Transcription and digraphia in the rapidly changing linguistic landscape of China

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With notes on 兑, 說 / 説, 悦, 銳, 脱.

From Stephen Tschudi:

A colleague was watching a tuōkǒu xiù 脱口秀 ("talk show") online today, and was shocked when a well-known actress did not pronounce "duìxiàn 兑现" (vb. "cash [a check]; fulfill / honor [a promise / commitment]") correctly. She was even more shocked when, in the audience chat that was scrolling across the screen, an audience member typed "dui 现不是 yue 现“ (no tone marks). The Pinyin leaped out at her visually. I bet there aren't too many examples of this mixture of Pinyin into daily discourse. Just an interesting tidbit! (I asked her for the source but she was watching too casually to remember.)

Already at least ten or fifteen years ago, I was familiar with the expression zuòxiù 作秀 ("make a show"), so I knew that xiù 秀 ("elegant; excellent") could be a Sinographic transcription for "show".  Now, with tuōkǒu xiù 脱口秀 ("talk show"), where tuōkǒu 脱口 (lit., "take / slip off from the mouth") is a disyllabic transcription of monosyllabic English "talk", we have a two word, three syllable expression in Mandarin that is a direct transcription of a two word two syllable expression in English.

The reason people are prone to misread the "duì 兑" of "duìxiàn 兑现" is because this same character, which is not of particularly high frequency (#2424 out of a list of 9933 characters [source]), actually has three different readings:

1. duì ("convert, commute; exchange; weigh; add; be ready to risk one's life; one of the eight trigrams [ ] in the I ching; west[ern]")

2. yuè = 悦 ("happy")

3. ruì = 锐 ("sharp")

The second character is related to 1. shuō 說 / 説 (“to say; to speak; to explain; theory; etc.”), but which may also be pronounced 2. shuì ("persuade"), 3. yuè ("happy; delighted"), and tuō 脫 / 脱 (“to free; to relieve”).  The plethora of pronunciations and meanings for 說 / 説 may be better understood by taking into account these etymological notes:

All of the pronunciations of this character are in the same word family derived from a root *lo meaning “to loosen; to relax” (Schuessler, 2007). STEDT compares it to Proto-Sino-Tibetan *g/s-lwat (free; release; slip; dislocate).

Pronunciation 1 is derived by causative devoicing of (OC *lod, “to relax; to be delighted”) (pronunciation 3).

Pronunciation 2 is probably the exoactive of pronunciation 1.


The basic etymon for this word family is 兑 / 兑 (MSM duì / yuè / ruì; see above).

Glyph origin

In the oracle bone script, it is a ideogrammic compound (會意): (speech; breath) + (mouth) + (person) – speech; original character of (OC *hljod, “to speak”). It is also a phono-semantic compound (形聲, OC *l'oːds): phonetic (OC *lon) + semantic (person).

Alternatively, may be interpreted as smile lines above the mouth (Gao Hongjin) or as meaning “to divide” (Lin Yiguang, i.e. the mouth is divided when smiling); in either case, the character would be the original character of (OC *lod, “pleased”).

Etymology 1

(BaxterSagart): /*lˤot-s/
(Zhengzhang): /*l'oːds/

Etymology 2

For pronunciation and definitions of – see (“pleased; contented; gratified; to be pleasing to; etc.”).
(This character, , is an ancient form of .)

STEDT compares it to Proto-Sino-Tibetan *g/s-lwat (free; release; slip; dislocate). Cognate with (OC *lo, “happy; pleased”), (OC *hljods, “to speak; to explain”), (OC *l̥ʰoːd, *l'oːd, “to take off (clothes); to escape”), (OC *l̥ʰoː, “to steal”).

(BaxterSagart): /*lot/
(Zhengzhang): /*lod/


Etymology 3

For pronunciation and definitions of – see (“sharp; keen; acute; pointed; 14th tetragram of the Taixuanjing; "penetration"; etc.”).
(This character, , is an ancient form of .)
(BaxterSagart): /*lot-s/
(Zhengzhang): /*lods/


(Source for information on 兑, except for the MS and OS reconstructions of Etymology 2 and 3, which are separately specified)

It's a long way from the Oracle Bone forms of 兑 to dui / yue, but it has happened.  Digraphia lives.  Bigly.


Selected readings


  1. Waldron said,

    October 24, 2020 @ 8:41 pm

    If this spreads topolects will become mutually unintelligible. See 2008 EU regulations allowing la petite France’s 75 topolects to survive be taught and flourish with inverted-candles-hit-stone excommunication of same by Académie Française. Arthur Waldron —amateur philologue (failed)

  2. Twill said,

    October 25, 2020 @ 1:15 am

    @Waldron Sinitic topolects are already divergent to a degree comparable to the entire Romance or Germanic families; hanzi really only serves to obscure just how much variance there is. The existential issue topolects face is, as with France, the government stamping out the "patois" to ensure everyone as good citizens only speaks the standardized, national language.

  3. John Swindle said,

    October 25, 2020 @ 2:54 am

    锐 ruì 'sharp' not to be confused with 税 shuì 'tax.' Since I've been known to confuse them. The left side of the latter is the 'grain' radical.

  4. Bathrobe said,

    October 25, 2020 @ 4:00 am

    @ John Swindle

    You've obviously never had to pay tax in China then…

  5. Alex said,

    October 25, 2020 @ 3:17 pm

    Why wouldn't there be examples of this kind of Pinyin in daily discourse? Chinese people use Pinyin for writing every day. It is the easiest way to unambiguously indicate in text the pronunciation of any given character. In this case the tone wasn't the distinguishing factor, so the tones were omitted for ease of typing.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    October 25, 2020 @ 3:24 pm


  7. Michael Watts said,

    October 25, 2020 @ 3:44 pm

    Do we know how "show" got borrowed into Chinese as "xiu"? It seems pretty clear that "shou" would be a better match. I can think of a few theories:

    – The character 秀 has appealing semantics, so it was chosen despite the inappropriate pronunciation.

    – Mandarin speakers really believe that English "show", as pronounced by English speakers, sounds more similar to xiù than it does to shòu.

    – The borrowing was not performed by Mandarin speakers, and 秀, while not a good match in Mandarin, was a good match in the local language.

  8. Richard Warmington said,

    October 25, 2020 @ 10:22 pm

    脱口秀 actually has two distinct senses. As well as "talk show", it can also mean "stand-up comedy act". A couple of years ago, I wrote the etymology section of the Wiktionary entry for 脫口秀. [1]
    I also wrote included references in support of the claims I made regarding the etymology. [2]

  9. Chris Button said,

    October 27, 2020 @ 6:14 pm

    This phonetic series is one of the ones highlighted by Bill Boltz in his 1994 book "The origin and early development of the Chinese writing system". His discussion is one of the things that inspired me to start writing my "Derivational Dictionary of Chinese and Japanese Characters". Many decades from now, I might even manage to complete it!

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