Transcriptional and hybrid words in Mandarin

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Like all languages, Mandarin and other Sinitic tongues have borrowed and coined words throughout their history.  But it would seem that the pace and nature of the current changes in Chinese usage are of such extraordinary amplitude that an unprecedented transformation is occurring, one that may be marked not merely by differences in quantity and quality, but of order and kind.


On April 26, 2011, I posted a piece entitled "A New Morpheme in Mandarin", in which I remarked:

About 15 years ago, I wrote a science fiction novel called "China Babel" (still unpublished) in which I described a time in the future when Chinese would merge with English. When I see things like this text about SNSer[s], I begin to think that my futuristic imaginings may not have been that wide of the mark.

Back in 2008, I wrote a post ("YOUCOOL") about China's YouTube clone, YouKu, in which I stated:

YouKu 优酷 is a good example of what may be called "Sino-English," which I predict will become increasingly evident in the years to come, until Chinese and English experience a kind of blending (a veritable Mischsprache?) which is the theme of an unpublished, futuristic novel called China Babel that I wrote about 15 years ago. It's not so unlikely as one might think: Japanese has well over sixty thousand gairaigo (lexical borrowings, the vast majority from English), and the number continues to grow daily, so that in some contexts, one seems to hear an English word in almost every other Japanese sentence that is uttered.

To prime the pump, so to speak, here are just a couple of examples of the sort of Sino-English that is flooding the Chinese internet, SMS, etc. (I'm sure that Language Log readers can provide many more):

Kāngmǔ áng, běibí 康姆昂, 北鼻 ("Come on, baby!")  (The characters, which are being used for transcriptional purposes, literally mean: well-being / health / rich / sumptuous / peaceful / broad / chaff / husk / spongy / a surname — housemaid / governess / wet nurse / husband's sister-in-law — expensive / high / elevated — north — nose.)

Tā sòng wǒ gè àifēng, wǒ sòng tā gè niúpái 他送我个爱疯,我送他个牛排 ("He / she gave me an iPhone, and I gave him a new [i]Pad") (The characters that I have rendered as "iPhone" and "new [i]Pad" would normally be translated as "crazy / mad love" and "steak".)

We are also witnessing a greater willingness to focus on the sounds of characters rather than their surface semantic significations.  For example, writing bù zhīdào 不知道 ("don't know") as bù zào 不造, which literally means "not make / build / create" as a way to indicate the slurred pronunciation of the phrase that occurs in daily speech. Cf. "OMG moments induced by allegro forms in Pekingese".

A related phenomenon is the increasing occurrence of transformed phrases due to Pinyin input.  For instance, typing shēnjǐngbīng 深井冰 ("deep well ice") when one intends shénjīngbìng 神经病 ("neuropathy; mental disorder; nervous disease; crazy; insane") and not bothering to change 深井冰 to 神经病, because one knows that one's reader will understand what one means (never mind that the tones are wrong and that the characters mean something else altogether).  Indeed, often people will type 深井冰 for 神经病 just to add flavor to their writing.

In the realm of internet censorship, netizens have perfected the fine art of deviant homophony with coinages such as "grass mud horse" and "river crab".  See "Blocked on Weibo" and "Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon Classics", also here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

I am aware that a language may, within a fairly short period of time, absorb up to 60% or more of its vocabulary from another source (e.g., English from Norman French, Uyghur from Persian and Arabic) and still remain itself.  But I think that the nature and scope of the changes currently occurring to Chinese are of a different nature and order.  What is happening is fascinating, and it is occurring as a result of the interaction of English with the various Sinitic languages and topolects, but similar transcriptional borrowings are being carried out with other languages (e.g., Japanese) and among the various topolects (e.g., Taiwanese and Mandarin).  If these processes continue at the present pace, it is hard to predict what Chinese languages will be like ten or twenty years from now.

Regardless of what may happen in the future, we may say that already at the present moment the characters are being used for transcriptional purposes (the annotation of the sounds of completely unrelated words) more now than ever before.

[Thanks to Cao Lin]

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5 Comments »

  1. John Mathena said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

    In terms of a Sino-english merge, Joss Wheddon may be ahead of the game with the dialogue of Firelfy and Serenity.

  2. Rubrick said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

    The characters that I have rendered as "iPhone" and "new [i]Pad" would normally be translated as "crazy / mad love" and "steak".

    I suspect Steve Jobs would have been delighted by the former and appalled by the latter.

  3. William Steed said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

    John Mathena – though it seems he did it in the wrong direction. Joss used English with smatterings of (vaguely pronounced) Mandarin; this implies a future with relexified Mandarin.

  4. Wentao said,

    March 7, 2014 @ 10:59 am

    What a fascinating post! Thank you, Professor Mair.

    There is a minor point that I would like to point out: I suspect 深井冰, unlike other neologisms such as 碉堡, 杯具, and (almost archaic by Internet standards) 斑竹, is an intentional imitation of topolectal pronunciation, rather than a consequence of flawed Pinyin input system.

    Since the majority of Pinyin input system does not specify tones, when one type "shenjingbing", the first entry is most likely to be the correct 神经病, which is a very frequently used colloquial expression, not the arbitrary 深井冰. Neither 深井 "deep well" and 井冰 "ice in a well" are commonly used words in MSM. (In fact, for this reason, I would even regard 深井冰 as a Classical Chinese phrase if it is put out of context: 深, 井, 冰 are three separate words.)

    Another online variety of 神经病 that has gained popularity recently is 蛇精病. I believe this is indeed a result of Pinyin input – as the omission of a medial "n" before "j", two letters that happen to be adjacent on the keyboard, is a common typo. However, some conscious endeavor of word choice must be involved too, because the default entry (or the more frequently used word) for "shejing", at least according to my MacBook, is actually the embarrassing 射精.

  5. Dave Cragin said,

    March 12, 2014 @ 9:49 am

    An exception to the ready adoption of foreign words into Chinese would seem to be that of places and names, i.e., they are renamed with Mandarin words, i.e., America becomes Meiguo 美国, Germany Deguo德国 etc.

    Is this because of the constraints of a character-based writing system? (i.e., it can't effectively "spell" foreign words?)

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