Spelling with Chinese character(istic)s

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Mark Swofford sent in this photograph of the entrance to the Batefulai Canting in Maolin, Taiwan, near the trail to the purple butterfly valley.

The sign says:

Bātèfúlái cāntīng 芭特芙萊餐廳
("Butterfly Restaurant / Canteen / Dining Hall")

Some notes about the script and the wording:

1. Do not be misled by the resemblance between "Canting" and "Canteen": they are completely unrelated faux amis ("meal-hall" vs. French cantine, from Italian cantina ["wine cellar"]).

2. Since this is in Taiwan, naturally traditional characters are used. If the sign were written in simplified characters, it would look like this: 芭特芙莱餐厅 (only the fourth and sixth characters are different).

3. Note how, even though they are written quite large, the last two characters, especially the final one, are so dense as to be virtually black blobs, yet the amount of strokes constituting them (16 strokes, 25 strokes) is not nearly in the upper range for total number of strokes in a character.

4. If they may be said to signify anything in isolation, the individual characters of bātèfúlái 芭特芙萊 "mean": banana — special — lotus / hibiscus — pigweed / goosefoot / lamb's quarters / wasteland. When reading foreign words transcribed in Chinese characters, one must strive to block out their semantic content.

5. Since the butterfly is an animal, it seems strange that three of the four characters used to transcribe the English word have "grass" radicals / semantophores at the top. That was the first thing that struck me very powerfully when I looked at this sign. It just seemed so incongruous to have all those vegetal semantic indicators staring me in the face right next to that cute depiction of a butterfly. I suppose, though, if you let your imagination wander far enough afield that the pretty butterfly might be thought of as flitting about merrily among flowers and other plants.

Cf. "'Spelling' English in Cantonese".


  1. Simon P said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 1:13 am

    The grass radical seems very common in phonetic transcriptions. I suppose it's because there are lots of them and they have a very restricted use, which means there's little risk of confusion. Additionally, even though they're rare, since they usually carry the sound of the remaining part, they're easy to pronounce.

    Personally I think someone should invent a "transcription" radical for these sorts of uses.

  2. Stephan Stiller said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 1:42 am

    1. I absolutely agree that using identical stroke thickness for all (including the densest) characters makes for poor typography. I don't understand why this is so common.

    2. (@ Simon P:) There's of course the mouth radical, 口. But transcription with Chinese characters doesn't seem to work well in general. Even if one insists on a representation of foreign words in Chinese characters, it's not hard for me to come up with methods to typographically mark a transcription as such (eg: corner symbols, a font with an edgier or more parsimonious appearance, dots somewhere). Of course, the Japanese workaround is to use katakana.

  3. John Swindle said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 5:25 am

    But there's already a Chinese word for butterfly.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 6:43 am

    @John Swindle

    Good point! That's húdié 蝴蝶 (note the "insect / bug" radicals on the left of each character), and it was the subject of a famous article by the Yale linguist, George A. Kennedy, entitled "The Butterfly Case" (in Wennti, 8 [March, 1955]), which was a followup to his even more famous piece called "The Monosyllabic Myth" (in Journal of the American Oriental Society, 71.3 [1951], 161-166), both of which are reprinted in Tien-yi Li, ed., Selected Works of George A. Kennedy (New Haven: Far Eastern Publications, 1964), respectively pp. 274-322 and pp. 104-118. In these articles, Kennedy was writing about the fact that some Sinitic morphemes are disyllabic and how húdié 蝴蝶 ("butterfly") is a prime example.

  5. Stephan Stiller said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 7:34 am

    To what I commented above:

    Correction to #1: Now I'm noticing that the strokes for the dense characters are a bit thinner … but still infelicitously thick. I think it's a problem of both uninformed typography and the writing system per se.

    Clarification to #2: What I'm wondering is why transcriptions are not typographically marked as such by default. There's the middle dot for certain foreign names – but Latin script would be so much easier.

  6. Mark Dunan said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 8:56 am

    @Stephan – Latin script is only easier if you write horizontally — something many of us lefties will never willingly do!

  7. Linda Seebach said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 11:22 am

    @Mark Dunan:
    If you're a lefty who has difficulty writing horizontally, your first-grade teacher was an ignoramus. Just slant your paper in the opposite direction — so the vertical edge is parallel with your forearm, as it is for righties in the position your teacher insisted on.

    (So did mine, but I rebelled and my parents backed me up, and she backed down.)

  8. Rodger C said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

    @Victor Mair: How old is hudie as a dissyllable? Among the odd bits of Old Chinese I know is the phrase "Zhuang Zhou meng die."

  9. Victor Mair said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

    @Roger C

    Good question!

    Without doing any research, I would simply say that the dissyllable húdié 胡蝶 ("butterfly") is very old, at least old as the Zhuang Zi text in which it appears:


    Xī zhě Zhuāng Zhōu mèng wéi húdié, xǔxǔrán húdié yě 昔者庄周梦为胡蝶,栩栩然胡蝶也 ("Once upon a time Zhuang Zhou dreamed that he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting about happily enjoying himself").

    In traditional characters: 昔者荘周夢為胡蝶。栩栩然胡蝶也。



    Húdié 胡蝶 can also be written as 胡蜨 and 蝴蝶. It's obvious that the sounds of the *word* are more important than the characters used to write it.

    The Sinitic word for "butterfly" only appears later as a single syllable after Master Zhuang's butterfly dream is converted into the set phrase (chéngyǔ 成语) that you quoted: Zhuāng Zhōu mèng dié 庄周梦蝶 ("Zhuang Zhou dreaming of being a [butter]fly").

    The same thing happened to many old disyllabic words, such as those for "coral", "spider", "unicorn", "balloon lute", "phoenix", etc. People would split the two characters up and invent fanciful etymologies for the two separate parts, such as "male" and "female" (unicorn, phoenix) and "up stroke" and "down stroke" (balloon guitar).

  10. MaryKaye said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

    @Linda Seebach:
    Just slant your paper in the opposite direction — so the vertical edge is parallel with your forearm, as it is for righties in the position your teacher insisted on.

    While it has little connection with writing Chinese, I can't resist mentioning a college student of mine. Her handwriting was amazingly beautiful and perfect copperplate, looking more like a calligrapher's idealization of handwriting than actual handwriting, even on exams with a tight time limit. I was dumbfounded the first time I watched her taking an exam, and found that she produced this by turning the paper 90 degrees and writing straight downward. She had an Anglo name and spoke without an accent so I doubt she came from a vertical-writing tradition, and I was too embarrassed to ask her, so this remains a mystery.

  11. B.Ma said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

    Chinese characters can be marked as "foreign" by underlining them, or if you're writing vertically, by drawing a line to their left.

  12. B.Ma said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

    I meant that they can be marked as indicating they are representing a foreign word, not that they are literally foreign. However, underlining is also used for proper nouns.

  13. Stephan Stiller said,

    November 21, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

    @ B.Ma

    I always thought underlining was for names in general, within texts expected to be heavy in names (such as certain history books or textbooks); I don't know to what extent one would use it for foreign words that are clearly not names. That said, I'm glad someone mentions this in this comment thread. Too bad this is not done more often. This might have to do with the typographic weight of underlining. I think something akin to ⌜…⌝ or ⌞…⌟ or ⌜…⌟ or even ‧…' would be – with the right placement and size – perfectly unobtrusive.

  14. Rodger C said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 8:48 am

    @Victor Mair: Thanks. On reflection, I suppose hudie is the same as Japanese kochou (kotefu), as in:

    Tsurigane ni
    tomarite nemuru
    kochou kana.

    On the temple bell
    resting to sleep
    see the butterfly.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 9:16 am

    @Rodger C

    Google Translate returns the following Japanese equivalents of "butterfly":

    chō 蝶

    batafurai バタフライ

    chōchō 蝶蝶

    kochō 蝴蝶

    chōchō 蝶々

    BTW, Mark Swofford, who provided the photograph at the top of this post, spent the weekend visiting the butterfly valley in Maolin, southern Taiwan, one of only two or three butterfly wintering sites in the world. He sent me an amazing short video, taken by himself, of butterflies merrily flitting along the pathway. Master Zhuang would have been immensely pleased if he had had the opportunity to join Mark and his wife strolling through the butterfly valley in Maolin.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 9:23 am

    From Paula Roberts:

    Butterfly wintering places are a fascinating phenomenon. Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, Flight Behavior, is about the movement of an monarch over-wintering spot, because of global warming, from Mexico to the Appalachians. It's a wonderful read, especially in audio book, with the author as reader.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 9:53 am

    I discovered that, after playing Mark Swofford's amazing video, if you put your cursor over the final image and roll the little ball on top of your mouse, you can make the butterflies fly and hover as you wish.

  18. Chau Wu said,

    November 22, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

    In Proof of Heaven, A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, by Eben Alexander, M.D., which has been a #1 New York Times Bestseller, the author in his deep coma saw "millions of butterflies were all around us – vast fluttering waves of them, dipping down into the greenery and coming back up around us again…" (p. 40). Unlike Master Zhuang Zhou, he woke up human again.

  19. julie lee said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 11:28 am

    @John Swindle:
    Yes there is already a Chinese word hudie蝴蝶 for "butterfly" . So why use English (in Chinese characters) Bātèfúlái 芭特芙萊 for "butterfly"?

    I think it's to be jaunty, jazzy, cool, playful. Like if one were to call an American cafe
    "Ni Hao Cafe" (ni hao is "hello" in Mandarin) even though there is a word "hello" in English. Or perhaps the owner wants to show off his bit of English, just like Americans will often be pleased to show that they know how to say xie xie "Thank you" in Mandarin.

  20. Nuno said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

    I'm reminded of the Chinese name of Bazaar magazine — 芭莎 (Bāshā). This immediately struck my as a fancier version of 巴沙, the most common characters for transcribing ba and sha. Not unlike Motorhead vs Motörhead!

  21. Cecilia Segawa Seigle said,

    November 24, 2013 @ 6:32 am

    The butterfly haiku is by the famous poet-artist Buson (Yosa Buson, 1716-83), made famous in the west by Lafcadio Hearn and Suzuki Daisetsu.

  22. Jerimiah said,

    November 24, 2013 @ 6:55 am

    An American friend and I do this sort of thing when texting. It makes for fun (in our opinion) code that native Chinese speakers typically just see as gibberish. I've always wondered if there's a term for it? It would essentially be the reverse of Romanization. Sinofication? An example would be: 读 鱼 哈弗 吐 勾 吐 的 苏头儿? (Do you have to go to the store?)

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