A Ban on Roman Letter Acronyms?

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Many people have written to me about the proposed ban of roman letter acronyms in China that was recently featured in a number of newspaper reports (e.g., here and here).

Since this fits right in with my recent posts on the ineluctability of "Q" and on the proposal by the Chinese chairman of the International Federation of Translators, Huang Youyi, to purify Chinese of English expressions (the proposed ban is probably the first step in an attempt to implement Huang's purification policies), as well as with a forthcoming post on the question of the inevitability of romanization (or at least some form of alphabetization), I will comment briefly on the current proposal to forbid the use of English acronyms in Chinese.

When I asked the opinion of my Chinese friends (both in the PRC and elsewhere) on the proposal to outlaw English acronyms, they uniformly responded with adjectives such as "stupid," "silly," "futile," "unworkable," "impossible," "retrograde," "outrageous," and so forth.  Not one expressed approval of the proposed ban.  Similar opinions were widely expressed on Chinese blogs.

Two things stand out in the way the ban was presented.  First of all, various media outlets stated that they "had received notice from an unnamed government department" that they were to stop using expressions like "F1" (Formula One [racing] — very popular in coastal China), NBA (National Basketball Association), CBA (Chinese Basketball Association), WTO (World Trade Organization), and so on.  In the English language reports that I have seen, there is no mention of exactly which government department proposed the ban.  Many of my informants expressed the opinion that this is a typical ploy by the government authorities when they wish to institute some radical change that they suspect may not be well received by the public.  Thus word of the proposed regulation will be leaked or floated through one or another outlet, and then the government will step back and see what the response is like.  In this case, the response was uniformly negative, so I suspect that the new regulations will not be promulgated or, if promulgated, will not be enforced.

The second aspect of the announcement of the proposed ban is that it was issued to (and through) the likes of CCTV (China Central Television) and BTV (Beijing Television).  CCTV and BTV are universally known and promoted through their Roman letter, English acronyms, and it is almost unthinkable that their acronyms would be expunged.  In the CCTV logo, for example, the four Roman letters are noticeably larger and more prominent (the second, red "C" stands out conspicuously) than the seven Chinese characters (中国中央电视台 Zhōngguó Zhōngyāng Diànshìtái) beneath them, and often the Chinese characters are dispensed with altogether.

In a report that may be found here (or here), it is claimed that the directive to ban English acronyms was actually issued by the almighty State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television.  The supreme irony is that this powerful agency of the PRC (!) government is known everywhere as SARFT!  That's certainly a lot easier to write than 国家广播电影电视总局 Guójiā Guǎngbō Diànyǐng Diànshì Zǒngjú!

[Thanks are due to Daniel Maas, Gianni Wan, and Stefan Krasowski.]


  1. Steve Bell said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

    Aren't there any Chinese acronyms? It would be interesting to contrive a series of first syllables for the words of a phrase which would make a word on their own.

  2. A. C. said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 11:31 pm

    Don't the Chinese realize how much like the French they may become by trying to expunge english and maintain language purity?

    Do they not care about being too french?

  3. Don O'Shea said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

    Roman acronyms may bug the Chinese, but what bugs me are the BBC's capitalized acronyms (e.g., Nasa, Opec). Because some acronyms spell out common words (Aids, Wasp), the style guideline can cause confusion. It's ironic that BBC does not follow the guideline when it comes to its own acronym.

  4. Philip Newton said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 1:13 am

    Don O'Shea: I suspect that the BBC only title-cases abbreviations which can be pronounced as words (as in your examples: Nasa, Opec, Aids, Wasp). You can't pronounce "Bbc" or, say, "Cctv" as a word; those are pronounced letter-by-letter, and I imagine the BBC will capitalise those.

    Steve Bell: Yes, Chinese has acronyms, too, where a phrase will be abbreviated by taking only some of the characters. For example, 北京大学 "Beijing University" will become 北大 "Beida", with the first character of "Beijing" plus the first character of "University".

  5. Claw said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 1:14 am

    It should be noted that both CCTV and SARFT do have shorter Chinese abbreviations: 央视 (Yāngshì) and 广电总局 (Guǎngdiàn Zǒngjú), respectively.

  6. J. Goard said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 1:18 am

    CCTV is occasionally confusing in Korea (among those of us who have occasion to talk about Chinese television), since it's the common term for security cameras. ("Closed circuit TV?")

  7. exackerly said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 1:19 am

    Reminds me of a photo I saw just before Tienanmen Square. It showed a group of young people reading posters on the Freedom Wall. According to the caption, the posters were anti-government. But one of them had the Roman letters TOEFL…

  8. Elizabeth Braun said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 1:46 am

    Another good Chinese acronym from here in Taiwan is:
    國立臺灣師範大學 becoming 師大 (which is my school at the mo!)

    The one that always annoyes the heck out of me as a Brit is:
    美語for美國英語, so American language, instead of American English!!!

    Love the stuff on here, especially everything!!!=)

  9. Tom said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 5:15 am

    @ J. Goard: Yes, "closed circuit TV", and it's the same here in the UK. Its appearance here made me do a double-take.

  10. Dougal Stanton said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 5:24 am

    I hope the real Roman acronyms are not to be banned! :-)

  11. Mr Punch said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 8:31 am

    The usage at some news organizations is to treat as proper nouns (uppercase/lowercase) acronyms of more than four, or sometimes five, letters, e.g., Nafta.

    I notice that most of the acronyms mentioned are in effect trade names. What happens when the original "full" name is dropped and only the acronym survives — KFC, TCBY, TRW, LTV, CBS?

  12. Dan T. said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    Just how does the Chinese government get public reaction to its proposals in order to gauge their acceptance, when they have a culture and political system that suppresses criticism of the government?

  13. Nathan Myers said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

    If only we could ban acronyms in English! We are all richer when someone takes the trouble to invent a new word, or repurpose an old one, for a common practice. The merchant marine has excelled in this. Computer engineers and financiers have failed miserably. Computer scientists have not embarrassed themselves too abjectly; for example, stropping.

  14. Fluxor said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    How about this rather relevant Chinese "acronym": 中华人民共和国 = 中国

  15. bryan said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 1:12 am

    "How about this rather relevant Chinese "acronym": 中华人民共和国 = 中国".
    Well, 中国 is an abbreviation. 中華民國 has been taken to now mean "Taiwan, ROC", so it's not valid for "中华人民共和国" or PRC. 中國 was the abbreviation of 中華民國 from 1912 up until before Mao took over China, and used the same "abbreviation" for "中华人民共和国" before he required that the Traditional characters be simplified "as a means to increase literacy"!

  16. Bob Violence said,

    April 24, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    The word "中国"/"中國" has a couple thousand years on both "中华人民共和国" and "中華民國". The meaning has shifted many times and it had no legal status, but by the late Qing era, it was common as an unofficial name for the country, usually among nationalist-reformist types. For example, the country's first locally-owned "modern" bank (founded in 1897) was called 中國通商銀行, and Chen Shaobai (one of Sun Yat-sen's associates) founded the "中國日報" newspaper in 1899. You can argue that the word has a different connotation today, but the subsequent use of the term by the ROC (and eventually the PRC) was hardly sui generis and it was more than just an abbreviation.

  17. Charles said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

    I was just in India and noticed TLAs everywhere.

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