Chinese Endangered by English?

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In an article by Malcolm Moore entitled "Chinese language 'damaged by invasion of English words'" published this morning in the Telegraph, a Chinese official expresses grave concern at the invasion of English words in his nation's language.

Huang Youyi, chairman of the International Federation of Translators, makes this alarming prediction: "If we do not pay attention and we do not take measures to stop Chinese mingling with English, Chinese will no longer be a pure language in a couple of years." He goes on to state, "In the long run, Chinese will lose its role as an independent language for communicating information and expressing human feelings."

To ensure that such a horrible fate does not become a reality, Mr. Huang brought forward stern recommendations before the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference that was held recently in Beijing. Mr. Huang's proposals would ban publications from using English names, places, people, and companies. Aside from the fact that this would put a large crimp in the global aspirations and operations of China Inc., embarking on the long, slippery slope of language purification — if carried out as energetically and thoroughly as the typical politco-cultural movements of the past 60 years — the Chinese language, quite the opposite of being purified, would end up being seriously impoverished. No longer would the Chinese be permitted to speak of "lion" dances, "honey" and "honeymoons," "coral," "magi / shamans," "sachima," "biology," "religion," "philosophy," "economics," and "republics" (such as their own people's republic!), "military affairs," "journalists," "factories," "workshops," "science," "physics," "literature," "utopias," "centuries," "X-rays,""laser," "computers," and countless other terms that form the backbone of everyday discourse.

Perhaps what really worries Mr. Huang is when foreign words are represented in a foreign script. But there's an easy way around that: simply transcribe the offending terms in Chinese script. Here's a good example of how that could be done:

The first line reads:

欢迎光临
huānyīng guānglín

维尔抗姆突奥窝思道
wéiěrkàngmǔtūàowōsīdào

"welcome to our store!"

Incidentally, I know Mr. Huang personally. He prides himself on his English and was, in fact, an English major when he went to university. Mr. Huang was my brother Denis' boss at Foreign Language Press back in the 80s. His entire professional career has been intimately involved with the study, teaching, and translation of English and other foreign languages.  Since Mr. Huang has been enormously effective in his chosen profession of Sino-English translation, he should not be surprised at the inroads of English in China and in Chinese.

Thanks to Arthur Waldron for bringing Malcolm Moore's article to my attention.

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45 Comments »

  1. Assistant Village Idiot said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    Hmm. Then they've reached the touchiness level of the French. Is that progress?

  2. Brendan said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    I've got no truck with the notion of acronyms like 'DVD' being harmful to the overall health of Chinese, but there are times when I find myself eavesdropping on yuppie conversations (hey, 小资 — another foreign word!) and wincing at the general pattern of rendering all non-function words into English. Typical example: "我跟他tell了,这次的presentation一定要很impressive的." And then of course there's the laowai equivalent — saying things like "I tried to get a fapiao at the restaurant, but the fuwuyuan was being totally mafan about it."

    Line 'em all up against the wall, I say.

  3. Ray Girvan said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    wéiěrkàngmǔtūàowōsīdào

    Reminds me of the Paul Linebarger story:

    While in Korea, Linebarger masterminded the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops who considered it shameful to give up their arms. He drafted leaflets explaining how the soldiers could surrender by shouting the Chinese words for 'love', 'duty', 'humanity' and 'virtue' – words that happened, when pronounced in that order, to sound like "I surrender" in English. He considered this act the single most worthwhile thing he had done in his life.
    - The Best of Cordwainer Smith, ed JJ Pierce

    My employer's daughter (who is fluent in Mandarin) confirmed that this makes sense in Mandarin: "ài zé rén dé".

  4. Charles Belov said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    Actually, I like the mid-sentence code switching. As someone who grew up in a Jewish household, we regularly dropped Yiddish words into our English.

    And "mafan," like "aiya," is useful. We don't have good equivalents in English (well, "hassle" for "mafan") although there are good equivalents in Yiddish ("tsuris" and "oy vey," respectively).

  5. Lazar said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

    @Charles Belov: Same in my household – and my gentile mother uses them even more prolifically than my Jewish father. "Shicker", "fresser", "makher", "mishuge(ne)", "ferklempt", "groyse shande", "yerishe", "gute neshuma".

  6. marie-lucie said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    the touchiness level of the French

    As a French person it is not so much the use of English words that I object to but the use of English sentence patterns, especially the pragmatic order of presentation of the words in a sentence, something that seems to be due to the huge abundance of hurried translations from English in the press and popular literature. English word order is much more rigid, and the flexibility of the French language disappears in almost word-for-word translations. I like to read English, and I like to read French, but I don't like reading sentences where French words seem to be stuck into an English structure, any more than I would enjoy the opposite pattern.

  7. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

    The Japanese, ever enthusiastic borrowers of foreign words (and indeed foreign sentence constructions) over the centuries, seem to be in no danger at all that their beautiful language will "lose its role as an independent language for communicating information and expressing human feeling."

    Come to that, I don't feel that the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare is all that defective compared the pure Anglo-Saxon of Alfred.

    Nor does Persian seem to be crippled by its Arabic component as a medium of high culture.

    Perhaps the language of a self-confident nation of a billion people is somehow thought to be uniquely vulnerable to sinister alien influences?

    [(myl) In fairness, there's a fairly long history of claims that English writers and speakers should reject fancy foreign words in favor of good plain anglo-saxon stock, e.g. Orwell on the left, or this historical survey at the neo-fascist site stormfront.org.]

  8. Bloix said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

    As a non-linguist, I admit that I may be utterly wrong about this, but: it seems to me that some languages have an easier time assimilating foreign words than others. To take two languages that I know something about: English has no problem assimilating foreign words, because English words don't follow regular patterns and we English speakers don't know or care very much about etymology and relationships among words. In most cases, the word is an arbitrary pattern of sound. So when we bring in a foreign word, it just comes in as one more item in the vocabulary.

    But in Hebrew, each word (with rare exceptions) has a three-letter vowelless "root" that relates it to all other words that arise from that same root, and each word is formed from one of a large number of reasonably regular transformations that can be applied to any root (vowel patterns, prefixes, suffixes, and in-fixes). Any Hebrew speaker understands the relationship of every word to all other words that have the same root. The root is the smallest unit of meaning, not the word. So when Hebrew borrows a word that can't be regularized into the root structure, it stands alone, outside the web of all other words. When you get a lot of these words, and they become part of everyday speech and writing, they do damage to the integrity of the structure of the language.

  9. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

    @Bloix:

    There's obviously something in what you say; nevertheless a language can happily absorb huge amounts of vocabulary from another unrelated and typologically quite different language without any linguistic catastrophe ensuing. Japanese is essentially as different from Chinese as either language is from English, but modern Japanese works fine as an integrated language despite the vast numbers of loan morphemes from Chinese. It's not the same "integrity" as Heian Japanese, but it's a perfectly valid system of its own.

    Nor is Japanese alone in this.

  10. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

    @Bloix:

    Maltese (not that I know any) is perhaps an example which is more to the point: basically an Arabic dialect with lots and lots of Sicilian and Italian loanwords, which are integrated into the system of the language to the point of undergoing the characteristic ablaut-with-attitude changes of Semitic roots, making broken plurals etc.

    Lots of languages end up like English with its subsytems of word formation applying mostly to the Germanic component or to the Romance component, but always with the opportunity for strange crossovers and blends which aren't Germanic or Romance but just English. Untutored or naive English speakers can handle the language perfectly without even being aware of its strikingly hybrid history (borrowed personal pronouns! I ask you.)

  11. Nathan Myers said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

    For the record, many people quite enjoy English sentences with French (or other) word order. George Lucas based a well-liked character on the habit ("other", in this case). I do understand that slavish devotion to English word order, were it to become expected in some register, would make French less fun, and that would be a loss.

  12. TB said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 10:03 pm

    Tolerance for code-switching seems, like so many other things, to be a matter of taste. I know people who cannot stand it, like Brendan, but personally I used to listen with delight to rapid-fire Spanglish on the R train in New York, and loved it when my friend Yoshie would say things like ザットサックスだね!

    I do think it's interesting when a new word is coined for a new technology instead of just borrowing, though. Like 電話 instead of just importing テレホン。It's sort of like a puzzle: can you express this idea succinctly without borrowing vocabulary?

  13. Chaon said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

    Brendon, does the spoken jumble of Mandarin-Taiwanese-English bother you when you visit Taiwan?

  14. notrequired said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 10:57 pm

    Ah, the good old language purity myth. Always amusing.

  15. Ash said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 2:36 am

    The Mixed Blood in China blog posted something in response. The author looks in depth at some of the influences of English on Chinese language, especially in slang terms and in internet use.

    See: http://mixedbloodinchina.typepad.com/blog/2010/03/the-influence-of-english-on-chinese.html

  16. Áine ní Dhonnchadha said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 3:16 am

    @Bloix : Modern Hebrew, and other Afrasian languages such as Classical Hebrew, Modern and Classical Aramaics and varieties of Arabic, all incorporate foreign words. They often create new root-stems from foreign words. Sometimes they loan-borrow from other Afrasian languages – for example, Arabic from Syriac – and end up with root-doublets with similar consonants and meanings.

  17. Syz said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 4:33 am

    I've read nothing that indicates a proposal by Huang or anyone else to eliminate foreign borrowings from Chinese.

    I *have* read a bit of what Huang actually said, as opposed to what the headline writers are hyping. In this Chinese article, for example, he seems to say that he just wants things to be written in the local script, Chinese characters: “国际上通用惯例是把外来语变成自己的语言吸纳进来,而不是生搬硬套地直接嵌入。”

    Very roughly: "The international standard is to absorb foreign borrowings into one's own language, not to copy them over unchanged."

    Hardly the language of a xenophobe rooting for a China where residents are "no longer … permitted to speak of 'lion' dances, 'honey' and 'honeymoons'…"

  18. Brendan said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 5:00 am

    I've no problem with people actually mixing languages (in fact it's tremendous fun); what I find irritating is the affected tendency to do so. This is different from, say, mixing Mandarin words into a non-Mandarin Sinitic language or a non-standard dialect of Mandarin, which is something people frequently do when they're talking about something (technology, economics, what have you) that they never learned the word for at home. The mixture of basically pointless English words into Mandarin or vice-versa strikes me as being mostly a conscious attempt at showing off, much as a pretentious English speaker might in the past have larded their sentences with French.

    A friend once talked about compiling a list of "the high-level Chinglish that ABCs speak to each other," and cited the example of "你ti不ticklish." That is something I can get down with.

  19. Mark P said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 5:03 am

    "coral," "magi / shamans," "sachima," "biology," "religion," "philosophy," "economics," and "republics" (such as their own people's republic!), "military affairs," "journalists," "factories," "workshops," "science," "physics," "literature," "utopias," "centuries," "X-rays,""laser," "computers," and countless other terms that form the backbone of everyday discourse.

    Shaman? From the Tungan, via Russia, possibly from the Chinese? I think they would be allowed that one.

    Since most of the other words are either direct loan words into English (journalist, factory) or are words cobbled together from Greek and Latin and universal across much of Europe (philosophy, economics, utopia, physics) I presume that you are deliberately taking the mickey.

    So, is Mr Huang just opposed to English words? Or loan words in general?

  20. Brendan said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 5:08 am

    @Chaon – Can't speak to Taiwanese usage as I've never yet made it over there. Mixing Cantonese with English, as in Hong Kong, strikes me as pretty natural, all things considered.

    @Syz – Loanwords into Chinese seem to localize more or less on their own though over time though, don't they? Delufeng to dianhua, Yintewang to Hulianwang, etc.

  21. Colin John said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 9:23 am

    My wife and I are fluent French speakers and frequently code-switch. Sometimes it's because the French term is more precise or concise for the meaning we're trying to convey: such as décallage, which doesn't really render well in English. However sometimes it's just for the hell of it – if either of us say that something is jolly the other will understand it as joli(e)

  22. K. said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    I'll tell you what concerns me: the transliteration "思道“ is obviously aimed at a Received Pronunciation. Come on, Shanghai Expo, can't we get some love for rhotic varieties? I bet we could if it was in Beijing instead.

  23. Bloix said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    Áine ní Dhonnchadha -
    When I worked on a kibbutz many years ago, I ran across many adapted loan words. My favorite was for automotive headlights. Headlights that use bulbs behind a glass shield are known as shield beam headlights. Hebrew masculine plural is "im", so headlights were "sheelbim" and a single headlight was a "sheelb." I have no idea whether this is the usual word in modern Hebrew or if it was unique to this kibbutz.

  24. Margaret said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    If you are one of the three million in the world (I meen Lithuanians) and you now that your native language is the most archaic among all living Indo-Europeans, you can't look at the process of borrowing objectively… It's indeed a big problem to small languages.

  25. Syz said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

    @Brendan: No doubt, words localize over time, and even wholesale borrowings also eventually get standardized into hanzi (not always in the form most faithful to the original phonetics!). And I think it's kind of dumb to legislate on this kind of thing instead of letting it happen naturally.

    My point is that no one seems to be proposing what Victor skewers in his long third paragraph: advocating for the removal of foreign borrowings from Chinese.

  26. Hoary Marmot said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    @Bloix: my MH favourites are Breks (singular) -> Breksim (plural) for brakes, ambrex for hand (parking) brake. Some other interesting examples of nativized words are avir (air), dugma (example) and the reanalyzed root dgm (dagam = sampled, hidgim = gave an example), etc, from Greek, Aklim (from Greek vis Arabic) climate, and its four letter root ?klm (? = aleph). Modern ones include the three letter root SMS and its declensions: simes etc (SMSed); zpzp: zipzep (zap in the sense of 'change channels mindlessly') etc. But many words got and get borrowed without being reanalyzed as having a two/three/four letter

    @Áine ní Dhonnchadha, for example, Hebrew AreS (ground, land, now Arets), Ara3i (the 3 stands for Ayin) 'temporary' from Aramaic Ar3a, and Ha'araqa 'grounding' (in the electrical sense) from aramaic Arqa.

    @marie lucie exactly my problem with English translations into Hebrew as well.

    What we're all ignoring, to get back to the original question, is how these choices mark some speakers relative to other speakers. Surely borrowings (or calques or 'google'-like translations) are not 'basically pointless' otherwise they wouldn't happen. In fact, they help Brendan know that some people are pretentious.

    Two other relevant examples are Anglicized Hindi, and French borrowings ('Maman') in 19th century Russian as used by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to mark certain characters in their novels. Russian is still intact and I bet Hindi (matlab Hindustan ki bhasha/yani Bharat ki zuban :P ) will survive too, in spite of its Japanese shoes, English pants and red Russian hat.

  27. marie-lucie said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    Nathan Myers: many people quite enjoy English sentences with French (or other) word order. George Lucas based a well-liked character on the habit ("other", in this case).

    Many people enjoy the odd bit of linguistic play, which is all right in small doses and for effect, but it is something else to read lengthy texts which are chockfull of foreignisms for no apparent reason except the lack of competence of the translator. An older example of French structures with English words is the translated works of Gurdjieff, which I opened once but found unreadable in English: apparently Gurdjieff spoke French well but English poorly, but he insisted that the English translation of his works written in French should be as literal as possible. Another example is the atrocious translations of most of Jules Verne's works into English. Unfortunately, some of the French one reads in French newspapers or on the internet is almost as bad: the sentences may be grammatical (sometimes barely so), but in terms of discourse structure they follow English, ignoring the resources of the French language which would allow or demand a different presentation. The French language is not enriched by this, but diminished, since French structures which have no strict equivalent in English are falling into disuse.

  28. Jim said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

    "It's indeed a big problem to small languages."

    Some just say no, and have fun doing it. In Kalispel (Washington-Idaho-Montana – everyone speaks English well, but they just refuse to borrow vocabulary) the term for 'automobile' translates as "it has wrinkled feet" (I can't find the exact word right now.) The Navajo word for (military) 'tank' is even goofier. It's obvious people sat around thinking these up trying to top the last proposal.

  29. Paul said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    Quick question about the transliteration of "I'm sorry." Why: 俺么搔瑞 instead of 挨么搔瑞? Is that a cute play on the meaning of 俺? More importantly, is there any reason why Chinese hasn't standardized which characters will be used for transliterating?

  30. uberVU - social comments said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by PhilosophyFeeds: Language Log: Chinese Endangered by English? http://goo.gl/fb/6qn0

  31. Bob Violence said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    More importantly, is there any reason why Chinese hasn't standardized which characters will be used for transliterating?

    It has, at least in the mainland:

    Xinhua transliteration chart for English

    Just because a standard exists doesn't mean it'll be universally applied.

  32. Bob Violence said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    I'll also add I'm rather amused at the prospect of "MP3" becoming "埃玛皮3 (or should that be "埃玛皮三"?)

  33. Bob Violence said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 10:20 pm

    or 埃姆皮, rather (I think?)

  34. daoshan said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    There is no such thing as a pure language… Chinese as a language is already very resilient to borrowings, this is kind of paranoia.

  35. SD said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    Since people are so non-nonchalant about assimilating other cultures and call this paranoia, I wonder why they care so much about Chinese western minorities and their culture. I wonder why these same cultural-assimilation-is-no-big-deal foreigners don't call the complaints of these minorities of the cultural/language assimilation of their own by the Hans to be "paranoia" or "over-reaction". Yeah, it's totally not contradictory to be on the anti-Tibetan-cultural-genocide boat and on the why-are-Chinese-so-xenophobic-Look-at-the-Japanese-Their-language-is-fine-in-my-opinion boat. Indeed, people even think that the racial violence is half-justified because the minorities are just expressing their discontent at cultural assimilation. I guess it's fine for every culture in the world to become a copy of America's and to react against it is oversensitivity and xenophobic, but it's horrendous for any culture to be assimilated by Chinese and to fight against it is fighting for ethnic self-determination.

  36. daoshan said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    I am a Canadian-born huaren and could care little what others say or do, sir. I actually support the sinification of Chinese minorities, as it has been the historical trend for Han expansion since times immemorial. But that's not really on topic, is it? Or have you come to assume everyone online is a white American and come to vent your sentiments against them?

    A comparatively minute handful of loanwords is far from cultural assimilation or "racial violence" (?) in China's case. Over half the vocabulary in any European language is borrowed from Greek and Latin, and Korean/Japanese/Vietnamese are all over 50% Chinese loanwords. That has not changed the identity of any of these peoples, and even then such a scenario is near impossible for China. Not to mention most loanwords in Chinese lose their trendy luster over time and are replaced by meaningful, Chinese transliterations instead of just phonetic imitations. And second, loanwords that remain, such as "ma"/horse (arguably of Altaic origin), become undeniably Chinese to the point people don't even realize its foreign.

    So yes, this is paranoia. As far as commonly spoken languages go, Chinese is by far the "purest", whatever importance that holds, and will probably remain that way for a long time.

  37. Troy S. said,

    March 19, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

    While constrained writing certainly sounds cool, I don't think Anglish is catching on any time soon, I'm of the mind that statements like this are nothing more than xenophobic rhetoric. And as for code switching, it's mostly Poirot Speak that's really worthy of derision.

  38. JamesP said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

    SD, on the Chinese and the Tibetans/Uighur, it's almost as if one example was an independent nation of 1.3 billion people with a dominant national language, ethnicity, and culture, and the other two minority ethnicities/cultures/languages within that nation frequently subject to political oppression!

  39. john riemann soong said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 10:11 pm

    Part of the problem is that the science of language acquisition is not normally taught in undergraduate courses.

    For example, the psycholinguistics course at UVA is closed off to 20 students (and then "psych students and 4th years only").

    If you want people to stop holding such ignorant notions about purity of a language and language change, department heads need to stop being so elitist and mean.

    I don't know how it is at Penn, but I want to see huge first year courses on language acquisition and language change with 500 students. somehow people think this is undesirable. (psycholinguistics I am told is a very popular course even with the course restrictions placed on it. there was no room to sit when I sat in.)

    and oh yeah, people who consign the study of language acquisition and change to a department that studies speech and language pathology are also super annoying.

  40. vanya said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    People get upset about borrowing from foreign culture because often these borrowings are not really demonstrating tolerance and open mindedness – foreign words are used to exclude people with insufficient education or the wrong cultural background, or at least that's the perception of outsiders. Certainly in Russia and Germany I have met people who throw abundant English words into their conversation seemingly in order to demonstrate their cosmopolitan credentials and implicit superiority to the common man. I'm sure many rural Chinese feel some resentment when they get to Shanghai or Beijing and hear their well dressed affluent countrymen casually using words they don't understand.

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    April 8, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

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  42. Inst said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    Sorry for the gravedig, (failed, perhaps), but do phonetic loanwords see less linguistic drift? Are loanwords any less flexible in usage than their indigenous counterparts?

  43. Elizabeth Braun said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 1:51 am

    I love this photo and, reading it, I kind of understand how many Chinese get their English pronunciation problems! First time I've seen English represented as characters though – priceless! I must send it on to my old colleagues in East Asian Studies at Leeds Uni!

    Silly quest though, to try and purify any language. I mean, no language is really without imports from other tongues. Losing battle coming up, 黃先生!

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  45. hidamali said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 8:44 pm

    @Charles Belov
    Totally agree with you on "mafan". I communicate with my Chinese-challenged fiancee in English, but "mafan" is one word I've made him learn, as I just can't replace it.

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