The new Windows 8 advertisements released in Asia have caused quite a bit of a stir, a result of their bizarre content and the garbled language that’s being used. Consensus from native speakers of Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, and other Chinese dialects all declare the commercials completely unintelligible, leading many to conclude that Microsoft has made up its own faux-asian language either to avoid alienating any particular market, or simply to create more mystery around the eccentric advertisements.
Victor Mair, in his article, The enigmatic language of the new Windows 8 ads, details the responses from many native and non-native speakers, none of whom can place it. Most interesting is the fact that non-native speakers seem to be able to pick out more Chinese than native speakers, and that several suggestions are made about the possibility of the advertisements being in a somewhat obscure topolect, such as Wu (a topolect being a family of related dialects).
While I have no personal insight into what Windows may have been thinking, the conversation brings up some interesting points about Chinese and the difficulties involved in analyzing it, both spoken and written. We recently released the beta version of our own Salience Text Analysis for Chinese, the sixth of our Natural Language Packs, and have taken it out for a very promising test drive, so this particular topic has been at the forefront of our minds.
Mair’s article focuses on the vastly different topolects spoken across China, over sixteen of which are distinct enough to have their own Wikipedia page. The standard language in China is Beijing Mandarin but, as our own Chinese language expert Elizabeth Baran tells us, “All of these [local dialects] still have some sort of prevalence in their own respective areas,” although, she says, the introduction of an official written and spoken Chinese standard has served to decrease this prevalence.
As to the garbled Windows 8 advertisements, she adds, “There are so many political and cultural implications, as well as sensitivities, surrounding the use of certain dialects, in what context, and by whom…maybe Microsoft is speaking to the theme of unity.” That would certainly be a step closer to understanding the mystery of the Windows 8 language.
While we still don’t know exactly what motivated Microsoft’s creative decisions in regards to the commercials, the general consensus seems to be that the language spoken in the advertisements is either made up, or modulated out of recognition with sound software in post production. The one thing we do know for certain is that it has sparked an incredibly interesting conversation about language differences within Asia and the unique complexity involved in choosing a language when marketing within that region.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we discuss the interesting challenges that we faced in developing our Chinese Native Language Pack.