Two Chinese Languages (at Least)

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The distinguished German writing instrument manufacturer, Staedtler, lavished 19 (!) languages on the box for its Mars® Lumograph® 100 pencils.

(Click on the images for larger versions.)

Peculiarly, Chinese (ZHONG1WEN2 中文) is awarded two versions of the product description:

備有16 灰度

有16 灰度可供选

Now, we must ask: why does "Chinese" merit two versions of instructions on one German pencil box? It would be one thing if it were just a matter of "simplified" versus "traditional / complicated" characters used to write the same language (presumably Modern Standard Mandarin). Such, however, is not the case here. Instead, the first version, written in traditional / complicated characters, is translated quite differently from the second version, which appears in simplified characters. Even if you cannot read "Chinese," it is easy to notice that these two versions of ZHONG1WEN2 are starkly dissimilar.

The first version has 23 characters, while the second version has 25 characters. In such a short text, that alone makes the first version seem more succinct and terse, the second somewhat more expansive and even wordy. Of course, there are certain basic terms that are constant in both versions: QIAN1BI2 鉛筆 / 铅笔 ("pencil"), TE4BIE2 特別 ("special[ly]"), HE2 和 ("and"), and XIAO1JIAN1 削尖 ("sharpen").

One might argue that the differences are due simply to the fact that they were most likely done by different translators who have their own styles and arrived at their own solutions for rendering the original German. However, in every instance where there are substantial differences between version I and version II, version I seems more natural to me. That surely must be because I learned my "Chinese" in the linguistic environment of Taiwan, which has maintained a conservative, older fashioned type of written Mandarin, not on the Mainland, where radical changes have occurred in the terminology and modes of expression employed for written Mandarin, including heavy influence from Marxist and Communist writing that was originally composed in German or Russian. For example, version I starts off with GAO1JI2 高級 ("high quality"), which is a perfectly acceptable and common term for me, whereas version II begins with DING3JI2 顶级 ("top quality") which, quite frankly, strikes me as a bit strange, though entirely within the realm of possibility (sounds almost like a made-up term to my ear).

Even grammatically, the second version strikes me as odd and awkward. For instance, the second line reads TE4BIE2 FANG2 DUAN4XIN1 CHU3LI3, which probably was intended to mean something like "specially processed to prevent breakage," but the CHU3LI3 ("processed") comes out of nowhere. In a quick glance at all the other languages on the box, I didn't notice any other version that had a word like "processed" in the second line.

I could go through each word and each line of version I and version II, and — where they differ — it would be the same in each case: I would feel more comfortable with version I.

Have the "Chinese" languages of the Mainland and the Sinophone diaspora elsewhere diverged to such a degree that we need two separate versions of ZHONGWEN on a single German pencil box? Whether they are that different or not, I believe that it is extravagant to use up two slots for ZHONGWEN on the same pencil box when there are so many other worthy candidates, such as Norwegian, Danish, Persian, Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Orissi, Marathi, Thai, Vietnamese, Turkish, Bahasa Indonesia, and Hebrew. Furthermore, if we want to start listing all the different "Chinese" languages, then we'll have at least to put down Cantonese and Taiwanese, and I'm sure that some proud denizens of that great metropolis at the mouth of the Yangtze will speak up for Shanghai(n)ese too.

Incidentally, my guess is that the urtext for these instructions was — as one might have expected — German. The English, at least, is not entirely native, e.g., the hardness of a pencil is measured in "grades," not "degrees."

[I thank my colleague Arthur Waldron and his son Charles for supplying the empty pencil box.]


  1. Polly Glot said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 8:33 am

    I think you would fall into the same trap by including Danish and/or Norwegian, since I see Swedish is already there and we can all understand that (written Danish is generally the best catch-all Nordic language).

  2. Karim Amir said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 8:42 am

    Agreed about the urtext–"Especially break-resistant" sounds strangely stilted.

  3. KenM said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 9:52 am

    I'm not really an expert, since I only speak Mandarin, but is it possible that the traditional is Cantonese (Yue)? I know there are some vocabulary differences, and even a few subtle grammatical differences between the two dialects, and that it is more conservative in relation to Middle Chinese, which may explain if it's slightly more literary sounding.

  4. Philip Spaelti said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

    Here in Asia it is common enough to find multi-language labels which include two forms of Chinese. Based on the character forms, I have always assumed that one was intended for the Mainland and one for Taiwan (I don't know Chinese myself, so I can't judge.) Are you saying that the Mainland Chinese description (II) is odd? Or are you saying that you are insufficiently familiar with Mainland commercial language?

    As to the number and choice of languages. Surely Staedtler is a commercial enterprise and not an anthropological club. As such the choice and form of the descriptions is likely to be dictated by the conventions of the markets in which they are trying to sell their products. Which is why they end up with two versions of Chinese. (Incidentally, what form would such package descriptions take in Hong Kong? Would they take the same form as in Taiwan or as in the Mainland?)

  5. Christopher Bruns said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

    I have been told that Mandarin and Cantonese are mutually orally unintelligible, but that both use the same writing system. I have asked several informants whether it might be possible to tell, from writing alone, whether the author is thinking in Mandarin or Cantonese. I have never gotten a clear answer. Perhaps, as KenM suggests, this pencil box is such a case.

  6. language hat said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

    Just a heads-up: clicking on the images does not produce larger versions.

  7. Rod Whiteley said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

    The web browser I am using, Mozilla Firefox, also has two different Chinese translations. For example in one "Bookmark This Page" is 将此页加为书签, and in the other it is 此頁加入書籤.

  8. Matthew Austin said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

    "I have asked several informants whether it might be possible to tell, from writing alone, whether the author is thinking in Mandarin or Cantonese."

    I have heard comments several times from Beijingers who say that they can immediately recognise a text written by Hong Kong Chinese, even when it is written in 'standard' Chinese with no specifically Cantonese characters.

  9. Yellow Candle said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

    The traditional and simplified characters are used by Chinese in different places, due to the seperation (physical & political), the usage and wordings are different today.

    The difference are mainly from the vocabularies and usage, mainly due to the culture and history (esp colonial history) in different regions.
    For example, the name for "bus" in Hong Kong is 巴士, hile in the mainland and Taiwan, it is called 公共汽車 or 公車 when shortened.

    The main groups are:
    – Mainland China (w/ influence from HK in the Guangdong province) (The spoken variant is called 普通話.)
    – Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia (spoken variant name: 華語)
    There are some differences in the "simplification" between the Mainland China system and the SE Asian system.

    – Taiwan (spoken variant name: 國語)
    – Hong Kong and Macau (spoken variant name: 普通話, although the prevalent language/dialect in Cantonese(廣東話/粵語))

    For communities outside these regions, they usually use the traditional system.

  10. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

    Actually, it does. They're just no more legible.

  11. Yellow Candle said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

    As a side note, it is easier for trad. Chinese users to read simp. Chinese due to the fact we would use the simplitied characters in everyday handwriting.
    On the other hand, simp. Chinese users often use trad. Chinese to write calligraphic text, except for writing cursive, which is usually simpilified and "ligatured".

  12. Pekka said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

    It appears that the size the images expand to depends on how big your browser's window is currently.

  13. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

    @language hat, Jean-Sébastien Girard: Fortunately, they're actual links to the images, so you can use your browser's "open link in new window" feature. (Note: Depending on your browser, it may resize the new-window image to fit, in which case clicking on the image will generally zoom in to its natural size, which is quite legible in this case.)

  14. Gerg said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

    Since when do pencils come in individual boxes?

    And why would it need instructions in any language?!

  15. rkillings said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

    ' The English, at least, is not entirely native, e.g., the hardness of a pencil is measured in "grades," not "degrees." '

    A rather presciptivist statement for Language Log! As a (native English-speaking) translator myself, I rise to the defense of the nameless colleague who did the translation for Staedtler.
    – The word "degree" is widely and colloquially used with *all* hardness scales and is even incorporated in the names of a few, such as IRHD (International Rubber Hardness Degree) and dGH (degree of general hardness, for water). A Sci-Tech translator will know this.
    – A Google search on "mars staedtler hardness degree" turns up nearly a thousand hits which on casual inspection appear mostly legitimate. True, substituting "grade" for "degree" returns somewhat more (<2x, but not an order of magnitude more), so both words seem to be in common use in this context.
    – A translator who knows perfectly well that pencil lead hardness is called "grade" in his local market might still opt for the more generic, unlikely-to-be-misunderstood "degree" — for worldwide consumption. This is especially true when translating into English, the lingua franca of international commerce and the one language most likely to stand in for those worthy candidates that were omitted.

  16. Randy said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

    "Since when do pencils come in individual boxes?"

    The pencils look like the same brand as the ones that I had to buy for my grade 9 art class, which come in varying degrees of hardness. Mine came in a set of 12. They're not your ordinary pencils for writin' up yer 'rithmetic homework. Whoever uses them professionally would probably like to be able to buy just one when the time comes for replacement, rather than a whole new set. Buying a whole bunch of pencils with the same hardness for each level of hardness would lead to what, say about 144 pencils. My desk is messy enough with just one pen and one pencil.

  17. Randy said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

    Never mind what I just wrote. I just looked at the image of the box more closely and realized that they do come in boxes of 12. In that case, I don't get your question. I've seen pencils in boxes since I had a single digit age.

  18. dr pepper said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

    Hmm. My Firefox 3 with default font Arial shows the chinese characters in the posts above as tiny boxes each containing 4 hex digits. Presumably those are the 2 byte codes for the characters.

  19. David Marjanović said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

    Even grammatically, the second version strikes me as odd and awkward. For instance, the second line reads TE4BIE2 FANG2 DUAN4XIN1 CHU3LI3, which probably was intended to mean something like "specially processed to prevent breakage," but the CHU3LI3 ("processed") comes out of nowhere. In a quick glance at all the other languages on the box, I didn't notice any other version that had a word like "processed" in the second line.

    I wondered if the original is besonders bruchsicher verarbeitet, which would be possible in German marketing-speak, where "processed" can mean "produced". But no, it's simply besonders bruchfest, of which the "especially break-resistant" mentioned above is a practically literal translation.

  20. David Marjanović said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

    dr pepper, get IE7 instead, which displays them all correctly <duck & cover>

  21. Oskar said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

    The Swedish isn't perfect either. The second line, "extra bryt fasthet" should read "extra brytfasthet", the two words written together (this is the "especially break-resistant" part). It's not unheard of for a native speaker of Swedish to make that mistake (although it sounds extremely odd), but I would guess that the pencil company just hires a bunch of German guys who speaks the different languages non-natively. They probably create translated texts like these for hundreds of products every year (must be a fun job).

  22. WindowlessMonad said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 6:05 pm

    @David Marjanovic: it's nothing to do with IE vs Firefox. It's the font that's the problem. (I'm using Firefox and the Chinese displays perfectly.) Dr P is using a version of Arial that doesn't include the Chinese characters.

  23. Bill Poser said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 6:22 pm

    @Christopher Bruns,

    I've answered your question about written Cantonese in another post.

  24. dr pepper said,

    August 30, 2008 @ 11:48 pm

    Actually, i think the substitution is kind of cool. It's like some old books from the 30's that my father had which list characters by the numerical equivalent assigned for morse code transmission.

  25. Stephanie said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 12:15 am

    On the discussion about pencils coming in boxes – I work in a book/stationary shop and when we order pens/pencils etc they don't come individually – they come in boxes of twelve. We then add the mark up and sell them individually. This is the case for all brands/thicknesses/types of pens and pencils. It would be impractical for staedtler, or anyone else on the other hand, to send individual pencils to suppliers and shops. People also often buy boxes, if they like a particular pen or pencil and want to stock up. Obviously you haven't had much exposure to retail practise and distribution.

  26. Joshua said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

    The pencils shown here are just ordinary writing pencils. The box shows that they are grade HB, which is the European equivalent to what is known as #2 pencils in the United States, suitable for filling in bubbles on a standardized test.

  27. Randy said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

    Ah, so that's what a #2 pencil is. I've almost always used HB for ordinary writing (and sometimes F for some reason. Perhaps my school got a good deal on a batch. I didn't like using them). I'm more European than I thought.

    HB may be the hardness of ordinary writing pencils, but Staedtler sells them in 19 different grades. I don't know if Staedtler is top-of-the-line, or even close, but I don't think they're ordinary, and I would be surprised to see people using them to fill in bubbles on a standardized test.

  28. arthur waldron said,

    August 31, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

    They are pencils purchased at an art shop in Cambridge, MA for my son who does watercolors.

    I noticed the difference in the two translations immediately. They do not map, as it were, on the usual systematic variations to which I am accustomed (China says "shouduan" Taiwan says "fangfa", China and the old Soviets made careers on "fronts"–say the medical front, while Taiwanese make their careers in areas. Taiwanese written Chinese is more elegant, literary, and allusive. Even very good PRC Chinese is like Soviet Russian–

    My own sense is that version I is simply a better job than version II. Had version I been rendered in both standard and simplified characters, no Chinese reader would have had any problem. My China-born wife, I should add, found version II a little odd–yet in theory, she should find it more congenial.

    Am I wrong in thinking that the Ding/Ting usage as in tingji, dinghao, etc. is Shanghainese?

    Never encountered American pencils with hardness measured in degrees. We have "Number 2 pencils" for example.

    So how to explain this? One German urtext, one or two translators? Surely not two–so that means one who writes two different versions? But that is mad.

    Surely the point is that this tiny example demonstrates how the Chinese language is differentiating. It used to be that we had one script and multiple readings and some local characters and diction–though the rare examples of direct speech in Ming documents are very close to the way Chinese is spoken today. Now we have two scripts. And two polities each having its own diction (rather as the Americans and Brits do) even when writing the same "Mandarin." And places like Singapore, where Chinese is taught as a purely colloquial language, without classical basis, so is becoming a kind of pidgin, while Chinese words like shen (deep) come up in Singlish–"Cheem." Classic linguistic differentiation, driven by shifts in diction rather than, as with the Romance languages, the problems of representing a standardized speech with an alphabet.

    Now, may I turn to my deck of cards? The four suits remind me of the Four Evangelists . . .

    Bryn Mawr

  29. ahkow said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 1:28 am

    Chinese taught as a colloquial language in Singapore? That depends on the level – we certainly studied poetry in primary 5 – and I have friends who studied 红楼梦 in JC1.

    深 surfaces as "cheem" in Singlish as a result of borrowing from the Hokkien/Teochew [tsim], which is cognate with shen1.

    I haven't seen any proof that Singaporean Mandarin is turning into a pidgin language that is totally unintelligible with Mandarin spoken elsewhere.

  30. Chas Belov said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 2:15 am

    Google is your friend.

    "高級" 1,450,000 10%
    "顶级" 13,100,000 90%

    "高級" 7,510,000 99.8%
    "顶级" 15,800 0.2%

    Hong Kong
    "高級" 1,490,000 99%
    "顶级" 15,600 1%

    "高級" 2,180 68%
    "顶级" 1,010 32%

    So 顶级 would seem to be a mainland China usage, with a significant presence in Singapore.

  31. Joshua said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 2:31 am

    Randy: Perhaps it would be more accurate for me to have said that the Staedtler pencils shown produce marks of substantially the same level of darkness as ordinary #2 pencils. The Staedtler pencils might have other qualities which distinguish them from ordinary pencils.

  32. anne said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 5:40 am

    I live in Singapore and am constantly exposed to both forms of Mandarin (China and Taiwan through dramas, variety shows and travel), even though I learnt Singapore Chinese. The meanings of the two versions of the product description are exactly the same, depending on the target market. Different countries have slightly different takes on the meaning of similar words. For example, "高級" can mean "high quality" in Taiwan, but in Singapore (and if I remember correctly, in China as well) can mean "high-class". There is nothing wrong or weird about the way either is phrased. It is more likely that the traditional Chinese version is targeted at the Taiwanese market, and the the simplified Chinese version is written for the China market.

  33. Philip Newton said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 6:46 am

    @Chas: what you saw is that Taiwan and Hong Kong tend to use traditional characters, while mainland China uses simplified characters.

    For a proper comparison, you'd have to search with 高級 and 頂級 (traditional) and 高级 and 顶级 (simplified), and then see whether the "high" or the "top" variant wins.

    If you search with 顶级 (two simplified characters), it's not surprising that you don't get many hits in areas which don't use simplified characters much, if at all.

  34. Matt A said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    Philip Newton is right about search techniques – 高级 turns out to be much more common than 顶级 in the mainland (google .cn searches=73,700,000 vs. 13,100,000), and though the same holds true for 高級 vs. 頂級 in .tw websites (6,700,000 vs. 2,920,000), it's much closer than suggested above.

  35. Chas Belov said,

    September 2, 2008 @ 1:34 am

    Thanks. I'll try to remember that in future tests. Complicated, no?

  36. Victor Mair said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

    I've learned more about these special pencils since writing my original post. They are truly the Mercedes Benz of pencildom, have a history of more than a century, and are made by a non-profit corporation:

  37. Dunkleosteus said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    Hehe… this reminds me Kinder Surprise Eggs, they have their instructions translated into large number of languages, including SF and FIN… The problem is that both are Finnish, the first is the outdated country code of Finland. The translations are different, however.

  38. Anne H said,

    December 21, 2010 @ 3:16 am

    Hm! I don't think it's evidence of post-1945 divergence of Mandarin, but perhaps differences in the vocabulary of the native dialects – My parents are from Fujian, and I recognize the vocab from Version 1 (traditional characters, Taiwan market), but the vocab you highlight from Version 2 I don't know.

  39. Wentao said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 9:15 am

    Well, I find the second translation much more natural, especially in this commercial context, than the first. 顶级 is very common in advertisements. 特别防断芯处理 isn't a full sentence, but this kind of phrases appear a lot in ads. 轻松擦除 also sounds more like a commercial product, while 容易擦掉 is rather unsophisticated and colloquial.

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