In China, math spells romance! (Secret Chinese love codes)

With only 409 syllables in the entire language, Chinese has too many homophones. That might sound judgmental but hear me out: Jessica’s Chinese name, for example, has 怡 in it. If I type “yi” on my phone, it’s the 90th (!!) yi in the list of yi characters to scroll through. It’s a good thing I love her so much, because inputting her name is serious 麻烦。

So the Chinese totally go to town on homophone wordplays. They don’t even need to be true homophones; drunk language student pronunciation is apparently good enough to get the meaning across. In fact they don’t even need words; numbers work just fine. Turns out that in Mandarin you can say a lot with numbers. Like on the inside of our friends’ wedding rings:

They inscribed “L.L. 14520” inside the bands. The “L”s are just for their last names: Liú and Lǐ. But the numbers when spoken are yÄ« sì wÇ” èr líng, which to them sounds like yÄ« shì wÇ’ ài nǐ (一世我爱你),which means: “(For my) whole life I love you”. (“一世” is short for “一生一世”。)

I showed the picture to my preschool office coworkers and they all got it in under three seconds.

One of their friends has 201314 on her ring: èr líng yÄ« sān yÄ« sì, which sounds like ài nǐ yÄ« shÄ“ng yÄ« shì (爱你一生一世: “love you (for my) whole life”).

There’s more language learning fun to be had in the Learning Mandarin topic. See also:

3 thoughts on “In China, math spells romance! (Secret Chinese love codes)”

  1. Even though this doesn’t really affect your article or makes it less interesting, I think it’s wrong to say that Chinese has 400+ syllables. Tones should be included in the count, so there are at least 1000+ commonly used syllables. Still, that’s about one TENTH of English, which is a very big difference. :)

    1. Yeah, I was mostly having fun. Counting or not counting tones when defining “syllable”, it can go either way. At the link he gets into that a bit. But on the side of not counting them, the homophone wordplays don’t seem to take tones into account. Same with when you’re inputting in pinyin and looking through a character list. I miss the XP days when I could type the tone numbers when using the IME.

  2. The 400+ he’s’ referring to here are the syllables (consonant-vowel combinations) listed in the dreaded Pinyin Sound chart. “Ma” said with a first tone or a fourth tone still has one “spelling” — is one syllable–“ma”. Thankfully there are tones to distinguish meanings, though — otherwise we would really be in trouble.

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