That Which We Call a Rose in Chinese Would Smell as Sweet?
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That Which We Call a Rose in Chinese Would Smell as Sweet?

Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are members of two warring families who fall in love in Shakespeare’s lyrical tale of these “star-cross’d” lovers.1 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.2

Branding experts have a thing or two to teach Juliet! Names have meaning, both intended—as in London Business School’s unambiguous denotation of where we offer what—and unintended, as in Toyota’s unfortunate model MR2 in French. This review goes beyond such obvious meanings, however, and takes Romeo and Juliet across the globe to Southeast Asia. Imagine the play was written not in the alphabetic English writing system, but using the Chinese logographs that are read by one-quarter of the world’s population in China, Japan, and Korea. I will review how even a fluent bilingual in Hong Kong will process, evaluate, and recall Shakespeare’s words differently in an alphabetic and logographic writing system; no matter how literal the translation.3

The Meaning of a Word

As Juliet tries to argue, alphabetic letters that are used in the Latin alphabet (e.g. English, German, and Spanish), and Arabic, Hebrew, and Cyrillic (e.g. Russian) writing systems are inherently meaningless. They represent sounds. And with 26 letters matched to over 3,500 syllables available, English is a sound-rich but visually-poor language. Quite the opposite is true for Chinese.

The over 10,000 Chinese logographs represent meaning and 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. Originally, the meanings of logographs were represented as pictorial abstractions. However, even though pictures are still used as a learning device for logographs, a Chinese reader will not experience reading a sentence as a string of pictures. Indeed, most words contain multiple logographs, many of which, or parts of which, indicate the word’s pronunciation without any reference to its meaning.

Nevertheless, Western marketers still need to be aware of logographs’ meanings when trying to create a Chinese version of a brand name. Supposedly, the logographs originally used for the Chinese version of Coca-Cola sounded similar to the English original but resulted in the rather surreal sequence of “bite the wax tadpole” in terms of their meaning. Today, Coca Cola’s logographs have the more fortunate meaning of “brings happiness to your mouth.” And these meanings matter: even when consumers do not try to actively make sense of the meaning inherent in a brand name’s Chinese logographs, they appear to influence consumer memory and evaluation. For example, if a brand name contains logographs that correspond in meaning to the product or service offered—as in the case of Coca Cola—this can improve memory for the brand name and the brand’s target claim.4 A brand name that is translated both in terms of sound and category meaning is also evaluated more favourably by proficient bilinguals than one translated either based on sound or meaning alone.5

The situation is more complicated in practice, however, as western brands in China commonly use a dual naming strategy in which both the original alphabetic name and the adapted Chinese name appear with equal or different prominence on the packaging. For example, when a translated Chinese name matches only the original’s sound but not meaning, it is evaluated more positively by bilinguals when the emphasis is on the original English brand name rather than Chinese translation (i.e., the original name is printed in a larger font). This is presumably because this type of emphasis pre-activates expectations about the Chinese translation’s pronunciation.6

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