Five Two Zero So Much

The month of May sports one of what I call (for the first time) “fakie-sounding pun-tastic number-slang days”: 5/20. (Here’s a Baidu link so you know I’m not making it up.)

May 20th, pronounced in Chinese as “wǔ èr líng” 五二零 is supposed to sound like “wǒ ài nǐ” 我爱你 (“I love you”). As best as I can figure out, it’s a sort of combination of Valentine’s Day and April Fool’s Day that young people use to biǎo bái 表白, or make jokes, or both.

When I wrote an analysis of the two supposedly similar-sounding phrases on the board for my Chinese students, it was easy to see that in only 3 syllables there are about 5 differences:

520 I love you Difference
wu3 wo3 “u” vs. “o”
er4 ai4 “er” vs. “ai”
ling2 ni3 “l” vs. “n”
ling2 ni3 “-ing” vs. “-i”
ling2 ni3 2nd tone vs. 3rd tone

I think those are significant differences, and therefore I downplay the cleverness of the day. My students strongly disagree.

Here’s why: I’m comparing it to what I consider clever puns and such in English, like “May the 4th” for Star Wars Day. “May the fourth be with you” and “May the force be with you” has only a single phoneme difference (“th” vs. “s”) for the whole phrase. And that lispy switcheroo (the technical linguistic term for mixing up “th” and “s”) has been known to occur independently of this fakie holiday (“the Wellth Fargo wagon is a comin'”). Therefore, I smile smugly and nod slowly when I think of “May the 4th” but I don’t smile and do shake my head slowly when I think of 5/20.

But my students are thinking: “There are no other numbers that are closer to wǒ ài nǐ, so it’s awesome!” It presupposes (for some reason that is mysterious to me) that numbers MUST sound like SOMETHING else! This is the same thing that happens with the number 8 being so lucky because “bā” sounds like “fā” (meaning “get rich”). It doesn’t REALLY sound like it to me. But hey! I admit “ba” sounds more like “fa” than any other number does.

But this may give us insight into the significance of tones to native speakers. That’s really the strongest link between these fakie-puns. The tones for 8 and “get rich” are identical, and two out of three tones from “May 20th” and “I love you” are the same (although, to get even closer they should equate it with “wǒ ài nín” 我爱您, but I see why that would be sillier for a different reason).

One last thing: the “l” vs. “n” switcheroo we see in “líng” vs. “nǐ” makes me wonder if this day originated in some region of China where the “l” and “n” sounds are allophones (like the South, perhaps?). Hmm… I wonder… Oh well.

Comments

  1. Hahaha, my students told me about “wu er ling” then I mentioned it to one of my Chinese colleagues- I said, “The students told me today is Chinese Valentine’s Day.” She was like “No! Every day is not Chinese Valentine’s Day. I need to tell them to stop.”

    She was apparently as unimpressed as you. 🙂

  2. You are right.Some dialect in China, such as Sichuan province, L
    and N are the same, they only say L.

    One reason to say 520 instead of “我爱你” is because it can make the 表白 easier, because of the sound difference. In other words, it is euphemism.

    One thing I wanna correct is “我爱您”, which is so strange to me.(The baidu link is wrong)
    is usually used in business email or business occasion, or young people address senior people, celebraties, higher ranked people…(not including someone you love)
    so you can only say “我爱你” when you love someone. While you can say when you respect someone.
    In addition, “您好” is also unacceptable normally. Just say 你好 when greeting.

  3. I have always thought that it was 521 (wu er yi) instead of 520. Neither ling2 nor yi1 have the same tone as ni3.

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