Chinese wéiqí, Japanese go, and English go

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Some funny things happen when one tries to straighten out the relationships among these three names for one of the world's most challenging board games.

First of all, if I put wéiqí 圍棋 / 围棋, the Chinese name of the game, into Google Translate (GT) and ask it to translate that into Japanese, out comes Iku 行く ("to go"), but if I ask GT to translate wéiqí 圍棋 directly into English, out comes "go", the English name of the game.

So that we don't get sucked more deeply into a quagmire of nomenclatural confusion, I will put some basic linguistic facts about these names here.  It would be good for other Language Log readers to inform us how the name of the game is handled in other languages.

The word Go is a short form of the Japanese word igo (囲碁; いご), which derives from earlier wigo (ゐご), in turn from Middle Chinese ɦʉi gi (圍棋, Mandarin: wéiqí, lit. 'encirclement board game' or 'board game of surrounding'). In English, the name Go when used for the game is often capitalized to differentiate it from the common word go. In events sponsored by the Ing Chang-ki Foundation, it is spelled goe.

The Korean word baduk derives from the Middle Korean word Badok, the origin of which is controversial; the more plausible etymologies include the suffix dok added to Ba to mean 'flat and wide board', or the joining of Bat, meaning 'field', and Dok, meaning 'stone'. Less plausible etymologies include a derivation of Badukdok, referring to the playing pieces of the game, or a derivation from Chinese páizi (排子), meaning 'to arrange pieces'.


A sidebar of this Wikipedia article on Go lists the names for the game in Mandarin, Suzhounese, Cantonese, Hokkien, Middle Sinitic, Old Sinitic, Tibetan, Vietnamese, and Korean.

No matter what you call it, "encirclement board game" is an absorbing, mind-bending diversion (or preoccupation) for millions of people around the world.

You will notice that, until the last word of this post, I did not mention a certain competing term:  chess.


Selected readings

"Translating games" (12/9/08)

"Communication games" (7/8/17)


  1. Taylor, Philip said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 10:29 am

    As an aside, the game of gomoku, which is frequently played on a go ban (= "Go board") does not derive its name from that of Go at all — it is simply the Japanese for "five pieces" (or "five stones", as they are more usually called, but moku translates as "piece" rather than as "stone").

  2. cameron said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 3:41 pm

    skimming through the languages bar on the wikipedia article for the game, the heading for the articles about the game in pretty much all the languages other than east asian languages seem to be basically "go" – as rendered per the appropriate characters and spelling conventions of the various languages.

    an interesting variant is the arabic version. standard arabic lacks /g/ – and so the arabic name for game substitutes the letter qhayn, hence غو

    how that'd be pronounced varies across the arabic speaking world, but it's most commonly be with initial consonant /ɣ/.

    other languages using variants of that script, such as persian, kurdish, urdu, etc., have a letter to represent /g/, so they transliterate in a pretty straightforward way. I was interested to note that the (central) kurdish spelling is گەو. I'm not familiar with kurdish spelling conventions, but that's a little odd. persian, urdu, and punjabi all have what I would have expected: گو

  3. KWillets said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 3:54 pm

    It's likely that English is used as an intermediate translation, or that the model is derived from such a scenario.

    GT doesn't train on every language pair but rather on English-other language pairs.

  4. Ben said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 4:26 pm

    @KWillets That strategy is necessary for many languages. There aren't too many Zulu-Manipuri parallel texts, for instance. But it seems silly and discriminatory — not to mention ineffective — for languages with as much contact as Chinese and Japanese.

  5. KWillets said,

    February 15, 2023 @ 6:48 pm

    The Google Translate Wiki Page mentions polysemy as a problem for single-word translations, although I think this is a combination of that and English-intermediate translation, which is also described.

    It also gives the pairs that are passed through other languages, and Japanese-Korean is one of them. If we add that link to the chain, 가다 (to go) is indeed the result for 圍棋.

    Going in the opposite direction though gives 바둑 (ko) -> 圍棋 (zh), and the reason seems to be that it translates to "Baduk" in English. However when I try the ko-ja result 囲碁 I get English "Go" and 去 in Chinese.

    There seems to be something added to the ko-ja or ko-en translation that distinguishes it, perhaps as a proper noun. It may even skip the Japanese for that; I suspect a number of proper nouns are mapped directly from Korean to English.

  6. Chris Button said,

    February 16, 2023 @ 7:25 am

    … if Go is "encirclement boardgame", I suppose Chess as 象棋 is "elephant board game"?

  7. Josh R. said,

    February 16, 2023 @ 7:45 pm

    Taylor, Philip said,
    '(or "five stones", as they are more usually called, but moku translates as "piece" rather than as "stone").'

    Well, "eye" rather than "piece" or "stone," but the metaphorical meaning is there.

    Chris Button said,
    '… if Go is "encirclement boardgame", I suppose Chess as 象棋 is "elephant board game"?'

    Indeed! Interestingly, 象棋 by itself refers to what is known as "Chinese chess" outside of China, but the western game of chess is known as国际象棋 "international elephant board game". More interestingly, shogi, despite having a name that should quite easily transliterate into Chinese (将棋 "board game of generals") seems to be called "日本象棋": "Japanese elephant board game."


  8. Taylor, Philip said,

    February 17, 2023 @ 4:12 am

    Josh R said :

    Taylor, Philip said,

    '(or "five stones", as they are more usually called, but moku translates as "piece" rather than as "stone").'

    Well, "eye" rather than "piece" or "stone," but the metaphorical meaning is there


    Now that is (a) something of which I was previously unaware, and (b) absolutely fascinating, because of course in Go (qua Go, as opposed to gomoku) a stone/piece and an eye are diametric opposites — the whole object of the game is to create two or more eyes surrounded entirely by one's own stones/pieces and/or (optionally) the limits of the playing area.

  9. Chris Button said,

    February 17, 2023 @ 11:17 am

    @ Josh R

    Good point regarding 将棋 versus 象棋. Presumably the spelling was changed in Japanese to make more sense since they ended up as homophones? Having played both, I recall the games to be slightly different–that might also explain the name change.

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