The other day my online pal fev wrote me via gmail asking about this statement in The Economist: “THE characters for ‘Africa’ in the Mandarin language mean ‘wrong continent'”—true, or journalistic nonsense? I discovered the word for ‘Africa’ is 非洲 feizhou and went through the laborious process of looking it up in my Mathew’s; as I told fev, the first character is literally a negative that can mean ‘wrong, bad’ as well as simply ‘not’ (its usual meaning in classical Chinese). But Mathews includes this use in a separate subentry ‘used for foreign sounds’; the names of foreign places have always been rendered phonetically without much regard for actual meaning. I was just thinking that wasn’t really a sufficient answer when I got an instant message via gmail from my online pal and occasional commenter xiaolongnu, who happens to be an expert on Chinese, so I asked her. She looked it up in a Big Dictionary (Cihai [辭海 ‘Sea of Words’], if I recall correctly) and told me it’s short for Afeilijiazhou, which is clearly a phonetic rendering (jia being the Mandarin equivalent of what in other dialects is ka). She says “And it gets shortened to ‘fei’ rather than ‘a’ because ‘a’ is such a non-syllable.” Problem solved, thanks to the miracle of the internet and the instantaneous communication it makes possible!
[Addendum. Bill Poser has posted an interesting Language Log entry about the Classical Chinese use of the character 非 ‘not.’]
And xiaolongnu also gave me a link to this wonderful post by Alex Golub and Kate Lingley, “Colonialism in the Pacific Rim Themed Dinner for Eight,” which she thought I might enjoy, and indeed I did: it’s entertaining and educational, and I’m sure delicious too if one had the chance to eat it! Here’s a sample:

Russian Intrusion into Central Asia Vodka Watermelon
Before the Russians could become a credible force in the North Pacific they had to reach it. Throughout the eighteenth century the Czars swept across the steppe until they reached the ocean on the other side. This recipe memorializes the coming of Russian power to central Asia.
1 Large Watermelon
1 bottle of orange flavored vodka (Van Gogh, for instance)
Purchase your watermelon from the local store (remember: hollow and heavy. Hollow and heavy). When your guests arrive tell them you got it in Tashkent. Purchase also your vodka. When at the store you will be tempted to buy shit vodka, because you already know this recipe and know that I’m about to tell you to pour the vodka into the watermelon, and you consider this a much less honorable fate for quality vodka than, say, a decent martini. Nonetheless, you must purchase quality vodka, as the taste will be quite exposed due to the delicacy of the watermelon’s flavor. Grand Marnier is typically used to compliment watermelon, but since you’re already blowing real dough on the vodka, just get one with orange flavoring. Cut the watermelon in half. Open the vodka and pour them shits all up inside the watermelon. Every three or four hours you will add more vodka to increase the deliciousness of the watermelon. It’s gotta soak, see? Shortly before your guests arrive, use a melon ball scooper to scoop out a bunch of watermelon balls (duh.) Then put them all back in the now-dimpled hollow watermelon. Serve to your guests with toothpicks so that their hands don’t get sticky. This can be served in lieu of cocktails, or you may choose to reserve some watermelon juice and make martinis out of the remaining vodka, substituting the juice for vermouth. If you do this, you must take your martini with a twist. Watermelon and olives is gross.


  1. Actually, Africa couldn’t be “a-jau” (Cantonese) because “a-jau” is already Asia.

  2. And “Sea of Words” is a delightful name for a dictionary.

  3. Jonathan Weed says:

    In future, Wikipedia is a good reference for this sort of thing to: the first line of the Chinese article on Asia (http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/??) gives you your answer, too. Probably not as authoritative as cihai, but it’ll do in a pinch.

  4. And “Sea of Words” is a delightful name for a dictionary.
    Absolutely. Certainly more poetic and imaginative than, say, “Kitāb al-ʿayn” (“Book of ʿayn”) or “Lisān al-ʿarab” (“The Tongue of the Arabs”).
    Then again, nothing beats “Tāǧ al-ʿarūs” (“The Crown of the Bride”).

  5. Jonathan Weed says:

    Seems your comment box doesn’t like my hanzi.

  6. “Sea of Words” was the name of the first modern-style Japanese dictionary, too.

  7. My Mandarin is rusty,but my Sanskrit is up to par.

  8. LH, I think there has been a thread here about abbreviations for names of foreign countries and continents in Chinese.

  9. I found it, but it is not a developped discussion; I just remembered commenting on that.

  10. That was an interesting thread, and very relevant to this one—thanks for linking to it.

  11. I’d just like to point out that despite the phonetic origins of the name 阿非利加 (think I’ve got that right), Chinese does place significance on the meaning of characters. 非洲 does mean ‘non-continent’ to the normal reader. And it isn’t really that flattering.
    Now, the use of this name doesn’t necessarily point to a bad intent on the part of the Chinese. but it does subtly suggest that they don’t quite regard the Africans as important enough to do something about the name.
    Perhaps the Africans should take a leaf out of the Koreans’ book. It took something like ten years (actually more) for Korea to prevail on the Chinese to change the name of Seoul from 汉城 (Hànchéng) to 首尔 (Shǒu’ěr).

  12. Maybe there is something to do with fei zhou and it’s closeness to a very common chinese fei chang 非常。 非常 being to the effect of “extremely.” 非洲could come up “extreme continent” or “far out state.”
    Not etymologically but as a mental cross breed.

  13. Good point, bathrobe. If the character’s meaning does influence the attitude of the Chinese, then the name should be changed.

  14. ‘Fei’ is also the personal name of Han Fei 韓非 (or Han Feizi, “Master Han Fei” 韓非子), a major representant of the “Legalist school” (fajia 法家) of Chinese thought.
    Actually, Fei is also the surname of “Master Fei”, who lived in the 10th century B.C. and is noted in the Shiji for his talent at breeding horses.
    “False, negative”, etc., is of course one of the connotation, but it is far from the only one. You can play that game with most Chinese names, including indigenous ones. Of course, if there are African sinophones who have expressed concern over this, I would be interested to read their arguments, but I am not convinced that this is any more serious than the Taiwan Peace Foundation that became famous by protesting the use of “youtai” 猶太.
    On the other hand, I would totally support a very mild reform consisting in adding a caotou: 菲洲 looks all right (as someone who used to be very appreciative of Wang Fei 王菲, aka A Fei 阿菲’s singing, I am rather biased).

  15. lunch,
    ‘Feichang’ can be translated as “very, extremely” because it means “un(非)-common (常)-ly”. Hence its meaning of “special, extraordinary” as an epithet.

  16. I just saw the addendum with the link to Bill Poser’s post. This may seem like a detail, but in the name of the “school of names” philosopher 公孫龍, ‘Gongsun’ is the (disyllabic, like Sima, Ouyang, etc.) surname and ‘Long’ the given name. The proper rendering of the name in pinyin is ‘Gongsun Long’ or ‘Gongsun Longzi’ if you add the “Master”.

  17. You can play that game with most Chinese names
    Sure, which is why I initially dismissed the idea that the name should be changed, assuming most Chinese wouldn’t pay attention to the lexical usage. But if they do—if the name has even a subliminal effect on their perception of Africans—then it should be changed. Africa has enough problems as it is.

  18. But if they do—if the name has even a subliminal effect on their perception of Africans—then it should be changed. Africa has enough problems as it is.
    I don’t disagree with that, and I would be the last to minimize the importance of anti-Black racism in Chinese territories. I just ask for evidence of that “subliminal effect”.

  19. I would also like to add that there are many Africans who have studied and worked in China, and who read and speak the language and are quite familiar with Chinese culture. It is their opinion I am most interested in.

  20. A more interesting question is why is it ? as in ?? rather than ? as in ??? (“Philippines”)? And my guess here is that it’s simple luck. Glossing ? as “wrong” is incorrect — it’s simply “un-,” as in ??, which is just “uncommon.” As for the process by which ???? became ??: I’d guess it’s the same as the one by which ???? became ??.
    I had a number of African friends when I was living in Harbin, and none of them ever mentioned having any problem with the subliminal effect of ??. Pretty much everything else in the Chinese attitude towards Africans and African-Americans, yes – it wasn’t uncommon for people to come up, rub their arms, and exclaim “??!” (“Filthy!”) – but not that.

  21. Aw, man — the characters aren’t showing up. Well: I asked why it’s the ‘fei1’ from ‘shi4-fei1’ rather than the ‘fei1’ (with the grass radical) from ‘fei1lv4bin1.’ “fei1” (minus the grass radical) in “fei1chang2” is “not,” rather than “wrong.” “America” (‘mei3guo2′) was formerly “Ameilijia’ (or sometimes ‘yameilijia’ if memory serves). And what the Harbinren exclaimed upon touching my friends was “zhen1 zang1.”

  22. And my guess here is that it’s simple luck.
    That would probably be my guess as well, but I don’t know enough about the early occurrences of Feilübin 菲律賓.
    Both 非 and 菲 have been used in loan words without any apparent coherence, for instance both have been used in chemistry for the ‘phen-‘ prefix (before being standardised as ‘fen’ 酚, “phenol” has been transcribed as feinuoer 非諾爾). The ‘phœnix’ (the “Western” kind, not the Chinese fenghuang 鳳凰) has been transcribed feinikesi 非尼克司. I guess one could argue something here, since it comes from an Egyptian, hence African, myth.

  23. Almost forgot that beautiful one, to read in Cantonese: feilem 菲林 (Mandarin ‘feilin’) for English “film”. While rarer nowadays, the non-vegetal form 非林 is acceptable too.
    What do you prefer? The film as “luxuriant forest” or as “Non-forest”, or “Forest of the False” (certainly not “Afro-forest” anyway)?

  24. Strange: I went back to Language Log, and “Gongsun Longzi” is now correctly written, but it does not say that the post has been edited. Was I under some kind of illusion when I saw “Gong Sun Long Zi”? If so, I apologise to Bill Poser for presenting the mistake as his.

  25. I keep wondering when the Chinese and Koreans will follow the Japanese lead and change the name of America from ?? to ??.
    The Japanese apparently did that around the time of WWII since they understandably did not want to call their enemy “Beautiful”.
    BTW the word “Africa” is rendered in Japanese with the following Chinese characters: ????. If you have Japanese input on your computer just type Afurika and hit the space bar–it should pop up as an option. (apologies if the Kanji don’t come through here).
    So the Chinese fei has been replaced by ? (futsu) which seems now to be a mainly phonetic character used to represent “fluoride” in Japanese.
    This character is also the Kanji symbol for the US dollar, the idea being that the character looks a lot like the dollar sign $ (with two vertical lines, which I can’t get my keyboard to type).
    I have never heard USD called “futsu” in Japanese, but they use the term bul in Korean. I was wondering where the Koreans got bul from. Normally you think a currency name will be a phonetic translation, but in this case it was a symbolic translation.

  26. BTW the word “Africa” is rendered in Japanese with the following Chinese characters: [阿弗利加].
    Actually, ‘fu’ 弗 is also a negation; it can be used for 沸 (to boil, etc.), in which case it is pronounced fei4, so the difference with 非 is not that big, except for the vicinity with Buddha (Fo 佛). In fact, 弗 has been used quite a lot in early 20th century transcriptions of foreign words, from “franc” to “freemasonry” or “feminism”.
    The “chemical” radical has been added in Chinese for the F element (fu 氟).

  27. As an aside, the meaning of ‘mei’ 美 doesn’t seem to have ever been an obstacle to the expression of Chinese “anti-Americanism”.

  28. Was I under some kind of illusion when I saw “Gong Sun Long Zi”?
    No, I passed on your message and he thanked both of us. I guess he didn’t feel the need to mention such a minor correction in the post.
    the meaning of ‘mei’ 美 doesn’t seem to have ever been an obstacle to the expression of Chinese “anti-Americanism”.
    Very true!

  29. No, I passed on your message and he thanked both of us.
    All right, then; I’m not as lost as I thought. Thanks for letting me know.

  30. As an aside, the meaning of ‘mei’ 美 doesn’t seem to have ever been an obstacle to the expression of Chinese “anti-Americanism”.
    True. It has struck me as a bit ironic that Korea and China, with their vocal anti-Americanism, have kept this while pro-America Japan changed to the neutral “rice”.

  31. alexwoods says:

    “As an aside, the meaning of ‘mei’ 美 doesn’t seem to have ever been an obstacle to the expression of Chinese “anti-Americanism”.”
    So true. In chatrooms, I’ve seen it rendered as 霉国 (‘moldy country’, as opposed to ‘beautiful country’, and pronounced mei2 instead of mei3), which I always thought would be a good way for BBC Chinese to render ‘America’ given their current angle.
    Languagehat – what is Mathew’s? Never heard of it. Sounds good.

  32. what is Mathew’s? Never heard of it.
    *feels old as the hills*
    Mathew’s Chinese-English Dictionary is what everybody used to use, back in the day. The first edition is from 1931, and it’s been endlessly reprinted since; my copy is a cheap Taiwanese knockoff from the ’70s. You look up words by radical + number of other strokes. It’s thoroughly obsolete by now, but my copy is so heavily annotated you’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.

  33. A couple of years ago, I read in a Chinese newspaper that 米国 (rice country) was the trendy name for America used by people chatting on the Internet. I’ve never personally seen it myself.

  34. Where they talking about a specific part of the Chinese Internet? 米 (Mandarin ‘mi’) is ‘mei’ in Cantonese.

  35. After some quick googling, it does appear to be quite common in Cantonophone forums (though the official form is Meiguog 美國). I am less surprised about the presence of ‘Beikoku’ on Taiwanese websites.
    (And that should be “were”, not “where”, in my previous comment.)

  36. xiaolongnu says:

    Two things —
    First, 米國 has, as far as I know, its origin in Japan (as Greg noted above) and has been borrowed into Chinese for variously political and non-political reasons just like a lot of other Japanese neologisms like 宗教 and 民族.
    Second, beware Mathews!! Mathews’ dictionary reflects a conservative usage of written Chinese from around the turn of the 20th century. It is principally useful for reading Qing documents and, secondarily, writing produced by cultural conservatives in the first half of the 20th century. It’s still widely used because for years it was the only thing available in the West, and it represents a kind of language conservatism that was appealing (I suspect) to some factions in the Chinese diaspora. But students of pre-Qing Chinese have been known to treat it as a handy dictionary for classical Chinese, and that it is definitely not, any more than it was ever a dictionary of the spoken language. Caveat lector.
    (Sorry, LH)

  37. Oh, no worries, I’m well aware of its deficiencies, and if I did more than dabble (I look up a character maybe once a month) I’d use a better one. But (for instance) I’ve added Cantonese readings for everything, and I’m not about to transfer those to another book!

  38. Xiaolongnü,
    Do you have more details about the origins and transmissions of 米國? I would think that, phonetically, the functions of 米 and 美 are identical in, respectively,’Amerika’ 亜米利加 and ‘Yameilijia’ 亞美利加. In Cantonese, both read ‘Ameileiga’.
    It would not surprise me if both transcriptions had coexisted for a time, as happened with most transcriptions before the standardisation (and still happens from one region to another: Guangzhou’s ‘jugulig’ 朱古力 becomes ‘qiaokeli’ 巧克力 in Beijing; Mister Bush is ‘Bushi’ 布什 in Dalu and ‘Buxi’ 布希 in Taiwan, etc.).
    I also think it would be useful to separate, among loan words, between phonetic transcriptions like the above and translations or “semantic adaptations” like the examples you provide. Nowadays, you can see them conflict from one book or article to another: I still say ‘donghua pian’ 動畫片 (animated drawings movie), but I recognise that ‘katong pian’ (cartoon movie) 卡通片 is more trendy.

  39. We forgot to mention Meilijian 美利堅 (from “American”) used to differentiate the country (USofA) from the continent (Yameilijia zhou 洲), but I have no idea about the history of that either.

  40. Just to clarify ??, I saw the reference in a Beijing newspaper and it was AFIK talking about the Mainland Internet.

  41. Coming so late and off the topic, it may be useless to comment, but one of the big billboards in Beijing for the congress had these words: Meili de Feizhou The Beautiful Africa Belle Afrique. (Sorry, the Chinese characters aren’t coming out properly so I’ve used pinyin). I can’t help feeling that one of those languages should have the definite article but doesn’t, and one shouldn’t but does. (Wish I’d photographed it!)

  42. Ng, 美麗的非洲. “Belle Afrique” is all right, it is “La belle Afrique” that would sound clumsy, so I guess you are saying the same about “The Beautiful Africa”; how about “Africa the Beautiful” (I am asking as a non-native speaker of English)?

  43. Are you sure? I googled it, and found quite a few hits for “la belle Afrique”. Most of those for “belle Afrique” were either vocative (O belle Afrique!) or were preceded by a pronoun (ma belle Afrique, notre belle Afrique), which is the same as using a definite article. Since I’m not a native speaker of French, of course, there’s a good chance I’m wrong….

  44. Sorry, forgot. Yes, ‘Africa the Beautiful’ is fine. So is ‘Beautiful Africa’. But not ‘the Beautiful Africa’, at least not unless it occurs in ‘the beautiful Africa I grew up in…’ or something like that.

  45. I did not mean to say that “la belle Afrique” is incorrect; it is as correct as “the beautiful Africa”, but in this case, it would sound strange, because there is nothing coming after (as opposed to, say “la belle Afrique de mon enfance”, etc.), and more importantly because it is not an accurate translation of 美麗的非洲.
    “La belle Afrique” (stop) seems to imply that there is an other Africa that is “moins belle”, like when you say “la Chine magique”, what is understood is that you will select whatever relates to magical practices in China, leaving the rest aside, whereas “Chine magique” means that you consider China as a whole to have something magical.

  46. Poser writes: Language Hat’s discussion of the Chinese spelling of “Africa”, in which the character 非 is used phonetically, triggered a few thoughts about Chinese philosophy. The word 非 is usually translated as “not”, or in compounds, as a negative prefix such as “un-” or “i(n)”, as in 非 法 feī fǎ “illegal”.

    OK, but doesn’t this make 非洲 equivalent to “incontinent”?

    OK, um, I’d better get out of here now 😉

  47. *chases the Mad Latinist with brickbats*

  48. Jimmy Ho, are you sure?

  49. About what, bathrobe? French is my educational language (my mother tongue being Greek); I grew up in France, have made all my studies in French and live in Paris.
    Of course, I may be wrong; this is a fine matter of linguistic perception, and a non-sinologist Francophone might read it differently. I know that if I saw the poster you described with a “la”, I would have interpreted it as the work of a translator who did not yet understand those subtleties. The systematic addition of the definite article is in fact a very common mistake in translations made in China, so the fact that they didn’t do it in this case shows how carefully that the work was done.

  50. “About what?” refers to the fact that I said more than one thing, so I do not know which one you are asking me about. I did not mean to be aggressive.

  51. As an example of that very common syntax, there is a famous “patriotic” song by Charles Trenet entitled “Douce France” (Sweet France). “La douce France” just sounds strange if it is not followed by something like “de mes rêves”, “de notre jeunesse”, etc.

  52. It starts

    Douce France,
    Cher pays de mon enfance,…

    I don’t know the rest because I am not crazy about that song.

  53. 菲 is already used for Philippines.
    Most other characters pronounced ‘fei’ seem to have some possible negative connotation. The more common characters include: fat, concubine, expenditure, discard. Some that may have positive connotations are 斐 ‘graceful’ and 飞 ‘flying’.

  54. caffeind, I am not sure if you are referring to the comment where I said that I wouldn’t oppose a change to “菲洲”, but the confusion with 菲律賓 would be as easy to avoid as the one between Jianada 加拿大 (Canada) and Jiazhou 加州 (California), or Bali 巴黎 (Paris) and Bali dao 巴里島 (Bali island).
    Even taking in account the cases where only the first character is used, context and the scale difference (continent vs. country) keep the potential misunderstanding away.

  55. How about African Airlines vs. Philippine Airlines? (both “feihang”) Inability to abbreviate to a single character is always repugnant. For Chinese provinces, there is a one-character name for each, unrelated to the usual two-character name and usually referring to the kingdoms of 2500 years ago, often with a now-obscure character, and widely used today (e.g. on license plates) just to be able to use one character instead of two.
    I’m not sure 米国 ‘rice country’ is any more neutral than ‘beautiful country’. In Japan and Korea at least, American beauty is not controversial, but American rice certainly has been.
    The most shocking Japanese import in Chinese text today is the use of の smack in the middle of an otherwise completely Chinese sentence, instead of 的 or 之 or simple juxtaposition. Granted, it appears in signs that seem to be aimed at the kind of kids who like Japanese anime and manga, but I’m surprised it hasn’t provoked outrage.

  56. How about African Airlines vs. Philippine Airlines? (both “feihang”)
    This is one of the potential confusions I was talking about in my last paragraph, and I stand by what I said: it would require some adaptation, but that is not a serious obstacle. Not all abbreviations for airlines companies names are limited to two characters: look at 中南航. When you say or write 南大, it doesn’t denote the same thing if you are in Nanjing (南京大學) or Tianjin (南開大學). I, on a book cover, I see a [新] preceding the author’s name, I will have to look further if I want to clarify if it is 新加坡 or 新西蘭 (called 紐西蘭 in Taiwan). Out of context, I cannot decide if 以軍 means “with/by the military…” or “the Israeli (以色列) army”.
    At I said, I personally do not see any real problem with the current writing of 非洲; all I said is that I would not mind such a minor change.
    Many things have alternate writings and names in Chinese: what most people now know as Fo 佛 or Fotuo 佛陀 coexists with Futu 浮屠 (浮圖) in many texts, but they all have to be translated as “Buddha”. How about the use of the ten “Heavenly trunks” for enumeration in modern books? They function as alternate writings for cardinal numbers. When you see a company name starting with Bashu 巴蜀, you know that it is based in Sichuan.
    It is all a matter of usage and convenience. If a majority of people drop it, it has to be dropped.

  57. Maybe I sould rephrase my last sentence: if a majority of people drop it, it can reasonably be dropped.

  58. Well, I never said 菲 for Africa was impossible, just that there was already another use of the character 🙂
    Indeed, back when graduates were still being sent to the boonies, there was a joke about getting to go live in 新西蘭: Xin(jiang), Xi(zang = Tibet), or Lan(zhou, Gansu).
    I’ve seen Sichuanese stuff using 巴 or 蜀, but not both together. Now that eastern Sichuan has been separated as Chongqing Municipality, they are actually separate province-level units.

  59. I was not sure if you had missed Brendan’s comment in the earlier part of the thread (November 6, 2006 12:06 PM); he was the first to mention Feilübin.
    Yes, Xin-Xi-Lan is a good one, even in the more recent 大西部開發 days.
    Ba-Shu 巴蜀 as a 別稱 for Sichuan is as common as Qi-Lu 齊魯 for Shandong. I chose that one because I was working on a book published by the Ba-Shu shushe 巴蜀書社 (there is also a 巴蜀出版社, etc.).

  60. Jimmy Ho, my apologies for ever doubting you. As I said, I am not a native French speaker (or even a good second-language speaker). But I did notice that French says things like ‘l’Afrique’ where English would never say ‘the Africa’, which led me to the mistaken assumption that an adjective could be inserted. Sorry about that.

  61. No problem, bathrobe, really. Both formulations are possible, so it is a subtle matter of Sprachgefühl; an other French-educated person might have agreed with you. However, I do notice that when Americans write “mock” French (in cartoons or satire), they tend to put articles everywhere, so you have absurd things like a coffee shop sign reading “Le Café”, etc. As for country names, it depends: you say “l’Italie” or “le Pakistan”, but *”le Madagascar” or *”l’Haiti” is just wrong.
    No offense taken, honest!

  62. Siganus Sutor says:

    Bathrobe: But I did notice that French says things like ‘l’Afrique’ where English would never say ‘the Africa’
    Actually I have never understood why a few places’ name in English — and just a few it seems, in case of simple names — can take the definite article: the Congo, the Ukraine, the Gambia…
    Jimmy: you say “l’Italie” or “le Pakistan”, but *”le Madagascar” or *”l’Haiti” is just wrong.
    Have you been able to guess why? Some people tried to get a “rule” out, around here, but I must say that I haven’t been totally convinced. Since you seem to have some arguments when it comes to toponymy, maybe you could try to éclairer ma lanterne (pas chinoise pour deux sous)

  63. That was an amusing discussion, Siganus, full of esprit. I think you “nailed” it in the comment you linked to:

    Les régions géographiques qui n’admettent pas d’articles semblent être en quasi-totalité des îles.

    Is it reasonable to say that there is always a “l’île de” implied before the name of those island-states? (L’île de) Taiwan/Formose, (l’île de) Chypre, etc. For Mauritius (fka “l’île de France”), the convention among “métros” is “l’île Maurice”; “Maurice” (tout court) sounds familiar (youth-speak: “j’ai passé des super vacances à Maurice, c’était trop bien!”).
    I don’t know for sure, this is a supposition based on older usage where “l’isle de” was not omitted.

  64. On a second thought, I don’t know if the “de” is needed before “Formose”, since it is an epithet (ilha formosa, “the beautiful island”). The use of “Fuermosha” by some Taiwanese is another (loaded) topic for another time.

  65. More clearly, I would guess that “l’Isle Formose” would have been acceptable around the 18th century, but I have no evidence for that.

  66. Siganus Sutor says:

    Jimmy: Is it reasonable to say that there is always a “l’île de” implied before the name of those island-states?
    Dunno. But I don’t really see why it should be so. Nearly all states’ official name is something like “Republic of So-and-so”, “Union of This-and-that”, etc., isn’t it? And it doesn’t necessarily need to be a state: Java, Sumatra, Ascension…
    (BTW, several times in France I’ve heard “les îles Maurice”!)
    What about the Congo and the like? Any idea?

  67. Siganus Sutor says:

    “Fuermosha”? Never heard of it. But funnily enough (or not), the fishing boats coming to Port Louis are sometimes still labelled “formosans”, and so are their crewmembers then.

  68. I wrote “island-states” because this was the case of most of your examples (except for Java), but the relevant word is really “island” here. Tahiti is not a state either, but you don’t add the article. “La” Martinique and “la” Guadeloupe are exceptions: I don’t know how those names were formed, but maybe there was an “île” somewhere, like for “Formosa”?
    I’ve never heard “les îles Maurice” in métropole, by the way. J.M.G. Le Clézio’s Le chercheur d’or says “l’île Maurice”, too, and when the “presidential suit price” scandal broke, metropolitan media reported it as being in “un hôtel de luxe de l’île Maurice”. There might have been exceptions, but I’m not aware of them.

  69. Siganus Sutor says:

    Which “presidential suit price scandal”? And when you say “metropolitan”, you mean French?
    Most of the time French people say “l’île Maurice”, but a few times during my studies I’ve heard the plural, which amazed me. Yes, very true, Tahiti doesn’t have any article. Hawaii neither, though these islands are many… like les Marquises, les Tuamotu, les Aléoutiennes, les Seychelles

  70. Fuermosha 福爾摩沙 is the Chinese transcription for “Formosa” used by independentists who want to avoid both “Republic of China” (Zhonghua minguo 中華民國) and “(Province of) Taiwan” (台灣省).
    Where do the “formosans” come from?
    I’m not sure I understand your question about “the Congo”.

  71. Siganus Sutor says:

    The Formosans come from Formose! :o)
    (Though they tend to be more and more called “Taiwanese” these days.)
    I’m not sure I understand your question about “the Congo”.
    Why can’t we say ‘the’ England, ‘the’ China, ‘the’ Australia while we do hear “the Congo”, “the Ukraine”, etc.?

  72. We “cross-posted”. The “scandal” was when Jacques Chirac paid (with the State’s money) a very high price for his “suite présidentielle”; I think that was before the 2002 election.
    I apologise for saying “métropole” instead of France. The reason is that I have a friend from La Réunion who often talks about Mauritius, hence the confusion. I do know that Mauritius is independant from France, sorry about that slip.
    les Marquises, les Tuamotu, les Aléoutiennes, les Seychelles…
    Except for the last name (les Seychelles), the inclusion of “îles” is needed for all these names in standard speech.

  73. Siganus Sutor says:

    Ah! Jacques Ouille…
    I do know that Mauritius is independant from France
    Pas d’problème ! (Mauritius won its independence from Britain though, odd as it may sound…)
    Except for the last name (les Seychelles), the inclusion of “îles” is needed for all these names in standard speech.
    Sure? Think of a song by Jacques Brel…
    In “official” denomination maybe, but in “normal” speech I don’t think it’s necessary. And as far as I remember the normal practice doesn’t request any “îles” — “île(s) Maurice” being a borderline case.

  74. (Mauritius won its independence from Britain though, odd as it may sound…)
    I know that too! Seriously, what I meant is that I don’t see Mauritius as a DOM or a TOM, but I tend to associate it with La Réunion because of that friend of mine. As a matter of fact, I took the habit of specifying “métropole” under the influence of friends from overseas territories. They are French, just not “métro”.
    Sure? Think of a song by Jacques Brel…
    By calling them “les Marquises”, he shows his familiarity. French sports journalists joking about the Faroe soccer team always say “les îles Féroé”. “Les Seychelles” became familiar when they were at the peak of mass tourism popularity.

  75. Siganus Sutor says:

    By calling them “les Marquises”, he shows his familiarity.
    You’re right: once it becomes familiar enough “les îles” or “l’île” is dropped. And I think it happened already with the islands mentioned previously, at least in the French spoken here. Even for these faraway and exotic islands: les Cyclades.

  76. Let me just say that I love discussions like this.

  77. “The most shocking Japanese import in Chinese text today is the use of の smack in the middle of an otherwise completely Chinese sentence, instead of 的 or 之 or simple juxtaposition. Granted, it appears in signs that seem to be aimed at the kind of kids who like Japanese anime and manga, but I’m surprised it hasn’t provoked outrage.”
    This was a hot topic among my co-teachers when I was a high school English teacher in Taiwan, six years ago. Taiwanese kids would use の in the middle of a Chinese-language essay, and their teachers would generally dock them a point for doing so. I find it a convenient shorthand when I’m writing Chinese (which I suck at, and hardly ever do). I also understand that の actually began as a calligraphic shorthand for 的.

  78. I also understand that の actually began as a calligraphic shorthand for 的.
    It is more likely based on the cursive form of 乃.
    LH, do you have an explanation for Siganus Sutor’s question about “the Congo”, “the Ukraine”, etc.?
    (More later.-Maybe.)

  79. Alexwoods, 的 is the most frequent character in modern Chinese, and you will notice that it is also the one people tend to abbreviate the most, even in xingshu, since it can so easily be guessed from the syntax and context (like 之, 乃, 以, et al. in classical Chinese calligraphy).

  80. (Actually most people will read the ‘de’ even if it is not written at all, like when you mentally correct a typo.)

  81. LH, do you have an explanation for Siganus Sutor’s question about “the Congo”, “the Ukraine”, etc.?
    My impression is that it occurs with places that didn’t used to be actual countries: the Congo [region], the Ukraine [region], etc. But I have no textual backup for this.

  82. That seems plausible. For the Ukraine, I thought it could be a remain of “the [(Sovietic Socialist) Republic of] Ukraine; as for the Congo, I wonder if the usage predates the name change of Zaïre? In “African-oriented” French, the two states (République du Congo and République démocratique du Congo) are distinguished as Congo-Brazzaville (or “Congo-Brazza”) and Congo-Kinshasa (“Congo-Kin”).

  83. The Argentine, the Levant, the Gambia, the Congo, the Ukraine, the Sudan…

  84. Siganus Sutor says:

    The Argentine, Bathrobe? Never heard it before. But thanks for the Sudan, indeed. (In the past what was meant by “Sudan” was more than today’s country.)

  85. Siganus Sutor says:

    Oops! it looks as if some bad frankish influence has kept me from seeing that you didn’t write “the Argentina” but “the Argentine”. Are “the Argentine” and “Argentina” rigorously the same thing?
    As to the Sudan, at first thought I believed that the “broader Sudan” was something of the past, but a quick look on Wikipedia suggests that it’s not completely so:

    The Sudan, from the Arabic bilâd as-sûdân “land of the Blacks,” is a geographic region in West and Eastern Africa. The phrase ‘The Sudan’ is also used by some to refer specifically to the country Sudan, the savannah of which forms much of the larger region.
    The Sudan extends in a band across Africa from Mali in the west to the Ethiopian Highlands in the east. To the north lies the Sahel, a more arid Acacia savanna region which in turn borders the Sahara desert. The grass in the Sudan is longer than in the sahel, and because the region receives more rainfall than the Sahel it is more suitable for farming.

    So far so good (more or less) for the Sudan, which was also the name given to a part of French-colonised Africa, but is/was “the Congo” the same type of regional or geographical entity? I’ve heard Joseph Kabila talking — in English — about “the Congo” as to refer to his own country only. Some of the other UN member-states wouldn’t have anything to say about it? Remember what happened when a former Yugoslav republic chose the name of “Macedonia”.
    By having a look at the original LH post, one could think that toponymy is not always an innocent business, be it in Feizhou or elsewhere.

  86. Siganus Sutor says:

    Jimmy: That seems plausible. For the Ukraine, I thought it could be a remain of “the [(Sovietic Socialist) Republic of] Ukraine
    I would then be the naughty one who keeps on asking silly questions: why just this particular republic? We can’t say “the Russia” or “the Georgia”, can we? And as I said further up: “Nearly all states’ official name is something like “Republic of So-and-so”, “Union of This-and-that”, etc., isn’t it?” What’s so special with Ukraine?
    “The” Ukraine was a region before being a country? Never heard of this before — but I know that, like Sacha Guitry, le peu que je sais, c’est à mon ignorance que je le dois (the little that I know, I owe it to my ignorance).
    Language Hat: Let me just say that I love discussions like this.
    Thanks for saying nice things to someone who invades your fine blog with his heavy boots on! It seems therefore that you are encouraging me to carry on with another question about why or how in English we can say “the isle of Blahblahblah” or “Bluhbluh Island” in the case of some islands only (just a matter of size?). But not right now; later, inch’ Allah.

  87. why just this particular republic?
    I am not sure at all for those “the” toponyms in English, which seem to have been established rather arbitrarily. I am certainly much more confident about the French “îles”, for which the hypothetical “rule” seems more solid.

  88. I forgot: for the Cyclades, the “islands” is actually intended in the original Greek name: “Kyklades (nêsoi)” -> αι Κυκλάδες).

  89. Alexwoods, there is a table of correspondance between hira- and katakana and their kanji sources there.

  90. Siganus Sutor says:

    Moving out of Africa to the islands of the Earth… (Oxymoron or pleonasm?)
    the “islands” is actually intended in the original Greek name: “Kyklades (nêsoi)” -> αι Κυκλάδες).
    Ahem… excuse my Greek, dear Jimmy, but except for a few letters as mathematical or physical symbols it has always been non-existent. Where exactly are the islands hidden in the Greek name there?
    So, if I got it right, it would be redundant to say “les îles Cyclades”? — this archipelago of the Aigaion pelagos… I would be glad to have this one on my side, at least, as in the French we speak we rarely say “les îles (or l’île) So-and-so”. (This is maybe why I was quite surprised by the rule you mentioned before).
    There are some exceptions however, when you cannot do without l’île: l’île Longue; l’île Ronde; l’île Plate; l’île de la Cité; les îles de la Désolation; l’Île-du-Prince-Édouard; etc.
    But when it’s possible to get rid of this word, we manifestly don’t need to think twice: to the waste bin it goes. Maybe we don’t want to be reminded that we permanently live on a small piece of land surrounded by (an apparently rising) water… :o)

  91. Siganus Sutor says:

    Island-wise, how does it work in English?
    If we start in China: rather “Hainan” or “Hainan Island”?
    Rather “the Shetlands” or “the Shetland Islands”?
    Rather “Skye” or “the Isle of Skye”?
    Can’t we say “Cyprus Island”, “Cuba Island”, “Ireland Island”?
    Can we say just “Santa Catalina”, “Wight”, “Rhode”?

  92. >the Congo, the Ukraine, the Gambia…
    Two started out as river basins, so could be short for the Congo (basin, valley, etc.)
    Ukraine originally meant “borderland”. This is probably not enough reason to have added the article in English, and Slavic doesn’t have the article, so I’d guess English is following German or French. I hear some now consider the definite article insulting, giving the impression Ukraine is a possession of Russia. Probably the modern / PC (or perhaps just American) thing to do in English would be to never use the definite article with any country.
    Arabic also has seemingly arbitrary defined placenames; Iraq is always al-`Iraq.

  93. David Marjanović says:

    The Japanese genitive clitic no? That’s the most fascinating backloan into Chinese by far!!!
    German has arbitrarily defined placenames, too (and as you can guess, some are masculine and some feminine — only those without an article are neutral, though), and there’s confusion about some of them. The German Ministry of the Exterior has introduced the strange custom of dropping all articles for countries without centuries-old German exonyms (der Irak, der Iran, der Sudan…) for some kind of PC reason, but few people follow that.
    There are no “island/isle” names in German, except compound nouns such as “die Osterinsel” (Easter Island).

  94. Where exactly are the islands hidden in the Greek name there?
    Sorry, in my transliteration, it is the word ‘nêsoi’, plural for ‘nêsos’ (as in “Polynesia”, etc.; ‘nêsos’ is feminine, like ‘île’).
    The full name is “ai Kyklades nêsoi”, literally, “the encircling islands” (around the sacred isle of Delos, which was also the center of the league lead by Athens in the 5th century B.C.).
    “Αι Κυκλάδες” (ai Kyklades) is simply the short form (current in modern Greek), where “nêsoi” (islands) is “sous-entendu”, the one the Western name (the/les Cyclades) comes from.
    Both full and short forms are used in ancient texts (e.g. by Thucydides).

  95. Yes, the Gambia and the Congo are river basins. There is perhaps something in common with ‘the Ruhr’, which was originally a river basis (or area around a river) and has now become the name of a region.

  96. marie-lucie says:

    (la) belle Afrique
    I am not sure what the trilingual poster was about – a tourist promotion? – but in my opinion the article should normally have been omitted from the English version but added to the French version. However, omitting the article gives the phrase a more poetic or perhaps just dreamy flavour – just as “douce France” in the song quoted by Jimmy Ho (in this case, a phrase reminiscent of the Middle Ages or Renaissance era). Omission of the article occurs often in advertisements for things that most people can’t easily afford and therefore dream about – luxury items or exotic destinations: Mysterieuse Turquie, etc. These are detached phrases, kind of floating in the air, not used as part of sentences, just like “Africa the Beautiful” in English, and the original poetic quality can easily become a cliche.
    It is true that “la belle Afrique” COULD be contrastive, but not necessarily, and it does not really NEED a complement although it could have one (… de ma jeunesse, etc).
    (Argentina vs. The Argentine)
    “The Argentine” seems to be the older English name of the country, while Argentina is the Spanish name, now also used in English. In Agatha Christie’s books, Poirot’s sidekick spent time in “the Argentine” in his youth and needs to travel there to attend to business (it seems that many wealthy Britishers bought land in Argentina at some point, and some of them still live there). Possibly “the Argentine” is an adaptation of the Latin name of the major river (in Spanish “el Rio de la Plata” – the river of silver – as in Latin argentum, French argent). In this case the use of the article in the English name would correspond to its use with names of other countries characterized by a large river basin, such as the Congo.

  97. Wikipedia notes “The country is formally called the Argentine Republic”; that could also be abbreviated to “the Argentine”.

  98. It is true that “la belle Afrique” COULD be contrastive, but not necessarily, and it does not really NEED a complement although it could have one (… de ma jeunesse, etc).
    This is interesting, Marie-Lucie. Do you have any examples of similar formulations without any contrastive meaning? If you saw a poster or book cover written “La belle Afrique”, what would you assume it was about? The poster was probably of the “promotion” kind for the first Sino-African conference in Beijing (a sort of welcoming sign for the participants; this is the normal procedure in China). It may also have been for an exhibition (photos, etc.) related to the conference.

  99. Right now, the only example I can think of is a humouristic one (actually sarcastic once you read the book), on the front page of Etiemble’s Parlez-vous franglais?, which has the subtitles

    Fol en France
    Mad in France

    La belle France
    Label France.

  100. Siganus Sutor says:

    Marie-Lucie, nice to see you back! And thanks for the precious argentine information.
    If it’s not too cheeky to ask, may I get your feeling about les îles Ceci or l’île Cela? And about the ‘island(s)’ as well? (For instance, would you find it weird, in current speech, to hear or read “Cyprus Island” or “Cuba Island”? For me, it could be, say, “Jamaica man!”, but not “Jamaica Island”. Am I wrong? It looks as if large islands tend to get rid of the insularity in their usual name. We tend to speak of Tasmania, not “Tasmania Island”, don’t we?)
    Jimmy: “Αι Κυκλάδες” (ai Kyklades) is simply the short form (current in modern Greek), where “nêsoi” (islands) is “sous-entendu”
    Ah, okay. So maybe our local habit of dropping “l’île” has some (modern?) Greek origin… :o))

  101. David Marjanović says:

    La república argentina = the silvery republic. Argentina is an adjective, not a noun. Apparently “the Argentine” was an attempt to carry that fact over into English.

  102. Yes, it was a big street hoarding about the Sino-African summit. All the hoardings are still up, with their pictures of African animals, African scenery, and African people, long after the conference has ended — except this particular one! It was gone before I even had a chance to photo it.

  103. To add a local note, “the Bronx” is short for “The Annexed District of the Bronx [River]”, and “Bronx” is a possessive, a variant spelling of “Bronck’s”.

  104. Well, it may be short for that now, but when it began it was short for “Bronck’s farm.”

  105. Siganus Sutor says:

    Nobody seems interested in islands’ name any more…
    If only I had been writing from Robben Island…
    Robben Island? “Robben” alone wouldn’t be a name commonly used I suppose. “Robben Island” comes in a single lump, to the point where you can even find people talking of “l’île de Robben Island” — i.e., literally, “the isle of Robben Island”. And serious people indeed, for instance those published in French dailies like Le Monde or L’Humanité, or in their Senegalese counterpart Le Soleil.

  106. I guess those are border-line cases, like “l’île de Makronisos” (“our” Robben Island; the name means “long island”) or “le mont Taishan” (‘shan’ 山 means “mountain”). Oddly enough, it seems that people say “le mont Fuji” instead of *”le mont Fujiyama” (‘yama’ means ‘shan’).
    Most people are not conscious of the redundance, like when they say “le best of de Manu Chao” (I think singer Renaud (Séchan) had entitled one of his compilations Le bestophe de Renaud).

  107. Eric Vinyl says:

    That the characters used to spell out Africa matters relatively little seems to have been settled with the 米/美國 examples, but I wanted to mention something I read on the Web somewhere… Maybe it was on Language Log…(?) It was about just this—discussing whether or not Chinese speakers thought about characters’ underlying meanings when thinking of loan words. They mentioned Spain, for example, which has a fairly innocuous “literal meaning” when you break it down—but no native speaker surveyed said they thought of teeth when saying Spain. I can’t find it anymore, though; I figured someone here would know what I was talking about, but maybe not, if no one’s linked to it yet. (It wasn’t a Victor Mair thing, was it?)
    caffeind, there’s an awning like that I always see near Oakland Chinatown. I would have just assumed it was a Japanese business (as I don’t really read Chinese, per se) if I hadn’t seen this in Wikipedia. I think they serve bubble tea or something, though, not anime.
    I’ve heard “the Argentine,” I think, but never “the Gambia”… And Siganus, Cuba Island, Jamaica Island are unheard of. Rhode Island you can’t say without the second word ’cause it’s the name of the state—it’s not even really an island. Tasmania Island appears to be in Nunavut.
    I don’t think best of as a NP is completely unknown in English—I’d say it’s short for “best-of album” or “best-of collection.” “Yeah, they just put out a best-of.”

  108. I don’t think best of as a NP is completely unknown in English—I’d say it’s short for “best-of album” or “best-of collection.” “Yeah, they just put out a best-of.”
    I understand that, but would a native speaker of English say, for instance, “I just bought the last best-of of Harry Belafonte”? That would be equivalent to “le best-of de…” in French (that is a real question, by the way; I don’t assume that it is impossible, I just never encoutered it).

  109. No, I’m pretty sure that’s impossible.

  110. Eric Vinyl says:

    Right: Btw, if you translate de as “from,” then it’s perfectly OK, isn’t it? “I just bought the best-of from Harry Belafonte.” Or, if you switch it around to how English usually does possessives—“I just bought Harry Belafonte’s best-of” (that actually sounds a lot more natural to me). Are those both not equivalent to « le best-of de » ?
    But you can’t really say “the best-of of,” no.

  111. Thanks, LH. Eric Vinyl, the problem was not so much how to translate “le best-of de” in English as why even people who know that ‘of’ means ‘de’ still use such a redundant expression (as redundant as Siganus Sutor’s example, “l’île de Robben Island”).
    Now, “best-of” has become a French or “franglais” word, as it is in English, by your explanation, but the big difference is that it is used without regard to its original meaning. I personally support the use of good ol’ expressions like “compilation”, “anthologie”, “florilège” or “chansons choisies”, etc., or the direct equivalent, “le meilleur de”. Someone who just bought a record entitled Le meilleur de Georges Moustaki could never say *”j’ai acheté le meilleur-de de Georges Moustaki” (I bought the best-of of Georges Moustaki).

  112. By the way, I did think that the most natural English phrase would be “Harry Belafonte’s best-of”, but I was not quite sure; thank you for confirming it from the native speaker point of view.

  113. Belatedly thought of another one:
    The Crimea

  114. Having added that last one, I checked out Answers.com
    The article from “Encyclopedia” (Columbia Univ Press) starts out using ‘the Crimea’, but towards the end — recent history — it starts using ‘Crimea’ (and ‘Ukraine’, too). It’s apparent that the later section has been written by a second person who doesn’t use ‘the’ in these names. Linguistic change right before your eyes!

  115. Considered for inclusion (scroll down to “janvier”): Kabylie, belle et rebelle (by Yazid Bekka and Yalla Seddiki).

  116. Jimmy: I personally support the use of good ol’ expressions like “compilation”, “anthologie”, “florilège” or “chansons choisies”, etc., or the direct equivalent, “le meilleur de”.
    What about la crème de? (“La crème de canard” for instance, since you seem to enjoy this tasty and ducky “canard”.)
    And, of course, we shouldn’t forget this over the top “best of of best of”: la crème de la crème

  117. Siganus Sutor says:

    By the way, should I have said “best of best of” instead? It doesn’t look quite the same though.

  118. Siganus Sutor says:

    You, the spammer, shut up please. Or you will be sent to the wrong continent!

  119. [Note: spammer’s spam has been deleted, leaving Siganus’s stern warning to deter future potential malefactors. –LH]

  120. LH: Siganus’s stern warning to deter future potential malefactors
    The exuberant Italian prose above suggests that it wasn’t stern enough.
    Anyway, it gives me the opportunity to mention a photograph recently seen in a newspaper which reminded me what has been discussed in this post: in front of newly elected President Kabila attending a conference in Nairobi, a desk sign indicating his country: “Democratic Republic of the Congo”.
    Unfortunately I haven’t found a picture of the delegate from the “other Congo”…

  121. MimiMerZulu says:

    As an African I find the name to be very demeaning. The prefix has one meaning and meaning only. We were and still are looked down upon. Maybe like the Koreans, we will have the name changed.

  122. “GREAT AND DEAR LEADERS” is a terrible thread. Many of the people there don’t seem to know what they are talking about.

    LanguageHat was in its early days.

  123. Whoo, it sure is. There were great commenters like Jimmy Ho (come back, JH!), but also lots of people who not only didn’t know what they were talking about but didn’t want to learn better.

  124. John Cowan says:

    I think there has been a steady weeding out of the ignorami, who lose interest when our host (and nowadays his many minions companions) tell them firmly how wrong they are.

  125. Lars Mathiesen says:

    They went to Facebook and Twitter. I say this without a shred of evidence.

    But we actually had some ignorami of class who probably improved both here and there by moving.

    As long as they didn’t go editing Wikipedia.

  126. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ignoramora, surely?

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