On the lighter side of things, I wanted to share something interesting I found on Twitter. I follow a few KPop stars on Twitter, including members of the group Brown Eyed Girls. Recently, the ladies of BEG were traveling to Shanghai, China, and one member, Miryo, posted this photo of a Coca-Cola can in Chinese.
If you cannot see it, here’s a similar photo:
The exact text is:
Which is in pinyin (Chinese romanization) as Kě kǒu kě lè. The “e” in Chinese is more like “uh” in English as in “cup” or “done”. So, it is pronounced like kuh koh kuh luh. That sounds pretty close to English.
Unlike other languages, which use some kind of alphabet, Chinese has no alphabet at all.1 So, when they import foreign words, they have to find Chinese characters that fit the sound, even if the meaning makes no sense. The characters might not mean anything, but if a Chinese person reads them, it will sound like Coca-Cola.
This also happens in Japanese a little bit. It’s a process called ateji. Modern Japanese uses katakana to express foreign, but foreign words from a long time ago, especially Buddhist words, use ateji. For example, in the famous Tales of the Heike is the line:
sarasōjō no hana no iro…
Which means the “color of the leaves of the Sala Tree”. The Sala Tree is a famous kind of tree in India, and the Buddha was said to have died while lying under 2 sala trees. Anyhow, Sala Trees are not native to Japan, so the word “sara” (沙羅) here is just an “ateji” of the Indian Sanskrit word. The two characters don’t make any sense together, but the sounds do.
This is not limited to Asia though. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were often used the same way as Chinese characters. So, they could express whole ideas, but they also could be used just to express sounds only. The same is true of the ancient Mayan language.
Interesting how languages adapt foreign words.
P.S. In Miryo’s photo, the word below Coca-Cola is 汽水 (qìshuǐ), which means “soda”.
1 This is not entirely true. In Taiwan, there is a syllabary called bopomofo, which is regularly used on mobile phones and such. Bopomofo is not used in the People’s Republic of China though.