Coffee – let’s Chinese-ify this.

Some Chinese words are seemingly impossibly to pronounce, with an exotic mix of vowels, tones and q’s in places they certainly should not be. Others – not so much. Take 咖啡 (meaning coffee) which is pronounced ‘ka fei’ – simply ‘coffee’, split into syllables to pass off as a Chinese word. Other languages may simply accept that they need to import foreign words (my favourite is ‘geyoutubt’ in German), but Chinese seems to be very stubborn. Despite some suspicious efforts (巴士, bu-shi, meaning ‘bus’, anyone? and the truly amazing 代拿买特, dài-ná-mǎi-tè, meaning, well, say it out loud.), Chinese seems set on the Chinese-ifying of all of the West.

Yet these loanwords then have to pick up the existing words and make sense out of them. The word ‘lace’ takes the vague sound ‘lei-si’, but then has to adopt the existing characters ‘ 蕾丝’, which separately mean ‘bud’ and ‘silk’, which can lead to some confusion when you’re trying to read! The seemingly innocent ‘咖啡’ (depending on how you read it) can either be a funny transliteration, or directly translate as ‘curry morphine’.

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Despite the millennia of philosophical tea drinking in China (A Cuppa Cha, anyone?), coffee has exploded in China only over the last 15 years or so. Nearly tripling since 2012, the market is one of the fastest growing in the world. As the Chinese middle class grows, coffee shops are the affordable luxury which mark them apart from their grandparents. It’s estimated that one and a half new Starbucks cafés open in China every day, yet the vast majority of coffee drunk in China is instant, and drunk at home, with most Chinese only drinking less than 10 cups of coffee every year. Yet as American-branded coffee becomes more expensive, it becomes a symbol of luxury and status, and the crowds will rush.


Things I’ve learned this week:

  • All words must be Chinese-ified!
  • Curry morphine may be less popular as a selling point than ‘coffee’
  • Bang, there’s a new Chinese Starbucks. See you tomorrow for another one.

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