, I think the chance in which something is misheard or a request for clarification is made in Chinese is much higher than English. In English, it is quite rare to ask someone to spell out something in order to get clarification. But for Chinese, while not a common occurrence, asking for clarification doesn't seem all that rare to me, especially in a low context setting. Sometimes, you even see people writing out characters in mid-air for clarification. A low context setting could be ordering food at a restaurant, where a misplaced tone or ending can get you something completely different.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    June 25, 2013 @ 3:23 am

    You can do this in Cantonese too:

RSS feed for comments on this post