Similar to my last question, I am looking at the list of common bird names in English and trying to understand how Chinese would represent the more complex ones, such as:

Chestnut-breasted whiteface
Common scale-backed antbird
Cinnamon-throated woodcreeper
Double-banded greytail

Specifically, in these, there is the - hyphen, and within the hyphen in some cases, there is the -ed, so there is 3 layers of nesting:

  1. The whole noun phrase.
  2. Words separated by hyphens.
  3. Word parts like -ed.

How would you do a literal Chinese gloss for things like this (doesn't have to be my examples, but any complex noun phrase would work).

My "literal English gloss" for some of these might be:

Common scale-back-containing ant-bird (6 words)
Double-band-containing grey-tail (5 words)

That is, the -ed turns into a full-fledged word, and the subwords are expanded. I would expect in Chinese to find these named 6 and 5 words respectively, as well. But I imagine they are 3 or 4 words, so I'm wondering what Chinese is doing with the extra context which English provides, and how it can get by with less than what English is doing.

One that I recently made up:

Slippery-skinned yellow-green tree-toad
Slippery-skinned yellow-green tree-(big-frog)
Slip-inducing-skin-containing yellow-green tree-(big-frog)
# or more accurately...
(((Slip-inducing)-skin-containing) (yellow-green) (tree-(big-frog)))

The nesting becomes complex, and I don't see how without extra cues a language like Chinese can get the meaning across. How does it do it? What do I need to know about Chinese that will help me understand how it can handle complex noun phrases like this.

A major problem that I foresee is solved by English hyphens:

Yellow-belly tree-frog
# vs.
Yellow belly-tree frog


Cinnamon-band wood-creeper
Cinnamon band-wood creeper

The hyphens tell you how the things relate, and intonation gives you the context when talking. I'm not sure how Chinese can handle that.

1 Answer 1


Half of these constructions exist only because of English's own characteristics. English words are separated by spaces, so you need the hyphen to signal that it's a single phrase. You also can't simply stack a noun to modify another noun, so the -ed is used. These are no problems in Chinese. So:

Chestnut-breasted whiteface -> 栗胸白面(鸟/雀)

Common scale-backed antbird -> 常见鳞背蚁鸟

Cinnamon-throated woodcreeper -> 桂皮喉砍林鸟

Double-banded greytail -> 双带灰尾(鸟)

Slippery-skinned yellow-green tree-toad -> 滑皮黄绿树蛙

(These are simply the literal translations, they are not necessarily what the specific species are called in Chinese, nor do they reflect proper taxonomy conventions)

Now granted, certain phrases are more difficult to translate elegantly, and as the phrase becomes more complex the translation may become a bit unwieldy. However you seem to be under the impression that a Chinese translation would need to recursively go through all the hidden structures in English, that's not how language operates. If English speakers can infer (((Slip-inducing)-skin-containing) from "slippery-skinned", so can Chinese speakers from an equivalently simple structure.

As of "the major problem solved by hyphen", I find it unlikely that if I take out all the hyphens in "Yellow belly tree frog" people will start to ask what a "belly tree" is. It's non-problem to begin with.

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