Passing notes

I caught two sixth grade girls passing notes in class today (which I think is far better than just chatting and disrupting the class), and they unexpectedly didn’t try to hide the note when I approached them when the class was over.

I was quite surprised at what I saw.  I recognized the script, and had long thought it would be perfect for this sort of thing because I haven’t found many people in China who can identify it, let alone read or write it.

Of course this is the “bopomofo” script, more formally known as 注音符号 (zhùyīn fúhào).  It’s quite ironic that most people in mainland China cannot even identify it, given that it appears in most dictionaries here (that I’ve seen).  Headings for every syllable are introduced in both hanyu pinyin and bopomofo (although of course only hanyu pinyin is used in the individual entries).

No tone mark is given for the first tone, but an overdot is given for qīngshēng (no tone).  How the text runs is interesting.  The syllables are constructed vertically, and then the text runs left to right.  This is different from how I’ve ever seen it, either in ruby script, or just horizontally (not grouped vertically in syllables), or purely vertically.  When I asked them about it, they said this is how they learned it in school (in Taiwan).

Also, note that “ê” is used as a sentence-final modal particle twice, and with two different tones!

The content is less interesting, being exactly what one would expect from 6th grade girls passing notes, but if you’re really curious, here’s a pinyin transcription followed by a hanzi transcription and an ill-thought-out English translation (attempting to conserve the mistakes in the original, while of course introducing some of my own):

A: wǒ jué dé tā zhēn de hěn qí guài, tā shi bú shi nà ge lái suó yǐ cái zhè me mǐn gǎn ya?

B: yǒu kě néng!  bài tuō ~ tā shēng qì jiù bā le, nà wèi shé me yào qì nà me jiù wú liǎo, hái yǒu wèi shé mè lián lèi dào wǒ.  hěn wú liáo ê(2) [I don’t have a way to put a tone mark above that ê, so I put the tone number in parentheses.]

A: duì ma, jiù shì shuō ya.  xiao sǐ rén le, wǒ shì wèi le tā hǎo ê(3).  hái zài nà lǐ

A: 我觉得tā真的很奇怪,tā是不是那个来所以才这么敏感呀?


A: 对嘛,就是说呀。笑死人了,我是为了tā好ê(3)。还在那里。

A: I think s/he’s really weird.  S/he’s that way so s/he’s so sensitive? [I’m guessing on that one.]

B: Maybe! Please~ if s/he’s mad, then fine.  Why be mad for that long?  It’s stupid.  And why involve me?  So stupid.

A: Right, just like that.  Ridiculous.  I’m doing something good for her/him.  Still there.

I have no idea what the context was (and don’t really want to), but I’m glad to see bopomofo being used as a secret code for passing notes.  Very cool indeed.

19 responses to “Passing notes”

  1. nick says:

    Haha, you may be bored by it, but its got all the makings of a scintillating light novel. I’m thinking “ta” is in fact “她” and “那个” is referring to the girl’s period.

  2. Steve (Syz) says:

    Blown away! It’s almost worth teaching sixth graders for a year to get a note like this 😉

    I know next to nothing about bopomofo, but I’m especially intrigued by the Korean Han’gul-style vertical syllable construction, which (at least to my sensibilities) seems like a closer fit with the syllabifying habits of Chinese speakers.

  3. Brendan says:

    I’m with Nick above on the referent of “那个.” Also, heartened to see such creativity in note-passing. When I was in middle school, a couple of classmates came up with a system based on the alphabet that we used, and I’ve long wondered what kids here do. (Also, what the equivalent of Pig Latin or hagy-pagy would be here. Nobody I’ve talked to has known.)

    • Steve (Syz) says:

      Disheartening to hear that you’ve never come across the Chinese Pig Latin. Chao has a tantalizing footnote reference to the existence of such language in his Chinese grammar, but I’ve never found anyone who knew about it either. You wonder — did it completely die out over the last 50 years?

  4. Kellen says:

    In high school we used a totally different alphabet made of shapes, 1:1 correlation to the English alphabet.

    This comes at a good time as I have a post on bopomofo in the incubator.

  5. Randy Alexander says:

    I consulted with the girls, and indeed, Nick is spot on. I had told them yesterday that I was going to put up the note and blog about it, which they said they were OK with. They were surprised that I was able to translate it all. I told them that I had trouble with one part and that one commenter speculated as to its meaning, prompting them to fill the room with giggles.

    I did a post on Chinese Pig Latin two years ago, looking at some possibilities, but it doesn’t seem like this sort of thing is in practice anywhere.

  6. bopomo says:

    Interesting, I think the third line reads ‘wo shi wei le ta hao ye’ 我是为了她好耶

  7. hello says:


  8. hello says:


  9. YT says:

    Normally in textbooks, the 注音符號 would be to the right of the character and the characters would be running vertically. But if the characters ran left to right, the 注音符號 would follow the characters. I’ve seen 注音符號 only (without characters) in two circumstances. One is for books for the very young, meaning preschoolers or kindergarteners who only know 注音符號. The other is on SAT Chinese practice questions, where the same question is written out in traditional characters, simplified characters, 漢語拼音, and 注音符號.

  10. Zrv says:

    Do these toned versions of ê appear properly? ế ê̌

    • Randy Alexander says:

      The first one does. The second one has the third tone mark slightly off to the right (on my machine, at least (FF on XP)).

    • Kellen says:

      Both are fine on my end, both in Gmail and here. However the different fonts are rendering the first slightly differently but still correctly.

  11. Zrv says:

    The second-tone version is in Unicode, since it is in the Vietnamese script (U+1EBF); the third-tone version is composed, so it renders differently depending on the font and the application.

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