The Franco-Prussian Readings

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Wicky Tse and Cheng Fangyi both sent me this photograph taken in a bookstore located in the central business district of Xinjiekou, Nanjing, China:

The characters on the sign are 普法读物. The translator parsed them as Pǔ-Fǎ dúwù ("Franco-Prussian Reading Matter"). They should, however, be understood as pǔfǎ dúwù ("reading matter for popularization of the law"). This is an example of how Romanized Chinese is less ambiguous (at least to machines!) than Chinese written in characters.

Lexical Notes

Pǔlǔshì 普鲁士 ("Prussia") — the individual characters respectively mean "popular(ize)", "stupid / rude / crass / rash", "scholar / knight / warrior / paladin" (among other things)

Fàguó 法国 ("France") — the individual characters mean "law" and "country" (among other things)

dúwù 读物 ("reading material") — the individual characters mean "read", "matter" (among other things)

It is especially diūliǎn 丢脸 ("humiliating" — lit., "lose-face") for this to happen in a big bookstore in a major Chinese city! Surely there must be some folks working there who know English.


  1. flow said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 3:24 pm

    the sign also reminds me how difficult articles are for people with first languages that don't have them.

    thx btw for the 4th tone in the first syllable Fàguó—this is the way i heard it in Taiwan. most dictionaries (just checked ABC, 新華詞典, 新華字典) ignore the change of tone. then again, maybe it's not standard on the mainland.

  2. julie lee said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    Professor Mair, “Pǔlǔshì 鲁普士” in the second paragraph of your post is mis-typed.
    It should be "普魯士".

    [VHM: Thanks for catching that typo. Fixed now. I have no idea how it happened. In my draft it is correct. Weird.]

  3. Peter Peverelli said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 7:43 pm

    These contracted expressions can indeed be hilarious. Once someone told me 'Wo shi pixie de'. So, was he in leather shoes (皮鞋)? No, he was a member of the 中国啤酒协会, which is abbreviated by insiders to: 啤协. I don't think Google Translate could handle that.

  4. maidhc said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

    What is "popularization of the law"? Is that like "Beat That Ticket!" and how to write your own will?

  5. Johnny said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 8:42 pm


    Google Translate can indeed handle 啤协, but not 我是啤协的, which gets "I am a beer Association"…

  6. Johnny said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 8:52 pm

    @ maidhc

    I had the same question. I think a more colloquial translation might be "popular law books".

    A similar term is 科普读物 "popular science books" — though the "pu" is in a different place (namely, after "science").

  7. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 8:53 pm


    It's the X shì Y de X是Y的 ("Xi is a member / representative of / belongs to Y") pattern, which is very different from shìde 是的 ("yes!"; "right!"; "that's it!"), that gets 'em.

  8. Qitong said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 1:14 am

    In another popular bookstore in Nanjing that mainly sells "foreign language books," 两性文学 (romance novel) is translated *extremely* literally as "bisexual literature."

  9. Jongseong Park said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 12:33 pm

    When I saw the Language Log headline The Franco-Prussian Readings for a Chinese-related post, I immediately thought of the old-fashioned Korean expression 보불전쟁 Bo-Bul jeonjaeng 普佛戰爭 for the Franco-Prussian War. I didn't know what character was used for 보 Bo (Prussia), but when I saw the 普 in the photo I guessed that it was the same character, and so it was.

    In Korea, the use of Sino-Korean for the names of nations outside the Sinosphere, themselves often adopted from Japanese or Chinese approximations of the original names and thus doubly removed from the original pronunciations, has largely been replaced by direct transcriptions into Korean save for a handful high-frequency cases (e.g. 미국 Miguk 美國 "USA/America", 독일 Dogil 獨逸 "Germany", 호주 Hoju 濠州 "Australia").

    For example, the Philippines used to be known as 비율빈 Biyulbin, the Sino-Korean reading of 比律賓 (from Japanese). This has been replaced by 필리핀 Pillipin. Most young Koreans today probably wouldn't know 비율빈 Biyulbin. But a fair number of them will recognize the character 比 as shorthand for the Philippines in newspaper headlines and such.

    The most familiar Sino-Korean shorthands such as 美 (American) and 獨 (German) are still productive to an extent. Note that unlike the Chinese, Koreans use 佛 for France instead of 法. This is short for 불란서 Bullanseo 佛蘭西, which still lives on in the speech of mostly older-generation Koreans, though it has been largely replaced by 프랑스 Peurangseu in books, newspapers, and the broadcast media.

    But few would recognize 普 for Prussia. 보불전쟁 Bo-Bul jeonjaeng 普佛戰爭 was the only expression I could think of using this shorthand for Prussia, and it was also the only example that came up when I searched an online hanja dictionary. Further searches also turned up 보오전쟁 Bo-O jeonjaeng 普墺戰爭 for the Austro-Prussian War, but nothing more.

    Today, Koreans use 프로이센 Peuroisen or 프러시아 Peureosia for Prussia. The former is considered more proper as it is from German Preußen, but the latter, which imitates the English pronunciation, is quite common even in reference books. The obsolete Sino-Korean forms 보로사 Borosa 普魯士 (from Chinese) or 보로서 Boroseo 普魯西 (from Japanese) are almost completely forgotten, their only vestige being the use of 普 in the old-fashioned names of the wars that Prussia fought.

    The more up-to-date name for the Franco-Prussian War is the straightforward 프로이센ㆍ프랑스 전쟁 Peuroisen-Peurangseu jeonjaeng, literally "Prussia-France War". Its meaning is transparent, but it's rather unwieldy in Korean compared to the snappy 보불전쟁 Bo-Bul jeonjaeng 普佛戰爭. This explains why the old-fashioned form has persisted even as the use of 普 for Prussia has been otherwise consigned to oblivion. I've also seen 프프 전쟁 Peu-Peu jeonjaeng, an attempt at an equally succinct name without the old-fashioned Sino-Korean, but it seems less likely to catch on. The same syllable 프 Peu has to double for both Prussia and France, for one thing. Initialisms—taking just the first syllables—work fine for Sino-Korean, but are unproductive otherwise except in slang.

  10. Wentao said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 9:13 pm

    Thanks to Jongseong Park for the detailed information on Korean shorthand of country names!

    Even in Chinese, it is rare to come across 普 as an abbreviation for Prussia, mostly for the obvious reason that the country does not exist anymore. I used to be bewildered by the label 普蓝 on my watercolor set. It was only later I understood it stands for "Prussian blue".

    Therefore I find it curious that the program set "Franco-Prussian" as the default for 普法, since this usage is hardly ever found besides of the name of the war. That's also the reason why Chinese netizens find it amusing: "That is one cultured translation machine!"

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