Parenthetical, alphabetical, ironical commentary in Sinographic texts

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Occasionally I see pinyin (spelling) interspersed with Sinographs (usually for phonetic annotation), but this one threw me for a loop:

Yěxǔ (jué duì) shì, gāi lǐngyù zuì qiángdà de jiǎngzhě zhènróng.

也许(jué duì)是,该领域最强大的讲者阵容。

"Perhaps (definitely) it's the case that this is the strongest lineup of speakers in this field.

It occurs about two thirds of the way down in this Chinese article.

Comments by Language Log readers:

Jonathan Smith:

The author is jokingly annotating the characters yěxǔ 也许 ("maybe; perhaps") as juedui ("definitely; absolutely") to draw explicit attention I suppose to what they regard as a staid / overly cautious formulation.

Neil Kubler:

Yes, this Pinyin in the middle of such a formal document on traditional Chinese culture (as opposed to something modern or even international) is very interesting.
To me it's pretty clear that the Pinyin here is for ("E M P H A S I S"), since that which is out of the ordinary typically receives extra attention. 
The writer probably wants the reader to S-L-O-W  D-O-W-N and read that Pinyin orally (or at least with the sounds loud and clear in their head) and really take in the full import of 绝对 before quickly scanning the rest of the message.

Zach Hershey:

I find this phenomenon very interesting as well, and I have seen it more and more online. In situations like this, it seems like the author is either 1: trying to avoid censorship or 2: trying to emphasize what they actually think while avoiding using restrictive language. My wife and I had a lengthy discussion about this, and she feels like when this initially started happening it was to avoid the eyes of people scanning your writing because they wouldn't take the time to pay attention to reading the pinyin, but as time went on people became more aware of the practice and actually started to look out for the pinyin even more than the characters. We were thinking that it is somewhat akin to the practice that parents use to avoid their children hearing the content of what they are saying. The parent might say, "We're going to go to the P-A-R-K." At first the kid is oblivious, but then they start to catch on and begin to pay more attention to what the parent is saying when they spell out words rather than simply saying them, because they know that those words are important. Very interesting instance of this phenomenon.

Mark Hansell:

I interpreted it as a sneaky aside: "officially" saying the relatively modest 也许, but with the bolder claim in parenthesis (what I really mean is "juéduì", as if that were a gloss of the 也许).  I've seen similar things in Japanese where there is a furigana that is not actually a gloss of the kanji it is next to, but something else that seems to indicate author's "true intent".

Denis Mair:

There is an emphatic feel to (jue-dui), probably due to the unusual use of pinyin. The fact that it is enclosed in parentheses seems to imply that it is a second thought, or perhaps a better choice of words. Strange mixture of emphasis and alternate phrasing. Second thought, best thought.

I think my use of parentheses has been influenced (corrupted) by exposure to Chinese. I don't think we usually use parentheses for alternate word choices in English.

[VHM:  Denis Mair is not a regular netizen of the Chinese internet, so his reaction to the wording in question is based solely on his direct exposure to this odd usage, not to frequent experience with such forms of expression.]

Zihan Guo:

It has become a common practice among Chinese netizens, especially youths, these days to say something in hanzi and then add something completely different in pinyin in parenthesis. The hanzi part is usually just being humble, while the pinyin part expresses what one truly thinks or believes and often strikes one as blunt and even sarcastic. Usually they have one hanzi followed by one syllable, rather than a word followed by two syllables. For example: 精 (wu) 彩 (liao) 絕 (tou) 倫 (ding). [VHM: jīngcǎi juélún 精彩绝伦 ("excellent beyond compare") vs. wúliáo tòudǐng ("utterly boring")]

I do think it is interesting that they combine hanzi and pinyin in this way. To express the same sarcasm or anything, hanzi + hanzi would do just fine too. My unreflecting intuition is that using two visually different scripts maintains a clear distinction between the two ideas. Compared to 也許(jué duì), 也許 (絕對) might appear confusing. And since this has become popular online, whenever people see such combinations, they instantly know that the writer is expressing some honest opinions in a teasing way.

It somehow reminds me of hon'ne 本音 & tatemae 建前 in Japanese, where the former points to one's genuine feelings and the latter a display in public to avoid confrontations.

Here are a couple of very elaborate instances of this sort of language play:

1. 他温[fu]文[hei]尔[dou]雅[bi].

The romanization of that would be:  Tā wēn [fu] wén [hei] ěr [dou] yǎ [bi].

Separating out the characters from the romanization, we have:

a. 他温文尔雅

b. fuhei doubi

Converting b. to characters, we get:

c. 腹黑逗比 (with tones added, the romanization is fùhēi dòubǐ)

1a. means "He is gentle, cultured, and refined in manners" (usually said of males)

1c. means "He is malicious / scheming and funny / zany"

fùhēi 腹黑 (lit., "belly black") is a word from Japanese anime culture (haraguroi 腹黒い) that signifies someone who is superficially kind and nice, but inwardly mean and cruel

The whole sentence, with characters and romanization mixed together, is superficially saying one thing while, as though under one's breath, at the same time saying just the opposite.  Thus, "On the surface he seems to be gentle, cultured, and refined, but inside he is actually crafty and zany."

2. 就这么顺[tian]理[bu]成[zhi]章[chi]地说服了自己,她安心地实施计划.

Romanized, that would be:  Jiù zhème shùn [tian] lǐ [bu] chéng [zhi] zhāng [chi] de shuōfúle zìjǐ, tā ānxīn dì shíshī jìhuà

Separating out the characters from the romanization, we have:

a. 就这么顺理成章地说服了自己,她安心地实施计划.

b. tianbuzhichi

Converting b. to characters, we get:

c. 恬不知耻/恥 (with tones added, the romanization is tiánbùzhīchǐ)

2a. means "Following the natural logic of things, she persuaded herself and confidently carried out her plan without any worry."

2c. means "shamelessly"

The whole sentence, with characters and romanization mixed together, is saying that "[It seemed that,] following the natural logic of things, she persuaded herself and confidently carried out her plan without any worry, [but in fact she did so] without any sense of shame."

See "Biscriptal juxtaposition in Chinese" (8/17/14)

The degree of subtle satire made possible through the juxtaposition and intertwining of simultaneous phrases in different scripts with contrasting meaning is astonishing.  Thus we see that the intricate application of alphabetic usage developing in Chinese internet writing is one more proof positive of the emergence of digraphia in the PRC.


Selected readings


[h.t. Yuanfei Wang; thanks to John Rohsenow and John Lagerwey]


  1. David Marjanović said,

    December 29, 2021 @ 1:18 pm

    Sarcastic pronunciation guides like this have a certain tradition in German, but of course the use of different scripts enhances the effect greatly!

  2. liuyao said,

    December 29, 2021 @ 3:47 pm

    It’s been around for a few years (and I’m surprised VHM hasn’t already posted about it), and I find it irritating because it slows me down, for the pinyin might take a second to guess, especially without tones, and when it’s interspersed with characters.

    It’s somewhat similar to strikethrough in English on the internet, when you cross out words but leave them there so others can still read what you intended to say.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 29, 2021 @ 6:21 pm

    I posted about two very elaborate instances of this phenomenon back in 2014 (see the second half of this post), but only noticed it sporadically since then. Didn't expect to find it in semi-academic writing like the Dunhuang article quoted above.

  4. Alan Shaw said,

    December 29, 2021 @ 11:33 pm

    This reminds me of a foreign-language "phrasebook" that appeared in Mad Magazine when I was a kid. There'd be an English sentence, such as "No, I am not the author of 'Body and Soul'", then the translation into the language: "Non, je ne suis pas l'auteur de 'Body and Soul'", and then the pronunciation "Ahnd den Ah rote Stah dust."

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