The big language news in China this week was the call by a large group of scholars to purge written Mandarin of Roman letter expressions. Since this directly relates to my last post on "New radicals in an old writing system" , I hasten to follow up with this account of what caused so much academic alarm in China at this juncture.
Basically, it's a matter of trying to maintain would-be language purity. Here's a succinct account from the South China Morning Post (it's behind a paywall, so I'm giving the complete text):
English short forms 'damaging' Chinese
Agence France-Presse in Beijing
Updated on Aug 30, 2012
A group of Chinese academics are calling for everyday English-language abbreviations to be struck from the country's top dictionary - claiming they are the biggest threat to the Chinese language in a century.A letter signed by more than 100 scholars condemned the inclusion of terms such as NBA (National Basketball Association) and WTO (World Trade Organisation) in the most recent Contemporary Chinese Dictionary. The latest edition of the country's most authoritative linguistic reference book included some 240 terms containing Latin letters, up from 39 in 1996.
Chinese academics are not the only ones trying to hold back the tide of English. Similar campaigns have been waged in countries including France and Japan.
Acronyms and other abbreviations derived from English are widely used on the mainland, where basketball fans refer to the league as the NBA, rather than mei zhi lan, the official translation. English abbreviations for international bodies such as the WTO are also commonplace, while PM2.5, a measure of air pollution, is now a familiar term among urban residents increasingly concerned about air quality.
The academics claim the inclusion of English abbreviations threatens the Chinese language, and their presence in the dictionary violates Chinese laws governing language usage.
"Replacing Chinese characters with letters in such a dictionary deals the most severe damage to the Chinese language in a century," said Li Mingsheng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"If we don't make standards, more English expressions will become part of Chinese," said Fu Zhenguo of the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily and a signatory to the letter.
A fuller account in the government organ, Global Times (August 29, 2012), entitled "Scholars incensed at dictionary for including English abbreviations", may be found here.
The scholars' fear that "more English expressions will become part of Chinese" seems to be strangely misplaced, since languages are enriched by borrowings (English and Japanese are both especially blessed in this regard), not diminished.
In several earlier Language Log posts, I pointed out that the Roman alphabet has already become an inextricable part of the Chinese written language, so it is futile to attempt to eradicate it from the script:
"Zhao C: a Man Who Lost His Name"
(see the article on the Sino-Alphabet by Mark Hansell referred to in this paper)
"A New Morpheme in Mandarin"
Hanyu Pinyin, the official Romanization of the People's Republic of China, is used for many practical purposes, including teaching people to read and write; in advertising; for brand names; on street signs; on product labels; in dictionaries for purposes of ordering and phonetic annotation of entries; by archeologists for identifying sites, tombs, artifacts; and so forth. Most importantly, however, pinyin is used by the overwhelming majority of the population for computer and cell phone inputting, which means that nearly everyone is familiar with it and have become less and less able to write characters by hand ("Character Amnesia").
Liu Yongquan, a noted applied linguist of more than half a century's standing, is a specialist on zìmǔ cí 字母词 ("letter words", i.e., words used in Chinese that consist partially or wholly of Roman letters). In an unpublished review, Liu states the obvious, namely, that the sharp increase of zìmǔ cí 字母词 ("letter words") in the 6th edition of the Xiàndài hànyǔ cídiǎn 现代汉语词典 (Dictionary of Modern Chinese) reflects their increasing frequency in daily usage.
Liu divides zìmǔ cí 字母词 ("letter words") into several categories:
1. those that come directly from English or other foreign languages, e.g., WHO, CBD ("Central Business District")
2. those that combine a foreign usage with a Chinese translation, e.g., B chāo B超（"type-B ultrasonic"), X xiàn X线 ("X-ray")
3. acronyms and abbreviations of Chinese terms, e.g., RMB (from rénmínbì 人民币 ["people's currency"]), HSK (from Hànyǔ shuǐpíng kǎoshì 汉语水平考试 ["Chinese Proficiency Test"])
4. English expressions created by Chinese, e.g., CCTV ("China Central Television"), CEPA ("Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement"), ECFA ("Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement", a policy for managing cross-strait relations with Taiwan)
It must be born in mind that all of these terms (and many others like them) are used freely and naturally by Chinese individuals while speaking Mandarin.
Liu goes on to propose that China should create more acronyms directly from Mandarin pronunciation, e.g., BWDX Běidǒu wèixīng dǎoháng xìtǒng 北斗卫星导航系统 ("Beidou [Big Dipper] Satellite Navigation System"), instead of BSNS (following the English translation, which is the usual custom now).
Liu's review concentrates on many other aspects of pinyin usage in the latest edition of Xiàndài hànyǔ cídiǎn 现代汉语词典 (Dictionary of Modern Chinese), such as proper orthography, details of pronunciation, grammatical niceties, and so on.
When the most famous literary character of modern Chinese literature is named Ah Q (Ā Q 阿Q), and when the Chinese stock market could scarcely function without A, B, ST, and G, the alphabetphobic scholars who are waging a campaign against the inclusion of Roman letter expressions in the Xiàndài hànyǔ cídiǎn 现代汉语词典 (Dictionary of Modern Chinese) would seem have lost the battle before they began it.
Essentially, what we are seeing is an emerging digraphia, with Chinese characters being used in parallel with Hanyu Pinyin for those purposes that are suitable to each of them. This is a natural process, one that will not be substantially slowed down by the naysayers nor measurably speeded up by the reform enthusiasts. It is happening because users of the language find it convenient and suitable to proceed this way.
[A tip of the hat to Mark Swofford, Gordon Chang, and Bob Bauer]