The world's largest English dialect

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Is it Indian English? Perhaps, but Chinglish is a close second, and may already have overtaken the language of the angrejiwallahs (which actually consists of several dialects).

In this case, we're not talking about translation errors such as this colossal blunder, but about the unique pronunciation style of some Chinglish speakers. I'm happy to report that Randy Alexander, who has been teaching English for years in Jilin, China, tackles Chinglish pronunciation head-on in a lovely two-part essay posted at Beijing Sounds (Part 1 and Part 2). Randy's essay comes complete with sound files and pictures.

For a little foretaste, try Randy's first example (click to listen): 莱茨 凯普因 踏气 , or in pinyin "láicí kǎipǔyīn tàqì".

What does it mean? "Let's keep in touch."

Or this example from Part 2: 菲尔普斯 (fēi’ěrpǔsī). That's "Phelps".

Another example from a different source: FO2 ER3 SI1 GUO2 ER3 EN1 DE2 SE4 WEN2 YI1 ER3 SI1 A1 GOU1 佛尔斯国尔恩得色文伊尔斯阿钩. Got it? Say it fast and you might be able to figure it out. (Answer: "Four score and seven years ago" — from the front of John DeFrancis's Visible Speech.)

And here is a prime example from a dear, old friend of mine: DA3TE4 HA1FO2 打特哈佛 ("Daughter Harvard" = Radcliffe).

You might as well start getting used to spoken Chinglish, because you'll be hearing more of it with each passing day. And of course Chinese speakers also need to cope with the version of their language produced by some of the smaller number of English speakers who return the favor.


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 8:35 am

    One precedent worth a look, for comparison, is the way that English words are commonly transliterated into Japanese. Thus the Japanese name of Brother Industries is ベ ラザ in katakana, pronounced "be-ra-za".

    This sort of transformation is normal when foreign words are borrowed in nativized form — English is full of examples. The next step is the fake pronunciation guides in foreign-language phrase books, which is unfortunate but perhaps inevitable (see Heidi Harley's post "Phrasebook pronunciation, or, kawnbyang der tahng dewr ler vwahyazh", 6/27/2008). Using such techniques on a wide scale as the foundation of serious foreign language teaching is a bit of a scandal, with predictably bad results.

  2. Philip Spaelti said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 11:43 am

    @Mark Liberman: Thus the Japanese name of Brother Industries is ベ ラザ in katakana, pronounced "be-ra-za".

    Actually, Mark, the name comes out as ブラザー in Katakana, so "burazaa".

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 11:55 am

    Philip Spaelti: Actually, Mark, the name comes out as ブラザ

    Oops, sorry — in fact ブラザ is all over the place on the corporate page that I linked. So I checked, and still got it wrong. Thanks for the correction!

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

    Japanese "English" is a whole other matter. For example, the women's section in a department store is レディース・コーナー (rediisu koonaa = ladies' corner), and a Western-style breakfast is モーニング・サービス (mooningu saabisu = morning service). What's more, バス (basu) is either bus or bath, and ラバー (rabaa) is either rubber or lover. I have only a smattering of Japanese, but I was able to get by in Japan once I learned to read katakana and to say English words in the Japanese way (hoteru for hotel, renzu kuriinaa for lens cleaner and so on).

  5. Aaron Davies said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

    A colleague was remarking the other day that in his experience, all you had to do to get by in Tokyo was add an [u] (which, oddly, he described as an "oh", presumably referring to the letter "o"–only once he gave examples did I really understand what he meant; he's a Kiwi by birth; perhaps this has something to do with the old "u"/"oo" distinctions, where "u" was assumed to be pronounced [ju]) to the end of English words. He claimed that an attempt to order a "hamburger" or "beer" would be met with blank stares, while "hamburgeru" and "beeru" would be understood immediately.

    I imagine this sort of effect is magnified in languages like Japanese with tighter phonic rules. I know next to nothing about Mandarin in this respect (or indeed most others). What are its rules for vowel-consonant alteration? How many of English's consonants can be closely approximated?

  6. Ivan said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

    Philip Spaelti:

    @Mark Liberman: Thus the Japanese name of Brother Industries is ベ ラザ in katakana, pronounced "be-ra-za".

    Actually, Mark, the name comes out as ブラザー in Katakana, so "burazaa".

    It's a bit off-topic, but check out this amazing coincidence: buraz is a slang word for "brother" in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian. It is a shortened form of burazer, which comes from Turkish birader, which is in turn a Persian loanword coming from PIE *bhrater. So, one one side we have the combined effect of sound changes from PIE *bhrater to modern English to Japanese (through borrowing), and on the other, the combined effect of sound changes from PIE to (not sure which stage of) Persian to Turkish to BCS (again through borrowing) — and the end result is almost the same! :-)

    (The standard BCS word for "brother" is the usual Slavic brat, which is of course an IE cognate of the original Persian word from which the above mentioned buraz came.)

  7. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

    An anecdote I remember that's kind of relevant:

    A prominent Russian mathematician, living and working in the UK, found that during his lectures, students would sometimes snicker a little bit at his thick accent. So one day he said to the class, "Gentlemen, fifty million Englishmen speak English you speak; two hundred million Russians speak English I speak."

  8. Randy Alexander said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 6:43 pm

    In some of my earlier experiences teaching Chinese college students I found that the students had trouble understanding my (American) English, and I likewise had trouble understanding their Chinglish — sometimes one student would have to "translate" what another student had just said. But they had no trouble understanding each other when they spoke English.

  9. dr pepper said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 11:44 pm

    I once had a chinese calculus teacher who couldn't say "x" "r" or "n".

    She'd describe an example by saying "if eg-ess is a vair-eye-uh-bowl in air oong". It didn't take long to catch on. But she also said "comma" for "gamma", which could get very confusing.

  10. Tyler P said,

    August 23, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

    @Randy Alexander:

    The phenomenon you speak of has actually received some empirical study. Bent & Bradlow (2003) "The interlanguage speech intelligibility benefit" looks at how speakers of (phonologically) related languages get an extra boost when trying to understand one another speak in a foreign language.

    It's in JASA; you should check it out.

  11. skot said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 3:58 am

    There is a similar phenomenon, when English native speakers try to pronounce words in Slavic languages with lots of consonants, for example, in Czech, čtvrtek (Thursday) ends up sounding like che-tiv-er-tek.

    The sounds we recognize as speech are sort of programmed into our brains during the early years of our life. Well, at least there was a study done to support this idea in any case , see

    "This is why Japanese toddlers, like Japanese adults, cannot tell apart the English "r" and "l" sounds and why English speakers have trouble with certain French vowels because they all sound the same to non-native speakers due to language learning in infancy."

    This ties into Mark Liberman's comments about katakana, which gives us insight into how Japanese people perceive the sounds of language, i.e. they seem to almost always associate a vowel sound with a consonant sound. That's why I'm often know as "Sakote"…

    I, for example, struggle to hear the difference in vowel length in Czech for the letter "a" (e.g. léta vs. létá – summers vs. he flies) one beat vs. two. I don't know if that says something about my language abilities or my musical abilites.

    I've also noticed that English has differences in vowel length of this sort, at least in AE, for example I now hear a difference between tan and tangent that I never would've bothered to notice before. Tan has a slightly longer vowel length than the "tan" in tangent, in my opinion; however, this aspect is not used by us to recognize the words.

  12. KYL said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

    These phrasebooks seem to me fairly similar to those popular tourist phrase books which purport to teach the reader how to say things in Chinese by spelling things out with Latin letters which the reader is supposed to pronounce using the rules of English.

    Probably an equal proportion of the readers of these books also believe that they are speaking understandable Chinese.

  13. Adam said,

    December 1, 2010 @ 1:46 am

    @ Skot.
    Vowel length is a recognised distinction in many English dialects – look up the 'bad – lad' split. Nice work on the Czech, by the way. Fun language.

    I've heard that some Americans hear some English (ie, from England) 'r's as 'd's, due to the different way we articulate that sound. Anyone confirm that?

    Is it fair to consider an L2 effort as a dialect? To what extent do Chinese people use English to communicate with each other, compared to the use of English in India as a tool to bridge widely differing dialects and languages?

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