Writing English with Chinese characters

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Responding to "Transcriptional Chinese animal imagery for English daily greetings" (3/13/23), Mary Erbaugh, using Yale Cantonese romanization, writes:


I've never seen it done with animal names, though probably easier to remember, amusing.

I'm used to the English word pronunciations in old fashioned HK (& Taiwan) almanacs, like the Bou Lòh Maahn Yauh (Cant.) / Bāo luò wàn yǒu (Mand.) 包纙萬有 ("all-inclusive"), available in any Chinatown; English title The Book of Myriad Things, an All-Inclusive Reference.  In the exposition below, I use the 1993 Hong Kong edition published by Jeuih Bóu Làuh Yanchaatchóng 聚寳樓印刷廠 [VHM:  聚[jeui6]寳[bou2]樓[lau4/lau2]印[yan3]刷[chaat3]廠[chong2] — Cantonese conversion by this tool; (Modern Standard Mandarin) MSM transcription in pinyin: Jùbǎo lóu yìnshuā chǎng].  It gets re-published every year, in near-identical form, except for the calendars.

The English words rendered in characters are done with Cantonese pronunciations,   This is more proof of the phonetic nature of characters, used as a syllabary.    The Mandarin pronunciations don't work.

The character meanings are completely irrelevant. 

The English phrases are from the almanac itself.   The rough character by character glosses are mine.     There about 550 phrases in total.

 The almanac section begins with the ABC's, then moves on to numbers.

 Then bargaining vocab:    'Gold' is 告   路    

                                                       gou louh

                                                       (literal meaning of characters:    'announce road')

 'how much cash?'    哮     抹      治      加     示

                                hàau mó     jih     gà      sih

                                (roar touch govern add display)

'Good morning'    決        蔴         玲

                            kyut     màh    lìng

                            (decide   hemp  tinkling of jade pendants)

'How do you do'    哮         都     要    都

                             hàau   dōu   yiu   dōu

                             (roar     all     want   all)

'Go away'               哥                            阿                       威

                              gòh                         a                          wài

                              (older brother    vocative       dignity)

Often Chinese speakers simply call these almanacs 通書 tùngsyù.

An interesting English translation and discussion of much of the almanac, including the traditional woodblocks, is Martin Palmer, ed. (1986), T'ung Shu:  The Ancient Chinese Almanac.  Never before available in English, a Chinese folk classic which has been annually republished for over 1,200 years.   Boston:   Shambala Publications.

An illustrated discussion of the almanacs, and their cultural influence:   Richard J. Smith.  1992.   Chinese Almanacs.   Hong Kong and New York:   Oxford University Press.

Neither book discusses the English glossaries in any detail.    But I used to see Hong Kong street vendors look up English words in the almanacs.   Probably you've seen this also.


Except for a few small interventions, the above is all by Mary.


Selected readings



  1. cameron said,

    March 21, 2023 @ 3:56 pm

    "annually republished for over 1,200 years" – is it known at what point the English glossary section was added?

    a diachronic study of those English glossaries might be interesting, presumably they get updated now and then

  2. JOHN S ROHSENOW said,

    March 21, 2023 @ 6:29 pm

    In his THE CHINESE LANGUAGE – FACT AND FANCY DeFrancis (as a joke) talked about a system by one"ONO Kanji" (sic) to write English using KANJI (Japanese Chinese characters) to be used when(ever) the Japanese occupied the USA.

  3. Mary Erbaugh said,

    April 6, 2023 @ 5:27 pm

    No Chinese characters appear as pronunciation guides to English vocabulary in the 2023 edition of the Chinese almanac discussed above. In fact, the 550 word English glossary has disappeared entirely. In the 1993 edition, each English word received a character by character pronunciation guide based on Cantonese pronunciations. Many vocabulary choices were laughably outdated, e.g.:

    電 'Electric gramaphone'

    唱 衣 力 推 力 格 拉 孖 風

    机 [yī lihk tèui lihk gaak làai mā fùng,
    Yale romanization]

    In past, the almanac was often the only English vocabulary that people had, indeed, their only book. Now English fluency — and e-dictionaries — make the glossary obsolete. The 2023 almanac also deletes the guide to sending telegrams, using 8,000 different numerical codes, 1 for each character. Still intact: lunar calendars, fortune telling, face reading, a life of Confucius, stages of fetal development, and terms of address.

  4. Vampyricon said,

    April 25, 2023 @ 2:41 pm

    These books are often called 通勝 (tung1 sing3) because 書 is homophonous with 輸, and, well, you don't want to 通輸, now would you?

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