Sneeze, hiccup, cough

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Exceedingly few people (almost none) can write the Chinese  characters for the Mandarin word for "sneeze" (dǎ pēntì).  I suspect that most people would also get one or both of the characters for "cough" (késou) wrong, though it's not as hard as dǎ pēntì.

I mentioned this surmise to several colleagues and encouraged them to test themselves, their friends, and their students to see whether they could write késou correctly, or even at all.  I cautioned them that it should not be permitted to use any electronic device or reference material (dictionaries, etc.) to remind those being tested how to write the two characters for késou.  They must simply be written out directly on paper by hand.

I was pleasantly surprised when David Moser wrote back and told me that he had carried out an informal survey on exactly this subject about 5 years ago.  The subjects were 43 undergraduates at Beijing Capital Normal University (the roommates for his American undergrad students at the CET program).

Most of those who took the test were 2nd or 3rd year students.  Their majors varied, but were mainly  liberal arts, literature, music, foreign relations, and even duìwài hànyǔ 对外汉语 ("teaching Chinese as a foreign language"), ironically, so they should have been well versed in written Chinese.  The CET program arranges Chinese roommates for their American students, so these were all university students, and the administrators of the program deliberately avoid using English majors (since it's too tempting for them to practice their English with the CET students, which is verboten), so most of these students are pretty immersed in a Chinese language environment.

One of David's students volunteered to help him with this as part of a project he was doing. The results were as follows, exactly as I received them from David:

  • About 1/4 of the students could not correctly produce the graphs for kesou (“cough”)
  • About 1/2 of the students could not correctly produce the graphs for da ger (“hiccup/belch”)
  • Only 2 of the 43 students could correctly produce the graphs for da penti (“sneeze”)


késou 咳嗽           31 correct
dǎ pēntì 打喷嚏       2 correct
dǎ gér 打嗝儿        19 correct

  • Only 1 student succeeded in producing all the characters correctly.
  • Fully 10 students got all the problematic characters wrong.

For 打喷嚏:

  • 8 students made attempts at 嚏, starting with the mouth radical 口 and the top component of the right-hand graph, but stopped short of attempting the entire character.
  • 13 students wrote approximations to 嚏 (such as 啑) but which were incorrect
  • Some students wrote substitute graphs such as: 涕 tì (“nasal mucous, snot”), which is a reasonable mistake made by 5 students; other unreasonable guesses were 啼 tí (“sob, cry”) and 嗑 kè (“crack with the teeth”)

For the 嗝 of 打嗝儿, many students substituted other graphs, such as 咯 kǎ, 喀 kā, and 噶 ga.

David also kindly sent along several of the exam papers which he had kept, so I could see with my own eyes exactly how the students left blanks and made false starts, erasures, scribblings over, and so on.  John Rohsenow, who was listening in on the conversation (via an online discussion group), asked:  "I wonder how many people can spell 'hiccough' (sp?) in English?"  To which Mark Swofford, who was also kibitzing, quipped:  "Easy: h-i-c-c-u-p ;) ".

Furthermore, even if you spell it "hicup, hicupp, hicough," etc., you'll still get your message across.  But if you can't remember all the strokes of the characters for késou, you'll probably just give up and write it in Pinyin or avoid writing the word altogether.

Bottom line:  "sneeze", "hiccup", and "cough" are all very common involuntary human actions, nothing rarefied at all.  One would think that persons of moderate literacy would certainly be able to spell them with ease, yet they pose severe difficulty even for university students in China.

I have written extensively on the deleterious impact of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices, into which the overwhelming majority of users enter characters by means of Pinyin (Romanization), upon writing by hand, thus contributing to character amnesia.  See:

However, in the matter of "sneeze", "hiccup", and "cough", I don't think we should be so hasty in blaming Pinyin inputting on electronic devices for the inability of literate Chinese to write them.  Here we may refer to David Moser's classic article, "Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard", written well over two decades ago, before students had become attached to computers and cell phones.

In that entertaining and edifying piece, David related how once when he had a cold he wanted to write a note to a friend to cancel an appointment.  Forgetting how to write the 嚔 of dǎ pēntì 打喷嚔 ("to sneeze"), he asked the three Peking University Chinese Department Ph.D. students with whom he was having lunch that day how to write it, and they all "simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character."

There must be some deeper — and probably very obvious — reason why presumably literate Chinese, indeed highly literate Chinese, fail to write out the characters for very common words.  I have my own ideas about that, but would be interested in hearing the views of others on this conundrum.


  1. Simon P said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 1:11 am

    The obvious answer is that these particular characters are only used in those particular words. I suspect that nobody failed to correctly write the 喷 character, since it's used in other words, as well. I suspect the characters that fulfil the following two criteria will pose the most problems:

    1: The character is only used in a single compound.
    2: The phonetic part of the character does not use the most common graph for that phonetic, which for "ti" would be 弟 and for "ke" would be 可.

    With a fair dose of smug self-satisfaction, I concluded that I could write all of the characters, but of course, I've spent an inordinate amount of time memorizing 5,000 characters and keep them in my memory through an SRS system. With that in mind, it'd be interesting to see the experiment done with:
    * Advanced foreign students of Mandarin or Cantonese
    * Hong Kongers (who often use handwriting recognition to write on their phones)

  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 6:48 am

    @Simon P

    "I suspect that nobody failed to correctly write the 喷 character…."

    No, many of the students failed to write it correctly.

    "With a fair dose of smug self-satisfaction, I concluded that I could write all of the characters…."

    Not fair! You didn't follow my rules!

    "…who often use handwriting recognition to write on their phones…."

    People who use Pinyin inputting actually do much better on this type of innately refractory characters than those few individuals who try to input them with stroke order entry or handwriting recognition. Remember, these characters were hard already BEFORE the advent of electronic communications devices.

    All things considered, your answers are not ultimately satisfying.

  3. Simon P said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 9:06 am

    How did I not follow the rules? I wrote them down directly without using any electronic devices or dictionaries. It's just that I've spent some time memorizing these characters and keep training them regularly, and failing any character triggers it to reappear in my training a lot in the following period. So I fully agree that it's not a fair comparison, and I'm certainly not "better" at Chinese than these people in any sense of the word, but I did follow the rules!

    Anyway, I agree that my answers aren't the final solution, but I suspect it plays a part.

  4. MaryKaye said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 10:28 am

    While these are common spoken words, they are also in a class of words which one seldom needs to write down. I can't spell "hiccup" with confidence myself–before today I am not sure I have ever written it, and I'm 50 years old and a native speaker of English who dabbles in fiction writing!

    I'm not surprised that the double whammy of unusually difficult characters and spoken-primary words leads to a high failure rate. The equivalent might be asking educated Americans to write down "unh-uh" (be sure to distinguish it from uh-huh, which has opposite meaning!)

  5. David Moser said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

    These are all good points, but they cloud the issue a bit. Not being quite sure of the spelling of a certain word can't be compared to Chinese character amnesia, which is orders of magnitude worse for Chinese speakers/writers. There are hundreds of words I never write or seldom have ever written (wastrel, abracadabra, bunions, bursitis, kleptomania, picaresque, highfalutin, prig, muckraker, whole nother x, zit, Jabberwocky, hoity-toity, klutz, peekaboo, smack dab, etc.), yet I never forget them, and even if I get the spelling a bit wrong, it doesn't impede the writing or reading process. "Hiccup", "hiccough" or both fine, and even "hickup" would be easily comprehended. Plus, and more importantly, this little exercise is merely a small probe into a huge ocean of character amnesia. As Victor (and I) have reported elsewhere, it's not just low-frequency colloquial items people are forgetting. It's words like "blue" and "rose" and "pillow" and "toad" and "threshold" and "cancer" and "sock", and even, incredibly, the traditional characters for "Taiwan", which many Taiwanese are forgetting how to write. Just watch a native Chinese speaker these days try to write down something from the TV or radio, and you'll be astonished at what words they balk at. There's no equivalent for alphabetic scripts.

  6. Emily H. said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

    I suspect that people generally (unless they write a LOT by hand) remember only enough of a word to be able to read it smoothly in context without mixing it up with other words; think of how lots of people read fantasy novels without remembering any of the character's names, so that Hereswith becomes "medium-sized word that starts with H." So when you have characters that are restricted only to a specific context, like 咳嗽 and 喷嚏, there's no need to remember more than the general shape. And with 嗽 and 嚏, there's no phonetic component to fall back on. So it becomes one of those things that's recognizable in context — but not produceable from scratch.

  7. David S said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

    @VM: "Furthermore, even if you spell it "hicup, hicupp, hicough," etc., you'll still get your message across."

    @DM: "even if I get the spelling a bit wrong, it doesn't impede the writing or reading process."

    While I agree with your main points whole-heartedly, I would argue that writing "打噴涕" or even "打噴ti" still gets the message across too. When writing in a non-standard variety (as both of you have written about previously), these types of approximations are often the ONLY thing one CAN do, and it still works, at least to some extent.

  8. Jeff Carney said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    Emily H immediately made me think of my daughter, who is a big fan of Benedict Cumberbatch. On Tumblr sites that she frequents, his last name is often rendered something like Caegrnfrgjnt, which she calls simply "keysmash," and I guess it is not meant to be reproduced. Context is sufficient.

  9. Y said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

    Victor, have you asked any nurses, medical students, traditional medicine practitioners, or ear-nose-throat specialists?
    Is there a searcheable corpus that would show how common these words are in the written language?

  10. Victor Mair said,

    December 20, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

    You're right, David S, and it shows why a move toward phoneticism is sensible, and almost inevitable.

  11. Justin said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 11:15 pm

    Why not look at where these words fall in Chinese learning curriculum? What year do they learn these words? How much usage of those words in writing does that entail?

    Did they forget or did they never really learn it outside of occasional exposure?

  12. Victor Mair said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 9:59 pm

    @Y, @Justin

    The question is one of why such common human, involuntary actions should be so difficult to write. These are not esoteric terms. People use them on a daily basis.

  13. Sam Duncan said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 11:47 pm

    Always an interesting topic. While I haven't memorised as many characters as him, I'm with Simon P, none of the above should be a problem for foreign students of Chinese who use SRS, and it would be nice to see an experiment done.

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