Uyghur as ornament

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The following restaurant sign in Uyghur and Chinese was sent in by Fangyi Cheng:

The Uyghur portion is longer, larger, and above the Chinese, so one might suspect that it is the primary language of the sign. Upon analysis, however, we will find that the Chinese version is primary and the Uyghur secondary. Nonetheless, the Chinese portion itself is not without question.

Hǎo péngyǒu zásuì yángtí liángfěn guǎn 好朋友砸碎羊蹄凉粉馆.

Here are some translations proffered by Chinese graduate students:

"Good friend's chopped mutton entrails cold noodle shop"

"Good Friend sheep entrails and hoofs liangfen restaurant"

"My best friend smashed the sheep hoofs and bean noodles restaurant"

Already it is evident that educated readers have difficulty making sense of the Chinese on the sign (and I have received other wildly varying interpretations). So let's see what is causing the Chinese wording not to have a clear and unambiguous meaning.

The easiest parts of the Chinese name of the restaurant to understand are the first three characters and the last three characters: Hǎo péngyǒu … liángfěn guǎn 好朋友 …凉粉馆 ("Good Friends … cold starch noodle restaurant"). It's all the rest in between — zásuì yángtí 砸碎羊蹄 — that causes problems. These four characters seem to say "smashed sheep trotters", but I've never heard of "smashed sheep trotters" going with "cold starch noodles". Furthermore, "smashed sheep trotters" doesn't match the Uyghur version, so one begins to wonder whether something is wrong with zásuì yángtí 砸碎羊蹄.

As a matter of fact, as soon as I saw this sign I immediately suspected that zásuì 砸碎 ("smash; shatter; break into pieces") was a mistake for the homophonous zásuì 杂碎 ("offal; chopped, cooked entrails [of sheep or oxen]; chop suey"). Now, I don't want to get into a discussion of whether "chop suey" is a purely American invention or not (others are welcome to join that battle in the comments if they wish), but — in and of itself and in comparison with the Uyghur version — zásuì yángtí 杂碎羊蹄 ("offal [and] sheep trotters") makes a lot better sense than zásuì yángtí 砸碎羊蹄 ("smashed sheep trotters").

Zásuì 杂碎 simply highlights the mixture of animal organs, and there is no regular ingredient such as sheep's leg or other ground meat implied by that term itself.

Incidentally, if you're wondering what liángfěn 凉粉 (literally, "cold powder", i.e., "cold starch noodle") is, the explanation in this Wikipedia article should be adequate for introductory purposes.

Further evidence that it would be wrong to render zásuì yángtí 砸碎羊蹄 as "smashed sheep trotters" may be found in this review of a Shaanxi restaurant, especially the last line:

…zēngjiāle yángtíer, liángfěn, qiézi hé chóujiǔ jǐ yàng chīshi
("…introduced to the menu several items such as sheep's trotters, cold starch noodles, eggplant, and thick wine")

We may surmise, therefore, that this is a Shaanxi or other northwestern restaurant that serves chopped entrails, sheep's trotters, and cold starch noodles operating in Xinjiang.

We might hope that the Uyghur version would help us understand better the intent of the owners of the restaurant in advertising their featured dishes. Yet, while the Uyghur does not have an outright error as does the Chinese, it reads awkwardly:

Yaxshi dostlar öpke-hésip pachaq lengpungliri

Literally "Good friends cooked-entrails shank liangfen-pl.", where lengpung is a direct Chinese loan of liángfěn 凉粉

It is interesting that Henry G. Schwarz (An Uyghur-English dictionary) translates pacaq as "leg" or "shank", but pacaq-pacaq as "smashed to pieces," which would fit with the erroneous zásuì 砸碎 of the Chinese.

As so often happens in the Han-dominated urban centers of Xinjiang, Uyghur merely serves as the "eyebrows" (as Uyghur wags would say) for this sign.

Let us (following Arienne Dwyer) count the ways that the Uyghur is secondary to the Chinese:

-yaxshi dostlar ("good friends") is not at all a common collocation in Uyghur, unlike the high-frequency term hǎo péngyǒu 好朋友 ("good friends") in Chinese. A calque.

-While öpke-hésip is a well-formed Turkic binome, juxtaposing it with the otherwise well-formed Turkic pachaq ("shank") without genitive or possessive marking distinguishes it as translatese. Worse, you have actually three juxtaposed nouns, öpke-hésip + pachaq + lengpung, and the possessive marking shows up on the latter noun, indicating that this is a 3 noun compound: "liangfen (made) of entrails and shanks". The diachronic Uyghur corpus that my team is building still isn't large enough to test this reliably, but I would very much doubt finding any 3-noun compounds, and certainly not bare juxtapositions like these.

And then, the final oddity (this one not from Chinese) is that lengpung is pluralized (lengpung+ pl. lAr+ poss. i).

The plural here is ungrammatical in both Uyghur and Chinese, unless it's the extended sense of the Uyghur plural, which is functionally equivalent to Chinese děng 等 ("and the like", i.e., "Good Friends zasui… and other dishes").

Another day of Uyghlese in the big city!

How ironic it is that, just as Uyghur serves as a kind of ornament on Chinese banknotes, so it has become a sort of decoration on Chinese restaurant signs in its homeland!

[Hat tip Fangyi Cheng; thanks to Arienne Dwyer, Gardner Bovingdon, Leopold Eisenlohr, Yakup Mahire, Mandy Chan, Yuanfei Wang, Jing Wen, and s.a.]


  1. Lazar said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 4:56 am

    Growing up in Massachusetts, I first knew chop suey as macaroni with meat sauce (that is, American chop suey). It took some time to discover that there was a Chinese-(American?) dish from which this derived its name.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 7:55 am

    From a specialist on Uyghur history, culture, and society:

    "…one more index of the increasing marginalization of Uyghur culture."

  3. leoboiko said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 8:21 am

    Marginalization of Uyghur culture aside, I find it interesting how people appear to be fascinated by foreign writing systems. This kind of decorative use seems to be widespread world-wide. Foreign writing is unreadable to the uninitiated, but you know that there's meaning in there somehow; there are connotations of exoticism, mystery, of a tempting puzzle… Besides, writing is just beautiful; ask the calligraphers and typographers and hànzì tatooees.

    It's a shame people so often don't even take the time to understand how the writing system works, let alone the target language. The other day I was reading Marvel superhero comics, and they have some heroes and villains (loosely) inspired by Nordic mythology. Recently they've been sprinkling runic "words" for visual effect—except that if you try to actually read the runes, they only spell gibberish. Perhaps linguists aren't the target audience, but I cannot help finding this kind of thing profoundly irritating (come on, we aren't talking about Maya script here; runic is pretty trivial).

  4. Cameron said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 10:50 am

    I've seen dostlar for "friends" in other Turkic languages. It looks like Persian dust with the usual Turkic plural suffix. Has that Persian word been borrowed into all (or most) Turkic languages, or is Persian dust itself borrowed from a Turkic source?

  5. s/o said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 11:55 am

    Leoboiko – even if Marvel's writers were to put the time in to learn the runes properly and spell out actual words, would you be any less irritated when they inevitably muff the grammar? It would be a nice touch if they made the runes nearly inaccessible in-jokes, but it would also be a bit much to ask.

  6. NSBK said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 11:59 am


    I'm reminded of a scene in the recent movie Thor, set in the New Mexican desert, where they show a Bifröst landing site — a circular pattern (Asgardian rune? not sure of the Marvel terminology) in the sand — and Agent Coulson says "Get somebody from Linguistics down here!"

  7. Jay Hall said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

    @ leoboiko, I noticed and was annoyed at the same thing when I first started reading Marvel's Thor comics, but I'm almost positive that I read somewhere that making the runes spell gibberish is an intentional conceit (and not a recent one, either; I'm pretty sure I remember seeing them used that way in the Simonson run, so at least 30 years) to separate their Asgardian gods from historic Norse culture and make them more Space Viking than they already are: the Asgardians speak "All-tongue" and their runes may look like Futhark runes but don't correspond to them, seems to be the idea.

    So yeah, I agree with your overall observation, and Marvel's use of runes is definitely a case of using a foreign writing system for the sense of mystery and ineffability–to the point that they make a deliberate choice to make them *not* readable by any who might try. But at least it isn't laziness, I suppose?

  8. Joshua T said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

    Lazar, in my home (in southwest New Hampshire), we called it chop suey too, though my father would occasionally call it goulash, as a sort of humorous affectation. (It was probably a more appropriate name, but it's not what any of us grew up calling it.)

  9. Emerson said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

    Is it not perhaps the case that business owners in Xinjiang are required — or perceive a requirement — to include Uyghur on public signage? The 1993 Xinjiang regulations on language and script work mandated that enterprises use Uyghur in hiring announcements (, article 12). It's not clear to me whether this is still in force (and by all accounts it was only ever honored in the breach). But I recall a similar mandate in the early 2000s for Tibetan signage in Lhasa … and many irritated remarks from Tibetan friends that the results were inelegant and ungrammatical — to the extent they were not simply transcriptions of the Chinese in Tibetan script. It's worth considering the motivations, and weighing the pros and cons, of such signage regulations (which are not limited to China). They do demonstrate official support (for whatever motivation), but if majority-group business owners perceive them as a burden and do a slapdash job to meet the letter of the regulation, the results can offend minority-group readers as much as they encourage them.

  10. Levantine said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

    Cameron, I believe 'dost' (which is indeed of Persian origin) has been borrowed into all Turkic languages. In Turkish at least, it has a meaning closer to 'companion' than 'friend'.

  11. julie lee said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

    @Lazar, @Joshua T:

    I'm delighted to learn that the Cantonese term "chop suey" has been borrowed into American-English in Massachusetts and New Hampshire to mean macaroni and meat sauce.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    September 20, 2013 @ 11:32 pm

    Yakup Mahire sent in this link for dàzáhuì 大杂烩 ("hodgepodge; hotchpot; salmagundi")

    and says that it is the same as Uyghur "opke-hesep".

  13. Rodger C said,

    September 21, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    @Julie Lee: A late friend of mine who grew up in West Virginia in the 1930s told me about a similar "chop suey." I suspect it was a widespread poverty meal that was given a cheerful name. In addition to "goulash, " I've also heard "slumgullion" for similar dishes.

  14. Jon said,

    September 21, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

    Do sheep have trotters? Fish and chip shops in the North of England used to (maybe still do) offer pig's trotters and sheep's feet. Never sheep's trotters in my experience. Odd how the meat names – pork, mutton/lamb – don't apply here.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    September 21, 2013 @ 10:44 pm


    re: trotters

    That's what I thought too until I checked here and elsewhere:

  16. Nick moore said,

    September 22, 2013 @ 5:20 am

    Actually even JRR tolkien got his runes wrong from time to time. My cousin, who has a PhD in ancient runic languages, wrote to him pointing out a grammatical mistake. He answered: "don't blame me I only copied them from the Red Book…" in a beautiful calligraphic hand, by the way :-)
    That being said I've been going to Xinjiang with Uyghurs (or ouigours) for over twelve years now and have seen the changes in Urumqi made by the Han and the destruction of Kashgar over teh last 10 years. It was a beautiful 14th+ century caravan town with a fantastic market and the site of many 'great game' ploys between english and russians… Now it's mostly white tile houses with chrome fittings, and the uyghur have been relocated from old adobe houses with wooden carved balconies in the center of Kashgar to hideous modern buildings outside the town. Many of the older ones whose families had been living in the same house for centuries have committed suicide or become homeless rather than relocate.
    When I first went there in 2001 there were about 30% Han in Urumqi, and most signs were in Uyghur. Now there must be over 70% Han and the uyghur signs have all but disappeared, except around the main mosque and the brand new Bazar.

  17. Nick moore said,

    September 22, 2013 @ 5:27 am

    And in 1949, when the chinese liberated the Uyghur from themselves, there were fewer than 5% Han. The train now brings 10 000 Han per day to Urumqi. Over twelve years that would be over 40 million Han. Seems a lot but it might be about that, over a territory that is gigantic. Chinese bring pig farms, which in a muslim country is not really appreciated, and could explain that the uyghur regularly have revolts, which result in thousands of deaths (uyghur), of which the world is generally not aware.
    The destruction of Kashgar started when the train reached Kashgar. I heard the train has now reached Lhassa.

  18. julie lee said,

    September 22, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    @Rodger C:
    ' A late friend of mine who grew up in West Virginia in the 1930s told me about a similar "chop suey." I suspect it was a widespread poverty meal that was given a cheerful name.

    Thanks. I was thinking why macaroni and meat sauce would be called "chop suey". Back in the early 1970s, when I was living in a Midwestern university town, there was only one Chinese restaurant there (now many). No Chinese grocery store. Some Chinese housewives (ex-grad students) would grow their own bean-sprouts and even tried making tofu. The lone Chinese restaurant had a very limited menu. One favorite of the university crowd who lunched there was chop suey. You got a plate of thin sticks of deep fried noodles (which you could buy in a can) covered with a gooey translucent sauce made of corn starch and a little bit of celery, onions, and meat, but mostly corn starch flavored with monodium glutamate. I'd look around and see people apparently enjoying it as exotic. Though I did work with a graphic artist who'd say "Ugh! I don't like Chinese food", and it made me think immediately of that chop suey.

  19. Rodger C said,

    September 22, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

    @Julie Lee: I remember that wretched chop suey too.

  20. Mr Punch said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 9:41 am

    When I was growing up in Massachusetts, chop suey was indeed macaroni with meat sauce (no tomato) when it was served in school lunches; elsewhere it was the concoction described by julie lee. Chop suey was fake Chinese food, and schools served fake chop suey.

  21. julie lee said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

    @Mr Punch:

    Thanks, those good old chop suey days were the innocent days of America, when it wasn't flooded by ethnic restaurants.

  22. Mark Dunan said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 4:50 am

    @leoboiko – If you want to see another use of runes in popular media that actually makes some sense out of them, check out the Playstation 3 video game "Valkyria Chronicles" (in Japanese, 戦場のヴァルキュリア), a WWII-meets-Japanese-anime strategy game (if that makes any sense) set in a Belgium-like country defending itself against the Evil Empire:

    The runes they use are the correct Futhark, only rotated in different positions, and they typically spell out English or Japanese words.

    The icon indicating a "boss" even uses a correct Futhark B, though it could just be a stylized Latin B:

    I was very pleasantly surprised to see that the runes were readable. Japanese game/manga producers seem to want to have a little more fun with that stuff than their American counterparts do.

  23. Matt McIrvin said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 6:01 am

    I can testify that "American chop suey" (ground meat and macaroni) still appears on school menus and dinner menus in New England, but always with the adjective "American". I'm not sure I've seen the unqualified variety on Chinese restaurant menus, but I may not have been paying attention.

  24. FeuDRenais said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 8:08 am

    Can't the plural "lar/ler" also be used to denote "all kinds of"?

    e.g.: lengpunglarni yahxi körimen = 我喜欢各种各样的凉粉 = I like all kinds of different liangfen.

    From this point of view, the plural (at least) might be grammatically valid. But it does kind of look like the Uyghur follows the Chinese… The eyes and eyebrows, but at least the eyebrows are bigger this time :-)

  25. julie lee said,

    September 24, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

    @Matt McIrvin:
    "American chop suey" must be a phenomenon of the East Coast because I've never heard of it in the Midwest or here in the San Francisco Bay Area. As Mr. Punch says, chop suey was fake Chinese food, and it seems to have disappeared from restaurants since real Chinese food has flooded America. Though, watch out, I've had so many bad meals in real-Chinese-food restaurants (about one every block here in Silicon Valley —i.e., Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, San Jose etc.)—that I try to have strong recommendations before trying another Chinese restaurant. Without a recommendation, I'd rather go to MacDonald's for a meal, because the menu there is quality-controlled and standarized. Though in London (Golders Green and Hampstead), I had some poor quality-controlled meals at MacDonald's too, (The french fries were suspicious, leathery— probably re-fried three times .)

  26. DracoAlpha said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 11:13 pm

    Uyghurs do not eat foods cooked by Chinese because that doesn't consider to be "Muslim"/Halal. There's a sign for Halal; only certificated restaurants are allowed to use that sign. The absence of Halal sign implies that this is a Chinese restaurant and the consumers are mostly Chinese. No wonder why Uyghur is just an ornament.

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