a question for speakers of Mandarin

I have a couple of different stories in the pipeline that take place in semi-Chinese societies — specifically, societies where I’ve decided to base the language on Mandarin, at least as far as the phonology of names is concerned. (i.e. I’m neither using actual Mandarin in the story, nor conlanging beyond deciding what to call characters and towns.) IANASpeaker of Mandarin, so my question for those who are is: how likely are you to be distracted by possible meanings for the names I’ve made up?

To put it differently: if I invent German-looking names for a story, I can (and do) check in a dictionary to make sure I haven’t named a character “Elbow” or something like that. And it’s relatively easy to avoid actual words, just by changing a few letters. With the semi-Japanese names in the doppelganger books, on the other hand, I kind of let it go, because any random pair of mora I threw together were likely to mean something in Japanese — tsue is a walking stick, for example, and katsu, depending on the kanji, means “to win,” “thirst,” “yet,” “living,” “cutlet” (when written in katakana) and something you yell at Zen practitioners when they screw up. (Or so my favorite dictionary tells me.) So the Cousin names and honorifics in particular were likely to mean something whether I wanted them to or not.

Mandarin’s more opaque to me, since I don’t speak more than about five words of it, and those very badly. I’m familiar with the function of tones in it, so I suspect it’s likely any random syllable I stick in a name is likely to mean one or more things, possibly incongruous ones. Hence asking the fluent speakers: how badly would that distract you, in a story written in English? Is it something you could just sort of breeze by (provided I don’t accidentally hit upon something flagrantly obscene), or is your brain likely to play the homophone game, coming up with variant translations of the character’s name?

0 Responses to “a question for speakers of Mandarin”

  1. gothicsparrow

    My brain might be playing the homophone game, depending on how common the sounds you chose are and how well into the flow of the story I am at that time. I don’t think there’s a lot you can do to avoid it, though.

    • Marie Brennan

      The only ways I can see to avoid it are:

      1) make sure absolutely every name means something appropriate to the story;

      2) follow real-world Chinese naming practices so they won’t look odd to the reader; or

      3) don’t use Mandarin phonology at all.

      Obviously I’m not in favor of #3, and #2 runs the risk of being the equivalent to a fantasy world where people have names like Jennifer and Cody. #1 would be fabulous — if I spoke Mandarin. Which I don’t. And while I adore learning languages, I don’t think I can devote myself to the kind of effort Mandarin would require.

      • Marie Brennan

        Though — amending my own statement — it occurs to me that my favorite online Japanese dictionary glosses kanji with a vast quantity of information, including the pinyin reading. So it wouldn’t be impossible for me to look up the ideas I’d like to convey, and see if I like the sound of the pinyin. This doesn’t solve the homophone problem, but at least anybody who starts playing around in that vein might see what I was aiming for.

        Let me try an example: how would the name Lian Xue Xin strike you?

        • lord_codfish

          Better a late reply than never?

          FWIW, my mind immediately started doing the homophone game…

          Also, some things to keep in mind:

          -Chinese name order is likely to be confusing to anyone familiar with it – especially because Chinese (unlike Vietnamese and, sometimes, Koreans) tend to romanize their given names as one word: Lian Xuexin, not Lian Xue Xin. Furthermore, if you are making it Chinese culture-ish as well, note that Chinese people don’t tend to address others (unless they’re really intimate) by the given name. It’s either the full name (among friends), or Young Yu, Old Zhang, Miss Chen, Teacher Yang, etc. This isn’t likely to be a huge barrier if you’ve got a limited cast, but could get annoying if it’s a larger story.
          -Pinyin is not particularly obvious to people who haven’t studied Chinese. I wince whenever I read Chinese romanized any other way, but I wince almost as much when I hear people try to say “Qing” as if it were “Quing”.
          -Mandarin names are quite restrictive in terms of sound. I find myself getting confused when I read Chinese fiction in translation (especially old epics with lots of characters) because I can’t keep the names straight, and I have the advantage of being able to go online and look the characters up! Without tones and characters, you may start actually running out of unique syllables (at least, in combinations that don’t sound stupid).

          My suggestion? Use a dialect. Look online for common Cantonese names, Taiwanese names, Shanghainese names, Hakka names, what have you. These tend to be much richer than Mandarin in terms of the consonants that can end words, the vowel combinations, etc. They’re also hard to pronounce, but in different (and maybe easier-to-overcome) ways from Mandarin. Also, if you just go for “random invented Chinese dialect” (based on things like Cantonese, but not exactly it) rather than using one in particular, you can work out a romanization system that you like, and you don’t need to worry about unfortunate meanings (since you’ll be inventing the words anyway).

          It might still look weird to people who know Chinese, but at least they’ll recognize you aren’t trying for Mandarin (if you stay away from the phonetic patterns and romanization systems of Mandarin, especially) and so won’t expect the story to be as exactly Chinese as something using Pinyin would suggest.


          P.S. Lian Xue Xin wouldn’t work as a name because Lian isn’t a Chinese surname, at least not one I’ve ever heard of. Xuexin is possible; “xue” in names is almost always 雪, meaning snow, though it’s possible it could be the one meaning “to study”. “Xin” is likely to be 鑫, meaning prosperous, though that’s kind of weird with both of the possible xue’s. There are a few other options though.

          Also, it sounds to me like a girl’s name, especially if it’s the xue meaning snow.

          Contrast this to someone named, say, Jeuk Gan-fauw; I’d recognize that as being a Chinese-ish name, and I could come up with a possible pronunciation, but it’s no dialect I recognize, so I wouldn’t have a clue as to meaning.

          • Marie Brennan

            Re: Better a late reply than never?

            I’m slow in responding, too, so no worries. 🙂

            I’d wondered about maybe mashing together several different Chinese phonologies in order to create something not-quite-real for a secondary world. It’s still restrictive in exactly the way you pointed out — either the set of possible syllables is pretty limited, or it stops looking much like anything Chinese at all. But I may play with that at some point and see what result I get.

            “Lian” not being a surname — yes, I knew that. It was meant to be an example of a secondary-world Mandarin-style name, rather than something that would pass muster in the real world. (My actual characters for that example were lotus, learning, and mind.)

        • gothicsparrow

          Sorry, I’ve studied Mandarin for years but I’m a bit out of practise right now, I jumped in because no-one else had and I thought better something than nothing, and should someone else more knowledgeable come along, so much the better. I didn’t realise until after you replied that I might be a bit out of my depth. Cody has gone into a lot more detail than I would have been able to.

          I don’t know if this will be any use or not, but sometimes Chinese people have one character given names, and I’ve heard of two character surnames but I’m pretty sure that they would be of an ehtnic minority- there’s something like 20 surnames that 90% of the population share.

  2. unforth

    Online mandarin dictionary just to get a sense of what the meanings might be?

  3. intertext

    I think I would follow Chinese naming practices. In pinyin, the chances of hitting something really bad (like shitface or something) are in one way less, because you wouldn’t know the pronounciation unless it was in characters (does that make any sense??) But there’s always the possibility of someone pronouncing it and inadvertently hitting something silly. Like I had a friend in China called familiarly Xiao Yu (young Yu) and he used to ask us not to call him that in public because we so often mispronounced it so that it came out “roast chicken”

    • Marie Brennan

      The thing is, that locks me into all the implications of Chinese naming practices: notions of what’s masculine and feminine, primary positioning of the family, nicknames and forms of address, etc. Which is perfectly fine when I’m writing about Actual!China — but not when I’m writing about a secondary world that may be phonologically similar but socially different.

      “Roast chicken” — hee. I’m endlessly amused by the errors one can so easily commit in a foreign language. Like telling a doting Japanese mother that her kid’s scary, or saying in Spanish that your potato is vacuuming the living room.

  4. Marie Brennan

    Oooh, that’s a great link. Thanks.

    Unfortunately, asking someone else to name my characters is Just Not Possible. Names are too inextricably bound up with identity in my head; while I can cope with historical figures, who come with names attached, I wouldn’t be able to do the same for individuals I’m inventing.

    The pronunciation thing — heh. Poor Scott Andrews, podcasting “Driftwood” over at BCS; half the random names in that story were designed to be utterly alien-looking and -sounding, to the point where I was like, eh, hell if I know how to say them. And I hope the day never comes where I read “A Mask of Flesh” or related stories in front of anyone who actually speaks Nahuatl or other Mesoamerican language . . . .

  5. steffi_sy

    If the only Chinese aspect of the societies you have in mind is phonology, then I’d like to respectfully say that it would be a jarring and unpleasant experience to read your story, encounter the Chinese-y names and then spend the rest of the book in perpetual confusion about why these characters with Chinese names don’t look Chinese, act Chinese, speak Chinese, eat Chinese or live Chinese. And yes, I’d also be wondering what on earth their names meant and wonder how they’d even know what their names meant if they weren’t in some way culturally Chinese.

    Naming is very important. Personally, I get extrememly impressed by stories where the story, culture (including and especially names) and setting complement and add layers of meaning to each other. For a non-asian setting example, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods has Mr. Wednesday, whose name is a total moment of awesome kicker once the readers catch up to who he really is!

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