Bowl, Plate, Plowl

This is part 2 of 2 in a semantic space series about the bowlness of bowls, or the plateness of plates. Part 1 here.


Next time you consider that one-word gloss in your Chinese-English dictionary,

碗 wǎn N. bowl

pause for a moment to contemplate this:

A couple weeks ago, when I invoked topology in the context of semantic spaces, I had no idea that the next discussion of semantic space would come from two objects that share the same topology. If you still want to vote on whether the object in the pictures above is a plate or a bowl, go back to the post with the survey. Otherwise, read on for results.

At the time of this writing the survey says:

  • Native Chinese speakers call it a pán 盘, commonly translated into English as “plate”
  • Native English speakers call it a bowl
  • Native speakers of other languages are divided, and some languages have a particular word for this object.

Even though the comments grumbled about how the object was kind of in between — Lisa even mentioned that for the English there’s a technical term / trade word  from Williams-Sonoma calling it a “soup plate” or “pasta bowl” (neither of which I would have been able to associate with this particular dish) — there’s apparently not a lot of disagreement about what to call it when push comes to shove in English and Chinese. About 80% of native Chinese say it’s pán 盘 and about 80% of native English say it’s “bowl”.

So it’s apparently a difference in definition about what a bowl IS. The explanation I got for Chinese was extraordinarily similar to what Julie commented on the other post:

the wide rim (more than the depth) makes it un-bowl like to me.

Interesting. My own definition of “bowl” in English, on the other hand, hinges on the criterion that Porfiriy put forth:

My standard is that if I can eat a “mostly liquid” food in it – for example, cereal, or soup – it’s a bowl.

The conclusion is kind of obvious, I guess: the semantic space for bowl-plate can be sliced any way you want it, but your categorization of objects near the slice will hinge on the details of your definition. In Norwegian, German, Spanish and Dutch, the commenters say, you don’t even have the same slice because there’s a specific word for exactly that object. In the meantime, Chinese and English force a decision, unless you want to go with catalog-speak from Williams-Sonoma or with Kellen’s Plowl.

12 responses to “Bowl, Plate, Plowl”

  1. Tony says:

    My grandmother, who comes from 东北, also calls coffee mugs, cups, and milk glasses 碗. For these items, she uses 碗 and 杯 interchangeably. I’ve never asked her why, but Julie’s definition is consistent with this.

  2. Syz says:

    @Tony, that’s fascinating. Now that you mention it, I can’t believe I didn’t even consider that next break in the plate-bowl-cup topology. I wonder if you still hear the 碗 and 杯 interchangeability in younger dongbei folks. I don’t recall having heard it in Beijing, but I’ll pay more attention now.

  3. Karan Misra says:

    @John People in the south use 碟 more than in the north. For example, even technical terms such as “hard disk” that are translated as “硬盤” in the north are often called “硬碟” in the south, and “frisbee” is “飛碟” in Cantonese instead of “飛盤”. I personally like the sound of 碟 and 碟子 better than 盤 and 盤子 in Mandarin, and definitely in Cantonese (dihp versus pùhn).

  4. Chris Waugh says:

    @Tony: 碗 for 杯 seems to make a certain amount of sense considering how often one sees a 碗 used as a 杯, whether to drink tea, beer, or baijiu. At least, in an old-fashioned, lower class sort of context – I’ve mostly seen it in films set before Reform and Opening Up in working class or rural contexts, I’ve seen (and enjoyed it) myself out in the countryside, although not for some years now, and I seem to have heard of 大碗茶 being sold on the streets of Beijing up into the ’80s (and if anybody remembers or knows somebody who remembers Beijing’s 大碗茶, please chime in with a description). Having blethered all that, I’ve never heard the words 碗 and 杯 used interchangeably, just seen the objects used interchangeably.

  5. pc says:

    Has anyone seen anyone in China eat soup out of a bowl like that?
    I’ve seen everything from cereal to random liquids in a bowl like that in China, but never soup. Perhaps thats the distinction?

    That is to say, the inherent soupability of the container will either make it 盘 (no soup) or 晚 (soup)。

    Hopefully someone has noticed something along this line, but like Lil Wayne once said: “The only thing on the mind of a foreigner in China is eat.”

  6. Alan says:

    I (native English speaker) got into exactly this discussion with a native Mandarin speaker (with excellent English) while helping her to cook the other day. She asked for a plate (in English) and after a few ‘hilarious’ comic misunderstandings we worked out that she wanted the object that you pictured, which I would call a bowl.

    Her justification was that you it’s not a bowl because you can’t pick it up and _drink_ from it.

    Mine was that it is a bowl because you can eat soup (or cereal with milk, etc.) from it.

  7. […] If you enjoy this kind of thing, be sure to check out Sinoglot’s classic Bowl, Plate, Plowl. […]

  8. Kevin says:

    While you’re investigating semantic differences, right now I’m absolutely baffled by 怀疑. My dictionary translates the verb form as both “to doubt” and “to suspect” – the problem is in English, those two words can have opposite meanings, as in “I doubt that that phone is a fake” (meaning I think it’s real) and “I suspect that that phone is a fake” (meaning I think it’s fake). My teacher says it can go either way, based on the context, i.e., if the other person expects that you are criticizing him (like if you’re in a cheap shop surrounded by other things that are fakes), he’d interpret it with the “suspect” meaning and if he expects that you are complementing the quality of the product he’d interpret it with the “doubt” meaning). So we asked, “how do you know what someone means when they say this word?” She said it’s usually closer to the “to suspect” meaning, but not always. Baffled.

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