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What Is Chinglish?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2014
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The term Chinglish refers to what happens when English and Chinese collide, and is a frequent source of unintentional humor. Often, when words are translated literally from one language to another, changes in syntax, grammar, and euphemism are not correctly understood. This can lead to considerable confusion, and occasionally hilarity. It should be noted that Chinglish humor is not racial or racist in nature; it is linguistic humor based on the accidents that can occur through poor translations.

English and Chinese are languages with little in common; unlike English and other European languages, they do not share a common root. The many differences between the languages lead to ample opportunity for misunderstanding. In Chinese, the major alphabet consists of pictorial characters with many different meanings that shift and alter depending on context. For instance, there is one Chinese character that can mean "see," "look at," or "watch." Therefore, a sign that reads “watch your children” in Chinese could easily be translated to “look at your children” in English.

Many Internet websites have capitalized on the inherent humor of Chinglish by scouring Chinese-speaking countries for good examples of unfortunate translation accidents. Many examples of Chinglish are found on road signs, advertisements, and menus. Instruction manuals, product names, and store names can also be great sources of translation nightmares.

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Another type of Chinglish arises from the use of English words on fashion items like shirts or hats. Much as an English-speaker might buy a t-shirt with a Chinese character on it because it looks cool, a Chinese-speaker could purchase a piece of clothing with English words on it without knowing the meaning. This can occasionally result in nonsense words strung together, interesting misspellings, or ironic or unpleasant meanings.

Chinglish examples also arise from the mistranslation of euphemisms or idiom from one language to another. For example, an old Chinese phrase that means “adequate” or “barely acceptable” literally translates as “horse horse tiger tiger.” Obviously, the use of idiom and colloquialism similar to this can lead to serious confusion and laughter.

Simple misspellings of unfamiliar words can also lend a hint of the whimsical or wacky to a Chinglish translation. On menus, the word “carp” is frequently spelled with the middle two letters reversed, leading to extremely unappetizing-sounding dishes. Menus may also be one of the best areas to find inexplicable translations, such in the famous examples of “desktop meat” and “the usual speculation loofah”. Often, in these cases, Chinglish experts recommend laughing and not even trying to search for a logical explanation.

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SarahGen
Post 3

@ankara-- Those are hilarious! Thanks for sharing!

I've never been to China, but I do online shopping and have purchased items from China. Sometimes product descriptions online have Chinglish in them. But like @MikeMason said, it's never such that I can't understand what it means.

Just recently, I bought a CD holder and some stationary from China. When the items arrived, I realize it had small writing on it and one says "have a happy time." In fact, that's what the seller also wrote in his message to me. I'm not sure what it means exactly, maybe "enjoy the product?"

Either way, it's cute!

stoneMason
Post 2

@ankara-- Absolutely, this sort of thing happens all the time in many countries. Just like you said, if we were to have Chinese translations of our signs, I'm sure we would mess up big time.

I did see several Chinglish signs during my very short stay in China. And even though the sentences were a little odd, I still could figure out what they meant. In fact, I think Chinglish is kind of cute. I think the respect that is given to people when speaking in Chinese is expressed in Chinglish. And we see sentences like "dear old tourists," "mind your steps in snow" and "meet carefully."

The one you mentioned- "crap eggs" is really bad but I'm sure everyone knows that that's not what they really meant. So it's all taken in good humor and there is no harm in it. In fact, it's pretty good entertainment for tourists!

bluedolphin
Post 1

My friend recently came back from a trip to China and she has many Chinglish pictures of boards and signs from around Hong Kong. She showed them to us and we laughed a lot!

One sign on a lawn said "The grass is alive." I think that means "Don't walk on the grass."

Another sign said "Keep table cleaned after dying." I think this might be a combination of Chinglish and misspelling and probably meant "Keep table clean after dining."

And of course, the funniest one was the restaurant menu that said "Crap Eggs!" We got tummy aches from that one!

Of course, Chinglish says nothing about the Chinese. It just stems from the huge difference between our languages like the article said. I'm sure this happens with many languages. If someone had me translate English to Chinese, who knows what kind of incorrect phrases I would come up with! I'm sure it would be even funnier than Chinglish.

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