Friday, September 18, 2009

Chinese Country Names

Chinese, of course, doesn't have an alphabet, instead it uses ideograms each one unique and represents some sort of meaning. There are several tens of thousands of characters. Although for every day speech and to be considered fluent you need to be conversant in about 3000 characters (which seems some sort of magic number, about 3000 English words gets you to fluent, 5000 you are learned and educated whereas 10,000 and you are a smart arse).

But, this poses something of a problem. In English when you need a word you just stitch together a bunch of Latin or root words or, hell, you just make it up (gruzbumble - there, a new word for you, 0 hits in google, it means "a bumble bee who's really pissed off"). But what do you do in Chinese? Well, you can actually transliterate - converting the sound, from say, English, into a set of Chinese characters. This works quite okay, although the pronunciation can be quite a bit off it's usually recognisable.

However, that new transliterated word will be made up of characters that are separate from the new word - they have their own inherent meaning.

So (and this is a round about way of getting to my point), for example, when China makes up a name for a country, what do they do? Well they transliterate the sound, but they inadvertently (and some times, uh, vertantly) leave behind a meaning in the characters, for example:

英国, pronounced 'ying guo' means literally 'hero country' = United Kingdom
美国 = meiguo = beautiful country = USA.
法国 = Fa guo = Law Country = France
泰国 = Tai Guo = Lucky Country = Thailand

But some times ironic or silly meanings can be left behind, one example:

德国 = De Guo = Moral Country = Germany
日本 = Ri ben = Sunny book = Japan
黑山 = Hei Shan = Black Mountain = Montenegro

But then sometimes, by accident really silly stuff gets left behind in the characters:

匈牙利 = Xiong ya li = Hungary = Fearsome Teeth Are sharp!
柬埔寨 = Jian Pu Jia = Cambodia = Crappy Village (Okay, this is a pun, actually)
马来西亚 = Ma Lai Xi Ya = Malaysia = Horse comes to West Asia (?!?!)
葡萄牙 = Pu Tao Ya = Portugal = Grape Teeth (?!?!!)
马里 = ma li = Mali = Horse Inside (?)
索马里 = Suo Ma li = Somalia = Search for horse Inside
多哥 = Duo Ge = Togo = Many brothers

Heh, sometimes it also goes wrong with other things. My home town (Northampton) is transliterated as Bei am dun, the 'bei' means literally 'North'. There are two major problems with this name - Northampton is not in the North, it's in the middle, (the midlands, to be exact, the home of rugby, but little else). And crucially, the 'North' in Northampton doesn't mean 'North'. It means 'Norse' as in Norse hampton = Norse town = People from Scandinavia live here in a town.