Would a "rose" in Chinese smell as sweet?

Marketers must be aware of the differences inherent in processing the Chinese and English languages, asserts Nader Tavassoli, as brand ...


Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are members of two warring families who fall in love in Shakespeare’s lyrical tale of starcrossed lovers. With “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet,” Juliet argues that a name is a meaningless convention, and that she loves the person who is called “Montague”, not the Montague name and not the Montague family.

Branding experts have a thing or two to teach Juliet. Names often convey meaning, both intended – as in Starbucks’ brilliant invention of its frothy concoction “Frappuccino” – and unintended, as in Toyota’s unfortunate model “MR2” in French (the designation when spoken en français sounds too much like a crude epithet; in Paris, ask for a “Coupe MR”). So, with apologies to Mr Shakespeare, a rose by any other name just might smell rotten. Words have meanings, and meanings can make a big difference in the marketplace.

Now, jump to Southeast Asia and we’ll explore how all this translates into a language built with icons. Imagine Romeo and Juliet written not in alphabetic English but penned using the Chinese logographs that are read by one-quarter of the world’s population – across China, Japan, and Korea. Even a fluent bilingual in Hong Kong will process, evaluate, and recall Shakespeare’s words differently in an alphabetic versus a logographic writing system, no matter how literal the translation.

Bite the wax tadpole

As Juliet might argue the point: alphabetic letters that are used in the Latin alphabet (for example, English, German, and Spanish) and Arabic, Hebrew, and Cyrillic (for example, Russian) writing systems are inherently meaningless. They are simply sounds. And, in our language, with 26 letters matched to over 3,500 available syllables, English is a soundrich but visually poor language. Quite the opposite is true for Chinese.

The over 10,000 Chinese logographs represent meaning; each corresponds to a single spoken syllable. Mandarin Chinese, which has only about 450 syllables available, is relatively sound starved. This results in an abundance of homophones: words that mean different things but are pronounced in the same way, much like “dear” and “deer” in English. In contrast, logographs are visually rich, each consisting of a unique stroke combination.

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