I am a native English speaker who is learning Mandarin Chinese for the AP Chinese test next year. I stumbled on this "anomaly", and I would like your help. Thank you.

  • I won't post this as an answer since I have no good evidence for my version, but you see, it is written as "3 clear rules" which exactly represents a sandwitch since a sandwitch has 3 parts - top, middle and bottom and they are very distinct and they are the rules by which a sandwitch is made - without them there is no sandwitch, and this is bright clear. Thank you.
    – noncom
    Jun 24, 2014 at 16:22
  • 1
    @noncom This may work as a mnemonic, but it is clearly an incorrect theory. As made clear by the answers below, it's a transliteration, nothing more. Jun 24, 2014 at 20:54

4 Answers 4


That 三明治 came from transcribing the English word Sandwich into Chinese. That is to say, it is meant to approximate the pronunciation of the English word. You aren't meant to interpret the individual characters literally.

As Stan points out, it is sometimes transcribed as 三文治 as well. Historically it has also been written as 三味治, but that's pretty much extinct.

  • 2
    And sometimes it is translated as 三文治.
    – Stan
    Jun 24, 2014 at 13:51

It's just a transliteration from "sandwich", does not have real meaning.

BTW: It's usually called "三文治" in Hong Kong and Macau.


I couldnt comment because I dont have 50 reputations but I have something i must say so I'll just post an answer.

Stumpy Joe Pete:

Since you are talking about in general, there are times education level and the result of borrowing word is relevant. I know linguists tend to consider more linguistic aspects of things, but this is just life and things aren't perfect. someone made a bad or arbitrary decision and people starting to use it, then it became a standard, such things happen. (hint: what are you typing with? Dvorak?)

Of course, this is not the case. Alex's comment might be a bit offensive, but you should try to respond professionally.

Edit: In no way I am saying one is more linguistic than other, that is for linguistic people to debate. I am a native speaker of Chinese, and I am simply commenting which practice I would prefer and why. Borrowing words by sound give new meaning to old characters, this becomes burden of memory and communication when it reaches a certain level. Sounds does not make sense on its own, unless you already know the roots in other language, but a translation by meaning would, to some point.

I do understand there are many today's common expressions are or partially are translated by sound (such as 苹果 for apple), it is not the case I'm against any of those or more of those. Some stuff are just hard to translate I agree. It is simply the case after arguing with people I still have to use this language every day, and I want it to be something I understand more easily if possible.


English is common for today's Japanese people. Have you heard them pronouncing it? I think its because the difference in sound is large and whether allowing closed syllables. The fact Chinese is strictly one syllable per character also played some role.

for the question:

Since nobody mentioned it. One possible reason this question is asked is: in mainland China, we strive to use less pronunciation based translations. Examples:

  • 奶酪 起司 cheese
  • 番茄酱 番茄沙司 ketchup(lit. tomato sauce, but we don't use the actual tomato sauce that much so)
  • 面包片 吐司 toast
  • 出租车 的士 taxi
  • 公共汽车 巴士 bus (for public transport system)

the left ones are what thought to be more "official" "written" "professional" in mainland china.

Chinese characters are meant to be the meaning of something mostly. We strive to reduce words like 三明治 is because having more translations that are mere symbol of sounds breaks the system.

  • thanks for elaborating on the point why things are not 'translated' correctly back in the old times. It is hard to explain what is a cassette when everyone owns an iphone~
    – Alex
    Jun 25, 2014 at 14:10
  • 3
    It is true that Chinese generally prefers calques over phonetic borrowings (especially mainland), but it's not the case that one is more "linguistic" than the other. Both are ways that words are borrowed from one language to another. It's also not the case that transliteration in Chinese is new--the meaning for 塔 of "tower" is from a transliteration of Sanskrit "stupa" into Chinese. Jun 25, 2014 at 16:05

Adding my 2 cents...
English was not properly pronunced during earlier age where it is not as common in China / Asia region. People will use similar terms to remember how it's prounced, for e.g.:

sand-wit-chi will be used to remember how sandwiches is prounced, and "sand" sounded similar to "三" and so on. These terms are then eventually became the item's name.

  • Transliteration is not "lazy pronunciation". Jun 24, 2014 at 20:52
  • Try to think of the time where people's average education level is around pre-junior high =)
    – Alex
    Jun 24, 2014 at 21:02
  • 5
    Education level is irrelevant. When a word is borrowed into a language, it needs to be adapted to the phonology of that language. "Bok choy" is pronounced [paːk˨ tsʰɔːi˧] in Cantonese but [bak tʃʰɔːi] in English. This is not because English speakers are uneducated or careless. It's because English phonology is totally different from Cantonese phonology! Similarly, "sandwich" has a phonetic structure that is incompatible with that of Mandarin, including the -nd- consonant cluster and final -ch. Jun 24, 2014 at 22:36
  • I did not mentioned it's the english speakers are uneducated or careless, in fact you might want to stop assuming things, and stop judging if it's correct to for such transliteration. It is simply a fact why these name comes up in this way. Speak with Chinese that born in America / Canada nowadays and you won't find such phonology differences. I do agree with Zuoanqh that it still exists nowaday (e.g. in Japan). Keep in mind what is the question, and read again my answer. I do not tend to explain orgins of things, just a fact why it's happening.
    – Alex
    Jun 25, 2014 at 14:00
  • 2
    三明治 is not an English word. It's a Chinese word. Pronounced by Chinese speakers. It's not a foreign language. It's been borrowed into Chinese and adapted to a pronunciation compatible with Chinese. The example I gave was going the other way: 白菜 was borrowed into English as "Bok Choy" (and the pronunciation was adapted to English phonology). Phonology is a property of a language, not of an individual. "Sandwich"=[sændwɪtʃ] is not a well-formed Mandarin word, regardless of how well educated someone is. 三明治=[san˥miŋ˧˥tʂɨ˥˩] is. Jun 25, 2014 at 16:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.