I am working on a fantasy language and taking inspiration languages such as Chinese, specifically in regard to how it imports foreign words into its language. After reading Transcription into Chinese characters, most of the article is about "phono-semantic matching", where the Chinese rendition of a foreign word somewhat matches both the phonetic sound of the word, as well as the meaning.

shēngnà "sonar", uses the characters 声 shēng "sound" and 纳 nà "receive, accept".

Many other examples are given like this, such as for IKEA:

宜家 Yíjiā, "suitable/proper for a home".

The article says:

The expansion of Buddhism within China during the later Han and Three Kingdoms period required the transcription of a great many Sanskrit and Pali terms. According to the Song-era scholar Zhou Dunyi,[11] the monk and translator Xuanzang (of Journey to the West fame) handed down guidelines of "Five Kinds of Words Not to Translate" (simplified Chinese: 五种不翻; traditional Chinese: 五種不翻). He directed that transcription should be used instead of translation when the words are:

  1. Arcane, such as incantations
  2. Polysemous
  3. Not found in China
  4. Traditionally transcribed, not translated
  5. Lofty and subtle, which a translation might devalue or obscure

But it doesn't say much as far as I can tell about what words are purely phonetically transcribed, vs. which ones are purely semantically transcribed, vs. which are a mixture of both semantically and phonetically transcribed.

My question can be boiled down to two aspects:

  • What happens when you phonetically transcribe something and it turns out to mean something bad in Chinese?
  • What happens when you semantically transcribe something and it loses meaning or is not quite accurate?

It seems that if you end up with a bad-meaning word after phonetic transcription, you could modify/diverge from the phonetics even more to arrive at a potential better candidate. It seems that if you semantically transcribe with no phonetics, you might create confusion, I don't know. So then you end up with a word that is neither semantically or phonetically similar to the original foreign word, maybe like "Costco", who's Chinese name seems unrelated in any respect other than meaning.

Costco as 好市多 Hǎoshìduō, "market of many great things".

So I guess you could call that semantically similar.

The Organic Chemistry nomenclature in Chinese has many words which have seemingly completely unrelated/random meanings, like:

肼 hydrazine (井 jǐng 'a well')

So can you have "transliterations" which are neither phonetically nor semantically meaningful, in Chinese? How common is that? And how common is purely phonetic transliterations?

1 Answer 1


So can you have "transliterations" which are neither phonetically nor semantically meaningful, in Chinese? How common is that?

"transliterations" by definition must be phonetically similar to the original text. Most transliterations do not make any sense in the Chinese language.

For example, "阿迪达斯" for "Adidas"

Each character in "阿迪达斯" contains its own meaning(s) but put them together doesn't create any meaningful context

A transliteration that has some meaning is rare, and a transliteration that matches the original text semantically is even rarer

And how common is purely phonetic transliterations?

Most transliterations are purely phonetic


IKEA --> 宜家 is a great one

Revlon --> 露華濃 (came from 「雲想衣裳花想容,春風拂檻露華濃」-- a famous Chinese poem that describes a beautiful lady)

It is a great partial transliteration (Revlon -->華濃) that semantically related the original words. It requires great literary skill to come up with such an elegant brand name

  • How do you know it is a phonetic word you are reading and not the sequence of characters with their base meanings, is my next question :)
    – Lance
    Commented Oct 18, 2022 at 8:31

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