bookmark_border我叫韦明涛 (my name is Wéi Míngtāo)

Chinese names tend to consist of a surname that is one syllable long, followed by a given name of either one or two syllables. This means that converting a non-Chinese name by sound results in something which doesn’t look like a name to a Chinese. (For instance, the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, is called ??·??-??? Hèl?i Tu?níng-Sh?mìtè in Chinese.)

Because of this, there is a tendency for foreigners to get Chinese names if they learn Chinese or similar. E.g., the famous computer scientist and inventor of TEX, Donald Knuth, is not called ???·??? Tángnàdé [the usual transcription of ‘Donald’] Kèn?s? or similar, but ??? G?o Dénà, because he was given this name years ago by Frances Yao (I’m not entirely sure why he got it, but possibly for the purpose of translating his books into Chinese).

Because I’ve started learning Chinese, I believe it would make matters easier if I got a Chinese name. If I had been learning Chinese in a classroom situation with a native teacher, it would presumably have been relatively simple to ask them to give me a name. However, I don’t have access to a Chinese person who knows me well enough to pick a name, so I’ve had to take charge of the process myself.

Picking a surname is actually very easy. Chinese people use a very limited number of surnames, so the best solution is probably to pick a name from the top-100 list. Given that my real surname starts with a ‘W’, I guess it’s a reasonable idea to pick one starting with the same letter in pinyin, which limits my choices to ? Wáng, ? Wú, ? Wèi, ? W?ng, ? Wéi, ? Wàn and ? W?. From these, I eliminate ? Wú and ? W? because the vowel doesn’t match Widmann at all, ? Wèi and ? Wàn because they don’t start with ‘W’ in Cantonese, and ? Wáng and ? W?ng because they end in ‘-ng’, which isn’t really suitable, so I’m left with ? Wéi (Cantonese Wai4), which suits me fine. ????

So far, so good. Unfortunately, there is no convenient list of Chinese given names, for the simple reason that Chinese people like to have unique names and they don’t tend to name their children after family members or famous people.

I was of course ultimately named after Thomas the Apostle (via Thomas Aquinas, I believe), but I reckon it wouldn’t be the Chinese way simply to give myself his Chinese name, ?? Du?m?.

On the other hand, it’s probably not a good idea to pick two random characters with appropriate pronunciations and meanings – some characters are not considered desirable, and others are seen as feminine.

Another approach is to look at my name in Japanese. Although foreigners can just write their names in katakana, the native Japanese lecturer at Aarhus University back in 1990 gave a proper Japanese name, which of course could be pronounced in Chinese, too. Alas, I’ve forgotten what it was, although I do remember that it consisted on two kanjis, and I believe both had water as their radical, and the meaning had something to do with waves. After searching through some Japanese dictionaries, I’ve come to the conclusion that the first character must have been ? tou, which in simplified Chinese is ? t?o and means “great waves”.

I’m quite happy with this character, and I could of course stop here and just call myself ?? Wéi T?o.

On the other hand, I could add another character, either one pronounced ‘ma’ or ‘mai’ for ‘-mas’, or one pronounced ‘ma’, ‘min’, ‘meng’ or ‘ming’ for ‘Martin’ (my middle name). Some of the options I’ve been able to find are ? mèng ‘first’, ? mài ‘wheat’ and ? míng ‘next, bright’. However, I’m not sure the former is used much as a given name (although it’s a common surname) and I don’t identify strongly with wheat. On the other hand, I quite like ? míng, and ?? T?omíng at a first glance looked like a reasonable name.

I got stuck here for a while – although I couldn’t find any flaws with ??? Wéi T?omíng, I was a bit anxious that I could have overlooked something, so I was looking for reassurance from somebody with native or near-native Chinese.

Fortunately my old friend Uffe Bergeton Larsen (??? Lán Wùf?i), who was a linguistics fresher with me, is now a specialist in Chinese and has a Chinese wife, and he popped up on Facebook at just the right time.

Wufei at first couldn’t see any problems with being called ??? Wéi T?omíng. However, he then asked his wife who thought that “det lyder som et kinesisk navn en ikke-kineser kunne finde på at kalde sig” (“it sounds like a Chinese name that a non-Chinese might decide to call themself”).

I therefore decided to swap the elements around (as if my name were Martin Thomas rather than Thomas Martin), and ?? Míngt?o is definitely a real name.


bookmark_borderIs Chinese easier than Esperanto?

In Chinese, many concepts that we tend to have a single monolithic root word for in Western languages are expressed through more or less random compounds.

For instance, watermelon is ?? x? gu? “western gu?”, cucumber is ?? huáng gu? “yellow gu?”, pumpkin is ?? nán gu? “southern gu?”, papaya is ?? mù gu? “tree gu?”, wax gourd is ?? d?ng gu? “winter gu?”, sweet potato is ?? dì gu? “ground gu?”, and cantaloupe melon is ?? xi?ng gu? “perfume gu?”.

In the same way, wheat is ?? xi?o mài “little mài”, barley is ?? dà mài “big mài”, oats is ?? yàn mài “swallow mài”, rye is ?? h?i mài “black mài”, and quinoa is ?? lí mài “pigweed mài”.

I find it interesting to compare this with a constructed language such as Esperanto which has been created in order to be easy to learn, yet such compounds are generally shunned. For instance, wheat is “tritiko”, barley is “hordeo”, oats is “aveno”, rye is “sekalo”, and quinoa is “kvinoo”.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I personally find the Chinese compounds much easier to memorise than Esperanto’s root words. There’s also the advantage that even if you don’t know a specific compound, so long as you know the last part of it, you can make a qualified guess – a compound ending in ? mài is probably some kind of cereal.

I do appreciate that the choice of the first part of the compound places the language is a specific cultural context – English speakers would of course prefer to call watermelons “water gu?” rather than “western gu?”, which is rather meaningless here – but surely the compounds could be based on a wide variety of languages to alleviate this problem.

Of course Chinese is not in general easier than Esperanto. Apart from the fact that many other areas of learning Chinese are very hard, the compound building isn’t always perfect. For instance, Denmark is called ?? d?n mài “red mài” in Chinese – the characters have clearly been chosen due to their pronunciation rather than their meaning, but a learner might get terribly confused trying to figure out what this red cereal is and why it’s got a queen.

However, I think Esperanto would have been easier to learn if wheat, barley, oats, rye and quinoa had been called “majeto”, “majego”, “hirundmajo”, “nigromajo” and “amarantmajo” instead of the current unanalysable root words.

bookmark_borderI miss katakana in Chinese!

Coke Bottles
Originally uploaded by JMRosenfeld

As I’ve probably mentioned already, I’m teaching myself Chinese at the moment.

One thing that is annoying me greatly is that Chinese has no simple way of transliterating foreign names. Because of the writing system, Chinese has to use characters which are already used for existing words based on their phonetic likeness.

Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, and Wikipedia have extensive tables to show which characters to use for transliterating foreign names (here’s the table for English). For instance, /m??/, /mæ/ and /m?/ are all transliterated as ?, which is pronounced m? and means ‘horse’.

Let’s look at a concrete example at the consequences. “Coca-Cola” is called “????”, which is pronounced k?k?uk?lè, and on their own the characters would mean “available – mouth – available – music”.

Compare that to Japanese, which has a syllabary called katakana that is used mainly for transliterating foreign names; in katakana, Coca-Cola is ????? (“kokak?ra”). I’m sure the Chinese name has been chosen because of both the typographic simplicity and semantic attractiveness of the characters, but that’s ludicrous!

It would be so much better if Chinese were to adopt something similar to katakana. For instance, they could use bopomofo without tone marks and write ???????? (“koukekoule”), which would accurately represent the pronunciation in Chinese while marking it as a foreign name.

It would also have the added advantage of making foreign names stand out in a text. As an example, here’s the first sentence from the Chinese Wikipedia’s article on Libya:


Without reading and understanding the whole sentence, it’s impossible to locate the names of the countries (which are all borrowings from English). Compare this to my bopomofoified version:


It’s much easier to parse, and you don’t waste time wondering why ? ‘Asia’ is mentioned (it’s there for its sound value).

bookmark_borderThe 五笔 input method

I’ve just started learning Chinese in my spare time. Given that I studied Japanese for almost two years at university, Chinese has never been an entirely closed book to me in its written form (to me, obviously a ?? is a teacher, but I had no idea until recently that the Chinese pronounce it xi?nsheng, rather than something sensible such as sensei).

I decided to figure out how to write it on my computer from the outset – these days I hardly ever write anything by hand.

The most obvious way of typing Chinese is by entering the pronunciation in Pinyin and then have the computer display the various options. However, Chinese has so many homophones that it requires you to stop up and read the suggestions extremely frequently, which slows you down.

I therefore decided to learn a stroke-based method instead, and I decided to go for ??/Wubi, which apparently is the most widespread method in the PRC.

It’s an extremely efficient method – any commonly used simplified Hanzi can be written with four keystrokes or less.

As an example, here’s the first paragraph from Chinese Wikipedia’s article about Wubi:


According to Google, this is transcribed as follows in Pinyin:

W?b? zìxíng sh?rù f? shì Wáng Y?ngmín zài 1983 nián 8 yuè f?míng de y? zh?ng hànzì sh?rù f?. Zh?ngwén sh?rù f? de bi?nm? f?ng’àn h?ndu?, dàn j?b?n y?jù d?u shì hànzì de dúy?n hé zìxíng li?ng zh?ng sh?xìng. W? b? zìxíng wánquán y?jù b?huà hé zì xíng tèzh?ng duì hànzì jìnxíng bi?nm?, shì di?nxíng de xíng m? sh?rù f?. W? b? zì xíng sh?rù f? zh?yào yòng yú sh?yòng ji?nt? zh?ngwén de zh?ngguó dàlù, guòqù, w? b? d?zì b? p?ny?n f?ngbiàn, dàn suízhe zhìnéng p?ny?n de x?ngq?, w? b? y?j?ng bù jùbèi y?ushì. Diàochá bi?omíng, mùqián, zài dàxuésh?ng zh?ng, sh?yòng w? b? de rén y?j?ng h?n sh?ole. Érqi?, h?ndu? sh?uj? méiy?u QWERTY jiànpán, wúf? zài sh?uj? shàng sh?yòng w? b?, shì w? b? de jùdà lièshì.

I’ve written a program to generate the Wubi keystrokes to key this text (contact me if you’re interested in the program):

ggtt pbga lwty if j gyna d 1983rh 8eee ntje r ggtk icpb lwty if. khyy lwty if r xydc yypv tvqq, wjg adsg wyrn ftjb j icpb r yfn ujf t pb gae gmww tkh ntnt. ggtt pbga pfwg wyrn ttgl t pb gae trtg cf icpb fjtf xydc, j maga r gae dcg lwty if. ggtt pbga lwty if ygsv etgf wget tuws khyy r khlg ddbf, fpfc, ggtt rspb xx ruuj yywg, wjg bdud tdce ruuj r iw fhn, ggtt nnxc i hwtl wdrv. ymsj geje, hhue, d ditg k, wget ggtt r w nnxc tvit b. dmeg, tvqq rtsm imde QWERTYqvte, fqif d rtsm h wget ggtt, j ggtt r andd itrv.

Note how much shorter it is than the Pinyin version, and don’t forget that keying the Hanzi through Pinyin would require a lot of interactivity whereas the Wubi version can be keyed without looking.

However, I am finding the learning curve for Wubi to be quite steep. Lots of characters are really easy to type (w for ?, eeee for ?, wwf for ?, and even khlg for ?? are all easily learned), but can anybody explain to me why ? is rnb in Wubi?!?

bookmark_borderAn English-Chinese lingua franca?

Chinese-English dictionary
Originally uploaded by

Artificial auxiliary languages are normally created to solve the linguistic problems of the day: Esperanto was created at a time when Latin was disappearing and French, English, German and other European languages were vying to become the main language of international communications.

This fight was won by English, which is probably why Esperanto speakers gave up and found a different purpose for our language.

However, if China becomes as dominant in 50 years’ time as many economists are predicting, there will be a communication problem again: English will be too hard for East Asians, and Chinese will be too hard for Europeans.

Although Esperanto would be an option, my guess is that an opportunity will arise for a language to be constructed primarily for the purpose of communications between Chinese people and Europeans.

My guess is the language would be created along the following lines:

  • It will be written using the Latin alphabet – it’s well-known in China.
  • The phonology will be based on the common subset of English and Chinese: A strict C1VC2 syllable structure, where C1 = m, n, p, t, k, b, d, g, ch, j, f, s, sh, h, l, r, y, w (perhaps without f and r) and C2 = n, ng and perhaps r.
  • Neither phonemic tones nor stress.
  • A vocabulary based on English where possible.

There are of course a lot of differences between English and Chinese, such as the position of relative clauses, and there could be many ways to sort these out, so there would be many ways to create such a language. I’m already looking forward to comparing them!

bookmark_borderUnknown dishes

Chinese menu
Originally uploaded by viralbus.

There’s a nice noodle restaurant on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. Most of their menu is in English, but there’s a section that’s in Chinese – see the photo.

Is this a list of special delicacies that they will only serve for Chinese customers? Or are these dishes just so odd that they assume no Westerner would want to try them?

Personally, I find it quite frustrating, and I get an urge to order them all to find out what they are. Does anybody here know any of them?

BTW, they wouldn’t let me take a photo of the menu within the restaurant, but they had placed a copy in the front window, and obviously they couldn’t prevent me from taking a photo on the street. 😉