乡音苑 Phonemica
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A panorama of local languages, through stories told by their speakers

Mandarin : 205
Wú (Shanghai) : 70
Mǐn : 44
Cantonese : 41
Hakka : 40
Gàn : 29
Xiāng (Changsha) : 25
Jìn : 24
Píng Hé Tǔ Huà : 3
Wǎ Xiāng Huà : 1
Hui : 1
Multiple Dialects : 1

recent blog posts

Sinonym -- a naming consultancy and new Phonemica partner

International commerce and Chinese dialects. Do these two go together? Through Sinonym, a Chinese naming consultancy, I think they do. Let me explain...

I actually work in both worlds: commerce and dialects.

As far as commerce goes, each spring and fall I wear my Guanghua international MBA hat, walking through the beautiful Peking University campus to teach innovation, entrepreneurship, and social responsibility. I have also consulted in marketing and market research for years.

And as far as Chinese dialects go, if you’re reading this blog you know that I have a bit of a passion for them, even if they’re not an academic specialty for me as they are for my co-founder, Kellen Parker, and for many of our volunteers.

Sometimes, though, worlds collide. So today I’m very excited to talk about the place where commerce and dialects intersect: in the brands, products, and taglines of foreign enterprises competing in the Chinese market.

To non-specialists it’s often a bit of a surprise that this discipline exists. Why would companies, even huge corporations, need expert advice on naming? After all, they’ve got Chinese employees who understand their products. They’ve got creative people. And anyway why would they care about dialects? All Chinese names are in standard Mandarin anyway, right?

To supporters and fans of Phonemica, though, the linguistic situation is much more nuanced. Bring up the idea of selecting a "Chinese" name and those with an understanding of the Chinese linguistic reality will immediately understand how fraught the naming decision is. Characters may be the same (sort of), but the implications across dialects are not. Sure, you need a creative team to come up with memorable names and ideas. But that’s just the beginning.

To ensure a marketable name across China, you need to consult with natives of all the major Chinese dialects. Each one has millions of speakers, and the potential for product-killing error is real. A name perfectly acceptable in Mandarin might have unpleasant associations in, say, Cantonese. The standard Mandarin pronunciation of a name might be perfectly innocent, but ported over to a local accent or dialect might be more mischievous than you’d bargained for.

History, pop culture, divergent dialects -- all must be considered before selecting a product name, a brand name, or a tagline.

Seeing this need in my consulting work, a few months ago I teamed up with my friend, China entrepreneur and Guanghua MBA graduate Matthieu David-Experton. Sinonym is the company we’ve started as a result -- a consultancy to provide clients with naming and language expertise.

Of course we don’t do Sinonym by ourselves. First, there’s a creative team -- the kinds of people who can perform the mental gymnastics of jumping from product concept to emotional association to demographic target market. They’re the ones that generate a pool of potential names for testing.

Then there’s Phonemica. Here we encounter many folks with a passion for language who are working to build a public good: a storehouse of individual histories, cultural heritage, and linguistic diversity. For Sinonym, we have built a small, linguistically nimble team of Phonemica folks who provide name and tagline feedback, specific to each person’s native Chinese dialect. The team is well-rounded in cultural knowledge as well as linguistic knowledge, since every imaginable dimension must be considered.

In return for the Phonemica association, Sinonym donates 5% of profits to Phonemica. It’s an arrangement that fits with the hope that Phonemica can eventually be self-sustaining. As you may have read in some of our recent interviews, we are very actively looking for companies that are willing to support the project. Although we are largely a volunteer organization, we still have direct expenses: a small core team of employees, hosting, etc.

If you have any interest in being part of the Sinonym feedback team, I invite you to send me a note. Likewise, if you’ve got an interest in any other part of what Sinonym is doing, or you’d like to talk about helping support Phonemica, I’d be very interested in hearing from you. (steve@phonemica.net)


Announcing Phonemica 2.0

Today marks exactly one year since our official launch. In that year we’ve seen around 400 recordings come in, we’ve had over 9000 users register. We’ve been fortunate enough to meet many of our users and volunteers, and we’ve had a hell of a lot of fun doing it. With that in mind, it’s time for an update. Because the other thing this past year has shown us is how to improve the project. And so, with that in mind, we’ve been working our butts off these past two weeks to completely rewrite the site from the ground up. The database is new. The code is new. And hopefully you’ll notice many of the improvements we’ve been working on. But in case any of them aren’t obvious, we’d like to take a moment to introduce to you some of the changes.

What’s New in the Update?

The Map

  • Brand new map system, free of the Google API that was causing some problems for users in China
  • An all-new map design just for Phonemica
  • You can now search the map by location. Jump straight to your hometown and see what’s nearby
  • Faster map filtering
  • Use the map to search recordings for keywords. Want to see how many of our speakers say the word “fishmonger”? Now you can, plotted right there on the map.

Dialect classification

The site previously was following the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s 1987 classification. We’ve always known we wanted to update that, and have met with members of the Academy numerous times in cooperation to this end. However after a few snags and delays, we’re finally going ahead with an updated classification. You’ll see this reflected in some dialect name changes, and a few reassignments of recordings.

Backend upgrades

  • much more responsive transcript scrolling and timing
  • database queries have been optimised, meaning less chance of the site being overloaded in peak times
  • rewritten site code means more stability and less chance of stray bugs left over from very early versions of the site that were never really sorted out until now.
  • Uploading

If you’ve submitted a recording in the last couple months, you’ve already seen an improvement in the uploading process. We’re not done improving it. We’ve taken it a step further, making the whole process simpler and faster for you, with more improvements being planned after some initial testing.

Managing your own recordings

You now have the ability to edit titles and subtitles of your own recordings. We’ll soon be adding the ability to do more recording management for those that you’ve uploaded, which I’ll list below.

Additional site localisations

Before, if you wanted to view the site, you were limited to English or Chinese, in either simplified or traditional characters. We’ve added the ability to add further localisations, and we’re already mostly done with a Korean translation of the interface. This will allow a much larger user base to view the site. If you’re interested in helping us create further localisations, please get in touch with me at keyilan@phonemica.net and I’ll be happy to work with you to set up the interface in other languages.

Coming soon

You didn’t think we were done there, did you? We’ve actually got a lot more that we’ve been working on recently and that we hope to make available to you in the coming month. However in order to make it as easy to use and as useful as possible, we’re still doing a bit of testing, so we’re not releasing it just yet. But I can still tell you about it.

Re-segmenting your recordings

Coming very soon is the ability to edit the timing of segments on your recordings. In other words, you can adjust the timing of the phrases in the transcript, making the segments line up better with the actual words and phrases of the speaker. This has been something we’ve wanted to improve for a long time, and in doing so to give you more control over your own submissions. Here’s a quick sneak peek at the tool:

Streamlining the upload process

Submitting recordings is still not as clear and easy as we want it to be. We’re still working to improve the process to make it totally straightforward. We know any extra time you have to spend on the process is that much more to deter you from actually taking that time, and so we want to remove all the obstacles. Already it’s simpler than it was a week ago. We’ll be improving it even more in the coming month.

User-based mapping updates

We’re also working on a system to allow users to make changes to the map data. Since much of the base data has come from open source data sets, there are sure to be some mistakes or misplaced towns. In the coming weeks we’ll be opening up the ability to adjust locations to users so that you don’t have to worry about your town showing up in the wrong place.

The biggest change of all

Finally, there’s one more really big thing that we’ve changed. Many many people have asked for this, but due to system architecture issues we could never quite do it with the old system. A big motivation for the re-write of all the code was to make this possible.

Today, we’re officially announcing a major change to the site’s focus:

Phonemica is now no longer just for Sinitic dialects. That means your Zhuang and Hmong and Korean recordings now have a home.

We’re starting small, since each new language to the site still requires a fair amount of planning and infrastructure, not to mention extra coding for things like transcription and classification, but we’ve been working hard to make sure everything is in order. We’re most of the way done with the functionality for recordings in Korean, and will be completely done in the very near future, possibly by the end of this month (April). Expect to see Korean and other languages showing up in the language selection menus on the site as Phonemica expands to be a platform for the documentation of not just Chinese dialects and stories, but of those from around the world. Because after all, everyone has a story to tell.

If you’d like to help us get the site ready to accept recordings in your language, please get in touch with me directly at keyilan@phonemica.net and we’ll get to work.


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Sinonym – Chinese naming specialists


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