English Banned in Chinese Writing

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Back in April, I wrote a blog entitled "A Ban on Roman Letter Acronyms?"   In it, I discussed the proposal by the Chinese chairman of the International Federation of Translators, Huang Youyi, to purify Chinese of English expressions.  At the time, no one (outside of Chinese rulership circles) ever thought that it would really happen.  It seemed too preposterous and unworkable.  No matter how much the  language censors and purity zealots detested the look of English words and Roman letters in Chinese writing, they'd never be able to enforce such a ban.

Lo and behold, the news coming out of China the last few days is that the government has gotten serious and is really clamping down on the use of English words and expressions, Roman letter acronyms, and other contaminating elements, all in the interest of maintaining the purity of the mother tongue.  The decree outlawing English has come forth from the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), China's regulator of news, print media, and internet publications.

So many articles on this subject have appeared, both in the Chinese press and in foreign media, that I shall only note a few of them here:

Global Times, "New regulations ban English words in Chinese publications"

Behind the Wall from NBC News, "China cracks down on media's use of English"

South China Morning Post, "Media banned from using English words"

Breitbart, "China bars English words in all publications"

BBC News,  "China bans English words in media"

Here's a sample, from the BBC, of what the reports are like:

  • China has banned newspapers, publishers and website-owners from using foreign words — particularly English ones.
  • China's state press and publishing body said such words were sullying the purity of the Chinese language.
  • It said standardised Chinese should be the norm: the press should avoid foreign abbreviations and acronyms, as well as "Chinglish" — which is a mix of English and Chinese.
  • The order also extends existing warnings that applied to radio and TV.

Wouldn't you know, just as I was about to make this post, Mark Swofford called my attention to the most recent pronouncement from a Chinese government organ, again the Global Times, "Loanwords from English no cause for worry."  Clearly, there has been an uproar among China's netizens, who are fond of peppering their writing with English words and Roman letters.  So the Global Times tries to do some fast backpedaling, saying that, well, it is all right to use such authentically Chinese English words as "gelivable" (awesome), "niubility" (brilliance), and "smilence" (soundless smile), but — after all — it's really best to stay away from those non-Chinese English words, because they are threatening the national language.

Over the years, English idioms and terms have gradually crept into the native Chinese vocabulary, and replaced several Chinese words. The GAPP is worried that English intrusion is compromising linguistic integrity, making people "less Chinese." Thus the government intervention, if seen as justified, has won plaudits.

Meanwhile, Chinese students are learning English starting from Kindergarten, and there are more people in China who speak English than there are in America.

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By the way, when I mentioned to my colleagues at LL Central that I was going to write on this topic, Geoff Nunberg queried, "Not even chow mein?"

[Thanks are due to Wicky Tse, Rachel Reese, Carl Masthay, and Michael Carr]

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18 Comments »

  1. KCinDC said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 12:49 am

    Do smiles normally make noise?

  2. Clark Cox said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 1:26 am

    double-plus-ungood (and double-plus-unworkable)

  3. tiffert said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 1:30 am

    The text of the notice and regulations can be found at: http://www.gapp.gov.cn/cms/html/21/508/201012/708310.html

  4. Peter said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 1:38 am

    @KCinDC: a correlation/causation confusion could easily suggest that they do :-)

  5. a George said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 3:28 am

    @KCinDC: it is the swift retaliation that makes a noise

  6. Jon Weinberg said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 6:42 am

    You didn't quote the funnest sentence in the *Global Times* piece: "The problem occurs when [diffusion of foreign loanwords] becomes too pronounced, leaving a culture at a disadvantage through its shaping of the way people use language, and by extension think."

  7. Randy Alexander said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 8:24 am

    "…破坏了和谐健康的语言文化环境,造成了不良的社会影响。" [...destroying the harmony and health of the language environment, creating a negative effect on society.]

    This is why China can't have something like The Onion.

  8. Ellie said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    @KCinDC: in Chinese, the usual word for "smile" is the same as that for what English speakers call "laugh" (xiao1 笑). So "笑" by itself is ambiguous between silent or audible.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    Okay, I'm now curious about the origins of "gelivable" and "niubility".

  10. Colin said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    Niubility sounds like the quality exhibited by very attractive heifers.

  11. Lugubert said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 8:32 pm

    "niubility" (brilliance) makes me remember the ”Nail house”. A newspaper mentioned the ”most cow resisting expropriation household” (最牛钉子户, zui4 niu2 ding1 zi hu4). I translated the beginning punning with Swedish literal ‘bullish’, meaning sulky. Same cow as in niubility and thus rather “most brilliant resistant”?

  12. Chaon said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 10:50 pm

    "more people in China who speak English than there are in America."

    For a given definition of "speak", I suppose.

  13. SteveD said,

    December 24, 2010 @ 2:28 am

    If I have it right, niu2bi1 (牛逼), literally meaning 'cow's cunt', is a vulgar exclamation meaning something like 'awesome'. It seems niubility is a delicious blend of English 'ability' with niubi – perhaps 'awesomeness'? Or in typically bad Chinese-English translation – 'bovine genitality'?

  14. GF said,

    December 24, 2010 @ 2:36 am

    I'll take this seriously when they stop using the acronym CCTV for the national TV network. That won't happen.

  15. Qov said,

    December 24, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

    Among all the "corruptions of the English language" decried by prescriptionists, I've never heard complaints against "foreign vocabulary." I had started to believe that Mandarin was going to become the dominant language in the world, but now I've returned to my earlier belief that English will be the last language standing. It will be because of its ability to absorb any vocabulary, the functionality that can be achieved with a very low vocabulary without flinching, and the staunch monolingualism of the English speaking nation with the most economic and military clout.

  16. Bob Violence said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 6:22 am

    Okay, I'm now curious about the origins of "gelivable" and "niubility".

    "Gelivable" (supposedly) originated among the Chinese Defense of the Ancients community, where gěilì (给力, literally "empower" or "give power") is apparently a gameplay term that mutated into a semi-English expression meaning "cool", "awesome", etc. There's also "ungelivable" (or 不给力). These seem to have popped up in 2010, unlike "niubility" which has been around for a few years.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 8:10 am

    Thank you, Lugubert, SteveD, and Bob Violence.

  18. Ray Dillinger said,

    December 26, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    English phonology is pretty unbelievable. We have words like "Twelfths" and "strengths" and we think we know how to pronounce them. Our phonology rules are a superset of almost everybody else's. As a result we can borrow words from virtually any language without any violation of our own phonology constraints.

    The same is not true of Chinese.

    I can understand why they are concerned; English words run over their phonology rules like a bunch of pigs run over a well-tended vegetable garden. But I just can't imagine trying to keep a language free of borrowings in this era, especially useful borrowings.

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