You Can Already Speak 200 Words in Chinese

some fake chinese calligraphy

A Chinese fisherman catching fish with his net in a lake beside beautiful mountains.

Photo by Sam Beasley on Unsplash

I’m a lazy bum when it comes to doing things consistently over the long term. I like to call it my own special version of Long-Term-ADHD, but really it’s just pointing to my weird enjoyment for pseudo-chaos in life.

One of these long-term on-and-off-again yearnings of mine has been learning to read, speak, and listen to Mandarin Chinese. (Screw writing — that’s way too hard!)

And I’m not bad at it, don’t get me wrong…at least for a white guy — I tell myself.

I’ve been living in different parts of Asia for over 10 years now. And pretty much every country I go to, at some point I give up on learning the local language.

But not Mandarin. That is a beast I still yearn to conquer.

And I’ve tried over and over again throughout the years. Short bursts of incredibly fast learning followed up by a break in my routine, then guilt for not getting back to it for half a year.

But while I was sitting at a local late-night breakfast shop last week ordering my usual Chinese pancake, I laughed at myself in a characteristically insane fashion.

I ordered a 起司培根蛋餅 (cheese bacon pancake) from the lovely old shop owner, but I forgot to use the actual language…

I said “cheese bacon dawn bing” and she knew exactly what I wanted.

At that point I was reminded of the many, many words that were borrowed from other languages.

They’re called ‘loanwords’ and I love them.

What Are Loanwords in Chinese?

According to Wikipedia, there are at least 208 loanwords taken from English and used regularly in Chinese. To make matters even more complicated/amusing, some of the words were actually loaned to English in the first place from other languages.

Think of pizza (Italian), bourgeois (French), or coffee (Dutch).

Those same words in Chinese?

  • Pizza — 比薩 Bǐsà
  • Bourgeois — 布爾喬亞 Bù ěrqiáoyà
  • Coffee — 咖啡 Kāfēi

These words often have a funny history as well.

Of course, before globalization, the amount of these loanwords was substantially less.

But as the East met the West more and more often in the pursuit of the greatest useless passion in life — money — both cultures didn’t share all of the exact same words.

The Chinese didn’t know what a blog was (博客 Bókè) before reading about it online.

Chinese ex-pats had no idea how to tell their friends back home about this fancy new music from Chicago called the blues (布魯斯 Bùlǔsī).

And of course, when they found this amazingly crazy style of chocolatey goodness in the form of a baked squishy square, they had to keep the name as O.G. as possible (布朗尼蛋糕 Bùlǎng ní dàngāo).

The process was simple as it is strange — to foreign ears at least.

Take an English word (or from another language), then use one of the 50+ phonemes in Mandarin and try to match them.

Pizza becomes bi-sa. Coffee becomes ka-fei. Brownie becomes bu-lang-ni. And so on.

They even do it to Western names, much to the occasional amusement of people that understand the meanings.

To make matters even, uh, amusinger, names of celebrities will sometimes combine in a form of linguistic humor — taking their traits/movie characters/English names to create fantastical versions in Mandarin.

  • Calvin Harris becomes gāo shuài (高富帥) — Mr. Perfect (The first two characters also sound like ‘Calv’)
  • Nicki Minaj becomes Málà jī (麻辣雞) — Spicy chicken (Sounds like Minaj and ‘spicy’ is slang for ‘sexy’ in Chinese)
  • Jennifer Lopez becomes Luó bà (箩霸) — Lord of baskets (from a clever-but-probably sexist combination of booty + Lopez).
  • Leonardo DiCaprio becomes lǐào nà duō (李奥那多) — No meaning, just a transliteration.

English Loanwords in Chinese

But enough about the meaning, you’re here to speak some Chinese, dammit! Chinese that you already know, that is.

I’ve selected a bunch from the big last that you might be interested in below. Note, the Mandarin is in simplified format:ut a list of a bunch that you may be interested in below:

Amen āmen 阿们
ammonia āmóníyà 阿摩尼亚
amoxicillin āmòxīlín 阿莫西林
ampere ānpéi 安培
amphetamine ānfēitāmìng 安非他命
aspartame āsībātián 阿斯巴甜
Aspirin āsīpílín 阿斯匹林
bacon péigēn 培根
bagel bèiguǒ 贝果
ballet bālěi 芭蕾
bandage bēngdài 绷带
banjo bānzhuóqín 班卓琴
bar bā 吧 / 酒吧
bazooka bāzǔkǎ 巴祖卡
beer píjiǔ 啤酒
bikini bǐjīní 比基尼
bingo bīnguǒ 宾果
bit (unit of information) bǐtè 比特
blog bókè 博客
blues bùlǔsī 布鲁斯
bourgeois bù'ěrqiáoyà 布尔乔亚
brownie bùlǎngní 布朗尼
bungee jumping bèngjí 蹦极
bus bāshì 巴士
bye-bye bàibài 拜拜
caffeine kāfēiyīn 咖啡因
calorie kǎlùlǐ 卡路里
cartoon kǎtōng 卡通
cashmere kāishìmǐ 开士米
cheese qǐsī/qishì/zhīshì 起司 / 奇士 / 芝士
cherry chēlízi 车厘子
chocolate qiǎokèlì 巧克力
cider xīdá 西打
clone kèlóng 克隆
Coca, Coke kějiā 可加
Coca-Cola kěkǒu kělè 可口可乐
cola kělè 可乐
cocoa kěkě 可可
coffee or café kāfēi 咖啡
cool kù 酷
couch or sofa shāfā 沙发
coup d'état kǔdiédǎ 苦迭打
crêpe kělìbǐng 可丽饼
croissant kěsòng 可颂
cumin kūmíng 枯茗
curry gālí 咖喱
didgeridoo díjílǐdùguǎn 迪吉里杜管
disco dísīkě 迪斯科
drive-thru déláisù 得来速
eureka yóulǐkǎ 尤里卡
fantasy fàntèxī 范特西
fascism fǎxīsī 法西斯
fillet fēilì 菲力
geek jíkè 极客
ghetto gédōu 隔都
go-kart gāokǎchē 高卡车
golf gāoěrfū 高尔夫
guitar jítā 吉他
hacker hēikè 黑客
hallelujah hālìlùyà 哈利路亚
hamburger hànbǎobāo 汉堡包
hello hālóu 哈喽
hippie xīpí 嘻皮
hot dog règǒu 热狗
jacket jiākè 夹克
jazz juéshìwǔ 爵士舞
Jeep jípǔchē 吉普车
jitterbug jítèbā 吉特巴
khaki kǎqí 卡其
latte nátiě 拿铁
lemon níngméng 柠檬
liquor lìkǒujiǔ 利口酒
logic luóji 逻辑
mankini nánjīní 男基尼
margarine màiqílín 麦淇淋
marker mǎkèbǐ 马克笔
massage mǎshājī 马杀鸡
microphone màikèfēng 麦克风
milkshake nǎixī 奶昔
mommy māmi 妈咪
mosaic mǎsàikè 马赛克
motor mótuō 摩托
mozzarella mòzālǐlā, mǎsūlǐlā 莫扎里拉,马苏里拉
muffin mǎfēn 玛芬
Nazi Nàcuì 纳粹
neon níhóng 霓虹
nicotine nígǔdīng 尼古丁
parfait bāfēi 芭菲
parka pàikè dàyī 派克大衣
party pàiduì 派对
pickup truck píkǎ 皮卡(车)
pizza pīsà/bǐsà 披萨/比萨
poker pūkè 扑克
pudding bùdīng 布丁
punk péngkè 朋克
radar léidá 雷达
romance luómànshǐ, làngmàn 罗曼史,浪漫
salad shālà, shalǜ 沙拉,沙律
salmon sānwényú 三文鱼
salon shālóng 沙龙
sandwich sānmíngzhì 三明治
sardine shādīngyú 沙丁鱼
saxophone sàkèsī(fēng) 萨克斯,萨克斯风
sherry xuělìjiǔ 雪利酒
snooker sīnuòkè 斯诺克
soda sūdá 苏打
sundae shèngdài, xīndì 圣代,新地
ping-pong pīngpāng 乒乓
talk show tuōkǒuxiù 脱口秀
tango tàngē 探戈
tank tǎnkè 坦克
tarot tǎluó 塔罗
Teflon tèfùlóng 特富龙
telephone délǜfēng 德律风
ten-pin bowling (or the ball) bǎolíngqiú 保龄球
toffee tàifēitáng 太妃糖
tuna tūnnáyú 吞拿鱼
turquoise tǔ'ěrqíshí 土耳其石
vitamin wéitāmìng 维他命
vodka fútéjiā 伏特加
whisky wēishìjì 威士忌
yoga yújiā 瑜钾
yogurt yōugé 优格
yo-yo yōuyōuqiú 悠悠球
yuppie yǎpíshì 雅皮士

I hope you enjoyed this little factoid article it! And just in case you think that’s weird, there’s over 90 Chinese words we use in everyday English!

Soy, wonton, tofu, ramen, and the phrase ‘long time no see’ are just a few examples.

Learning different languages can often be made a lot more interesting when we find ways to tie them back to our own culture — and the difficult journey of Mandarin is no different.


J.J. Pryor

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