by Linda Synnott

June 27, 2011

Chinese Signs

The English language recognizes Chinese culture in words such as Yin Yang (complementary balance in all things), Kung Fu (one of the martial arts) and Feng Shui (the study of environmental balance). The most famous Chinese created phrase of all time is ‘Long time no see.’ For good or bad, it is the ‘Chinglish’ expressions—word-for-word Chinese translations considered improper or incorrect English—that garner the most attention. Prior to the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 Expo, efforts were made to exorcise signs that offended (Racist Park for ‘Ethnic Minority Park’ or Fatso for ‘Big and Tall’), caused menu rejection (fried enema for ‘sausage’) or simply confused (urine district for ‘toilets’ and no entrance on peace time for ‘emergency exit’).

Dalian takes no back seat to Beijing and Shanghai when it comes to unique Chinglish. A Heishijiao Pizza Hut advertises ‘Let’s party and fun!’ A nip and tuck biz sign, ‘WMJ Plastic Clinic,’ also ignores a word—the operative word ‘surgery.’ Other zero-impact tag lines seen around town: Excellent but mysterious added, Seafood of Restaurant, Golden Spring Bank Dragon, and Indian Chef Cooks Live. A few deliver misguided but sweet messages: Music and happiness here and Please don’t wake the sleeping grass. A ubiquitous sign predicts that we WILL slip, and warns us to fall with grace: Slip and fall down carefully.

My first thought was that an enterprising English speaker could make a decent living helping Dalian businesses avoid lamentable Chinglish. I asked a Chinese businessman acquaintance if he agreed, and his answer surprised me: “Most Chinese businesses do not add English to communicate with Westerners; they include it to impress Chinese. Accuracy is not important.”

Two hundred and fifty million people spoke English a generation ago; today one and a half billion people are speaking it as a first, second or business language. In China alone, three hundred million are learning English. Which Chinglish phrases being spoken now will find their way into the English lexicon tomorrow? Will Chairman Mao’s saying Good good study, day day up (learn something new every day) make it? How about ‘I’ll give you some color to see see!’ (a threat to hit another to teach him a lesson), or my personal favorite, ‘People mountain, people sea’ to describe a teeming crowd of humans.

So, the next time you see Chinglish and chuckle, remember that the only certainty is change. The English we speak will sound just as strange 500 years from now as Shakespeare’s English sounds today.  

by Linda Synnott

June 27, 2011

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