Chinese Corner

What’s in a name?

The case for and against weird names in China – Eveline Chao

Nominal Determinism is the notion that your name determines your destiny. The idea dates back to the times of ancient philosophy and adds a whiff of fatalism to, say, meeting a woodworker surnamed Carpenter, or reading about Amy Winehouse’s alcoholism. It also ties into debates in the US about whether African Americans should avoid giving their children names like Da’Quan or Shaneequa that are stereotyped as indicative of low socioeconomic status. Studies have found that teachers expect students with such names to do poorly in school, and that such treatment translates to precisely that outcome. People with stigmatized names also experience more hiring discrimination.

In an ideal world, people should feel free to choose any name they like (except maybe those white parents in New Jersey who named their baby “Adolf Hitler”). But perhaps it’s a sense that names determine destiny that has compelled so many Asian immigrant parents in the U.S. to choose safe, “all-American” names for their kids, like Michael or Stephanie. (An Asian-American named Grace Lee even made a movie that touches on this phenomenon, called “The Grace Lee Project,” after noticing the prevalence of other Grace Lees out there.) Behind these names lies an instinct to help your kid assimilate quickly so they can succeed in American society.

Chinese Corner

How Not to Accidentally Call Yourself a *@#$!

Corporate naming adventures in China – Eveline Chao

The annals of international marketing are filled with tales of spectacular cross-cultural name fails – a Ford car called the Pinto, for example, which turned out to be Brazilian Portugese slang for “penis.” Coming up with no name for foreign markets can be risky too. Facebook has no Chinese name, so transliterations have sprung up organically. One of them, 非死不可 fēisǐbùkě, means “must die.”

Enter Lexicon Branding. This small company, a dozen people strong, in Sausalito, California, uses linguistics to name products. They’re famous for having named the BlackBerry, Swiffer, Febreze, Pentium, and PowerBook. Occasionally, their work involves Chinese. They sometimes develop Chinese renditions of brand names: 黑莓 hēiméi for BlackBerry, and 红五工作室 hóng wǔ gōngzuòshì for computer game company Red 5 Studios – or of services, such as 有问必答 yǒuwènbìdá for Q&A.

They also evaluate possible brand names to find out what they convey in various markets. Greg Alger, Lexicon’s in-house linguist, told me they recommended against pharmaceutical name Semtris in Cantonese-speaking markets because “it triggered a relatively strong association with 心醉時 sam tsui si, which would mean something like ‘time to get seriously drunk.’”


Talking Trung

Keeping a minority language alive – Eveline Chao

In 2015, linguist Ross Perlin helped bring something utterly novel into the world: the very first book (as far as he knows) that had ever been written or published in a certain language. The language was Trung, spoken by fewer than 7,000 people in a river valley of Yunnan Province, close to the border with Burma and Tibet. The book was a Trung-Chinese-English dictionary, of which a modest number were printed and distributed locally within the 60-mile-wide area of China where Trung speakers live. The dictionary is also available online.

Together with three Trung collaborators, Perlin began compiling the dictionary in 2009. “Working first in Chinese and then haltingly in Trung, I recorded ghost stories and folksongs, studied rituals and conversations, and teased apart fine points of grammar,” Perlin wrote of the experience in Harper’s. His work with Trung stems from a broad interest in endangered languages that began in 2003, after Perlin heard Sun Hongkai, China’s most distinguished linguist, speak at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing about China’s great diversity of languages – and the fact that many are disappearing. Perlin is now the co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance, an advocacy organization that helps New York’s immigrant and refugee communities keep their languages alive.

Chinese Corner

Don’t You Call Me That

How an ancient name for China became a modern epithet – Eveline Chao

For a few years of my life, the bane of my existence was having to liaise with the government censor at the Chinese-registered, English-language business magazine I edited in Beijing. However, it must be said that, aside from the minor detail that her very existence was a primary source of all frustration in my life and a potential affront to everything I believed in, my censor was pretty chill. I was always questioning the changes she made to our work, and though she didn't have to, she went to great lengths to explain them. (Though of course, it was in her best interest to bring me round to her view on things.) And the side bonus was that through her explanations, I always learned something fascinating about China.


Chinese Corner

Name That Tune

Can learning a tonal language make you a better musician? – Eveline Chao

The part of the brain responsible for producing and understanding speech is called Broca’s area. As it happens, that area is also responsible for processing music.

There’s a lot of research suggesting that musical training also brings language-related benefits. One is that musicians learn second languages faster than non-musicians.