“four character reference letters”

A document referred to someone providing

four character reference letters

Microsoft Word’s grammar checker suggested changing that to

four-character references letters

Chengyu are traditional Chinese idiomatic expressions, most of which consist of four hanzi characters. A four-character reference letter might read:

To whom it may concern,
Fred is crouching tiger, hidden dragon
Yours sincerely,
A Manager 


oo or u

A document referred to the “Pashtoon” people of Afghanistan, which is the spelling used in the applicant’s written submissions. The usual spelling is Pashtun, and quotations from other sources in the document used that spelling. 

The advantage of using <u> instead of <oo> is that it’s one less letter. The disadvantage is that the default pronunciation of <u> is /ʌ/, so Pashtun would possibly rhyme with Dunne, whereas the default pronunciation of <oo> is /u:/, so it would definitely rhyme with Doone

According to Google Ngrams, Pashtoon dates from 1945 and 1953, which is puzzling, given the British wars in Afghanistan from 1839 (maybe they were just Afghans or natives in those days, because there was no reason to distinguish any one group from any other). The two spellings were used about the same until Pashtun became the preferred spelling from the 1980s (the Soviet invasion) and especially 2005 (the US invasion).

Compare Hindoo and Hindu, where there is no ambiguity of pronunciation: <u> at the end of a word can only be /u:/. The two spellings were used about the same until Hindu became the preferred spelling from the 1940s (leading up to Indian independence). 

Two more words which spring to mind are igloo (Inuit) and kangaroo (Guugu Yimithirr). Igloo is now linguistically transcribed as iglu, while the first recorded spelling of kangaroo was kanguru (Joseph Banks) and the linguistically reconstructed spelling is gangurru. (Various other spellings were used along the way.) Needless to say, the standard and most common spellings in English are igloo and kangaroo (and Pashtun and Hindu). While the plural of iglu is igluit and the plural of gangurru is gangurru-ngay (Haviland 1979),  the plurals in English are igloos and kangaroos (though Linus van Pelt attempted to make igli out of eggshells). Note that in Inuit, iglu refers to any kind of house, while in Guugu Yimithirr, gungurru refers to one specific species of macropod. Also, the people of the Sydney region had no idea what the British were talking about when they used this North Queensland word.

There are also the Chinese names Hu and Hoo, Wu and Woo, which seem to be interchangeable, but for some reason Hoo Jintao looks less presidential than Hu Jintao. Korean 문 can be Mun (ambiguous) or Moon (unambiguous, but possibly causing confusion with the the identically-spelled English word). I once had a colleague with the first name Mun (rhyming with Dunne), who I think was of Malay or Singapore Chinese heritage.

The horse is good

Between my first and second trips to Korea I gained a masters degree by online study. One of my subjects was Asian Languages, and the textbook was The Languages of East and South-East Asia by Cliff Goddard. The cover has words in three or four scripts, and the presence of the Korean word 말 (mal, word or language) in the bottom left-hand corner made me suspect that all of them had something to do with words or languages. 

One day the manager of the language college I was working at noticed the book on my desk and asked me if I knew what the first row of Chinese said. I said I didn’t. He explained that it was a four-character phrase (which I think I’d vaguely heard or read about) and said that it means something like “Few words, many actions” (more about which later). 

Soon after, my class had their weekly test and I took the book into the classroom to read or at least browse while I was supervising them. One young Chinese student took a long time to settle down to doing the test, so I held up the book and pointed to those words. That shocked her into doing her test. 

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the short and long of it

Before I went to Korea for the first time, I bought, among other things, the then-current edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Korea. In the Culture section, it says:

Traditional saying provide an uncensored insight into a nation’s psyche.

An unblemished character is a Korean’s most treasured possession. To avoid any suspicion of being a thief, ‘Do not tie your shoelaces in a melon patch or touch your hat under a pear tree.’

Yesterday evening I was browsing through TV Tropes and found its page for Translation: “Yes”, which it explains:

While we commonly expect short phrases in one language to be equally short in another, sometimes short phrases are translated into surprisingly long ones: however, many shows parody this completely by having a single word become a long phrase in English, or a ridiculously long phrase to a single English word, often the word ‘Yes’.

I noticed this many years ago when proofreading transcripts of court proceedings against the audio recording. There would be exchanges like:

Barrister (in English): Did you see the accused do something on the night in question?
Interpreter (in other language): [Approximately that long sentence.]
Witness (in other language): [Very long sentence.]
Interpreter (in English): Yes. 

The judge and barristers never seemed to notice or question this.

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Taking a break from watching travel videos of South Korea, I was watching travel videos of Japan. One presenter for a professional series of videos said something formulaic before enough of his meals that I noticed it, but he said it so fast that I had no chance of catching it. The internet to the rescue. It’s itadakimasu, which is variously explained by various people on the internet, and I won’t attempt to get to the bottom of it. Clearly, it is very different from Korean 잘 먹겠습니다 (jal meok-kess-seum-ni-da, I will eat well). 

Before drinking, he said something which I caught as kampai or gampai, which the internet tells me is kanpai, which is clearly related to the Korean which I remembered and searched for as geombae, but which the internet tells me is geonbae. So who borrowed the expression from whom? Neither – they both borrowed it from the Chinese, who say ganbei. Either way, it means empty cup, but does not necessarily require that all the contents should be drunk immediately. First up in the meal, it probably has that result, but later, after some consumption, I for one would take a sip rather than down the lot. Koreans now also say 원샷! (one shot). It is also more associated with soju and beer rather than makgeolli or wine.

My hearing the Japanese word as kampai and remembering the Korean word as geombae is another example of assimilation. Once you are pronouncing /n/, then close your lips for the beginning of /b/, the /n/ turns into an /m/. If you say it fast enough, the /n/ disappears completely. The same process happens in Latin/English in + bibere > imbibe (seeing that we’re talking about drinking). But the Latin/English spelling changed to reflect the pronunciation, while the Korean spelling 건배 retains the original form.

While English-speaking cooks/hosts can say ‘Enjoy your meal’ (most formally – there are also a number of less formal things to say), there is nothing really for the rest of us to say. It would sound strange to say ‘I will enjoy my meal’ before a meal, while ’Thank you/Thanks for the meal’ is more usually said after the meal. Saying a prayer doesn’t overcome the problem, because praying is talking to God, not to the cook/host, even if we add thanks for the cook/host’s time and effort after our thanks for the food. 


A Korean friend posted photos and a description of a traditional ceremony he hosted. The auto-translation referred to it half the time as a ‘car ceremony’ and the other half as a ‘tea ceremony’. It is, of course, the latter. Most Korean as a second language textbooks give 차 as an example of a word with two distinct meanings: car (also 자동차 – automatic car or automobile) and tea. The Korean words represent two different Chinese characters, which are possibly pronounced with two different tones in Chinese (Korean isn’t a tonal language). 

The Chinese character 茶 had/has several pronunciations in different parts of China. The countries which traded with northern China picked up the pronunciation chá (for example, Indian chai) and those which traded with south-eastern China picked up ta or te (for example, English, and French thé). Almost every language uses a variation of one of those two pronunciations. 

It is usually easy to tell the difference. Ubiquitous in South Korea are signs saying 주차금지 (ju-cha-geum-ji), which means ‘no parking’ (which Koreans usually ignore anyway), not ‘no drinking jujube tea’.

In fact, Google Translate has just informed me that the Korean word for difference is also 차, so you need to know the 차 between 차 and 차. (Or you just go ahead and cha-cha-cha!)

(As far as I know, 차 was originally used for hand or horse carts before being applied to motor vehicles, similarly to English chariot, carriage, cart and car. For a while, people spoke and wrote about motorised carriages, which became motor cars, which became motors (in a few varieties) and cars (standardly). The English and Korean words are otherwise unrelated.)

PS 19 Oct 2021 – I stumbled across a reference to the series Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha. The trailer includes a play on ‘car’ and ‘tea’. My wife confirmed that 차 있어요? is ambiguous without context in Korean.


Friday was a traditional festival in China and Korea (and other East and South-East Asian countries). By coincidence, the first two students to arrive yesterday (Saturday) were from those two countries, so I asked them if they’d done anything special. Neither had. 

I asked the Chinese student what he would call the festival in English, and he just couldn’t say. I told him that it’s usually called ‘Mid-Autumn Festival’, and he seemed surprised at that. The Chinese name is 中秋節 (zhōngqiū jié), literally middle-autumn-festival. Other possible names in English are ‘Chinese Traditional Thanksgiving’ or ‘Harvest Moon Festival’, though with increasingly urbanised life, the link to the moon and harvest is being lost. Maybe in country areas it’s stronger.

The Korean name is 추석 (chu-soek), which might mean ‘Autumn Eve’ Google Translate simply translates it as ‘Chuseok’, and Bing Translator as ‘Thanksgiving’. Google doesn’t translate ‘chu’ and ‘seok’ by themselves as anything relevant. Bing translates ‘chu’ as ‘autumn’ , but it certainly isn’t the standard word for autumn, which is 가을, but ‘seok’ as nothing relevant.

Wikipedia also calls Chuseok by the hanja (Chinese characters traditionally used in Korea) 秋夕, qiū xī, which translates as ‘autumn eve’ (or ‘autumn evening’) (which Google and Bing both agree with). (The first character of that is the same as the second character of the Chinese festival’s name.)

For what it’s worth, Wikipedia’s article on the Chinese festival is named ‘Mid-Autumn Festival’ and the one on the Korean festival is named ‘Chuseok’. 

gong hay fat choy and gong xi fa cai

From the time of the gold rushes of the 1850s to about 1989, most Chinese people who came to Australia were from the southern provinces and spoke Cantonese, Hokkien or Hakka. I can remember seeing Lunar New Year decorations and advertisements saying gong hay fat choy (or variations thereof). 

About nine years ago I started teaching at a college which overwhelmingly catered to Chinese students. It being February, I started with gong hay fat choy! and no-one understood me, because they all spoke Mandarin (and/or because my Chinese pronunciation is so bad). Finally one student understood what I was trying to say.

Especially post-Tiananmen Square, more people from the northern provinces came here and Mandarin gradually overtook Cantonese as the most-spoken kind of Chinese. The 2016 Australian census reported that 2.5% of Australians speak Mandarin at home, alongside Cantonese at 1.2%, and Arabic, Vietnamese, Italian and Greek (with between 1.4 and 1% each).

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