Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Three-language Punning
October 24, 2011 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - 20 comments

Bilingual puns are even lamer than monolingual puns. But don’t the bilinguals love them. And it gets worse. Trilingual puns, which by definition too clever by half, are the lamest of all, but are now the basis for an ad campaign in Hong Kong.

Sarah Mishkin reports in the Financial Times: Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog, wants to expand its audience in Hong Kong but it faces competition from Facebook, which is banned on the mainland. Not only that, but the site from Mandarin-speaking mainland China must win over the local Cantonese-speaking population, who write Chinese differently and sometimes mix in a little English for added “cool” factor.

The answer: boldly colored wraparound ads on 150 buses that shout out “Wei!” (“Hey!”) in pixelated roman letters. [See bus above.] Weibo means “microblog” in Mandarin, but “wei” also happens to be Cantonese slang for “hello”.

The ad’s tagline – “Come to Weibo and share your enjoyment” – is equally punny. Rather than write out in full the Chinese characters for “share your enjoyment” (pronounced funheung in Cantonese), the first syllable, “fun”, is written in English, followed by the Chinese character for enjoyment.

For the ad’s bilingual target audience, the wordplay intends to emphasis the fun aspects of personal blogging and gives the mainland Sina brand a jolt of Anglo-Hong Kong hipness.

Despite its official presence, one thing that Mainland Mandarin isn’t in Hong Kong is hip. Most Hong Kong-ites speak Cantonese at home, and about 40% of ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong speak English fluently, but lots more code switch between Cantonese and English, mixing the two grammars and vocabulary as the whim strikes.

When the Beijing government booted the Brits in 1997, the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administration Region) adopted the “biliterate and trilingual” (兩文三語) policy. Under this policy, Chinese and English remain official languages, with Cantonese acknowledged as the de facto official spoken variety of Chinese in Hong Kong.

But when it comes to the printed word, Hong Kong uses Chinese as written in Mandarin, which is quite different from spoken Cantonese in grammar and vocabulary.

There is another set of characters used for written Cantonese, which is gaining popularity in newspapers and magazines for quotations and sections dealing with entertainment and local issues.

Traditional Chinese characters are widely used to write Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, and are the de facto writing standard in Hong Kong. However there are some special simplifications to written Chinese in Hong Kong in addition to Mainland-style Simplified Chinese. Nevertheless, Hong Kong-alese feel a sense of cultural attachment to tha  told fashioned traditional Chinese which means that character choice in Hong Kong will never be simple.

Funny, right? Trilingual puns are always funnier when accompanied by a detailed discussions of language administration and orthography. And I haven’t even worked in the whole Opium War bit. Side splitting.

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