Creeping Romanization in Chinese

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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 post)

"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]


  1. Zesheng Chen said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

    A very good essay.
    I would like to add that when it comes to writing system reform, there is more a public's will to it than an academic discussion. By that I do not mean the discussion here but the proposals for reform made by several linguists including 吕叔湘 and 赵元任 that are little known by the public.

    I would also like to refer to the allusion 井底之蛙(wiktionary: in order to explain my point(although I admit that this is a bit too derogatory). I believe that decades of monolingualism and lack of contact with the rest of the world have make the public lack of a general, objective view of language, basing their argument mostly on sentimental cries(most) and invalid argument(relatively rare) instead of well-reasoned argument(few and far between). For example, one of the most popular comments on language is a line on Weibo "一美国仔居然和我辩论说英语比中文难学!你妹的!就拿一个我字来说。男的可以用爷,女的用老娘,皇上用朕孤,皇后用哀家,百姓用鄙人,老人用老夫,青年用小生,和尚用贫僧,道士用贫道,粗人用俺咱,文人用小可,豪放可称洒家,婉约可叫不才,对上称在下,对下称本座,平民称草民.你们就一个“I”,拽个屁。 ", which is of a very narrow view and extremely biased.

    Furthermore, most of the people are even fiercely against Simplified Character(简体字), stating that it is the destruction and pollution of Chinese culture. The most famous(not one of, but the most famous) example of this is also a line well spread on almost every online community: "一位台湾朋友说:汉字简化后,親(亲)不见,愛(爱)无心,產(产)不生,厰(厂)空空,麵(面)无麦,運(运)无车,導(导)无道,兒(儿)无首,飛(飞)单翼,湧(涌)无力,有雲(云)无雨,開関(开关)无门,鄉(乡)里无郎,聖(圣)不能听也不能说,買(买)成钩刀下有人头,輪(轮)子底下有匕首,進(进)不是越来越佳而往井里走,可魔仍是魔,匪还是匪。 ", which is not only inaccurate about etymology but also logically fallacious(sorry that I don't remember the name of the fallacy, but it is like to argue that the US is able because they are AmeriCANs and not AmeriCAN'Ts).

    Both lines above have gained an unbelievable amount of support although they are invalid from the first sight. This brings back my point that the public is very biased and subjective when it comes to language. Most of the people are still under the impression that the Chinese language can only work with 汉字 and that Pinyin is therefore merely an assistance to it. Which is not true(I mean only technically and linguistically, regardless of social and historical factor). And also there has been an unnecessary trend of conservatism belief that anything changed in 汉字 is polluting it.

  2. Zesheng Chen said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

    Another interesting example of the invalid argument: 论汉语与外语的优劣(On the Superiority and Inferiority of Chinese and Foreign Languages) ( PS: SOMDOM is the biggest online community for language lovers in China

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

    Are there any common initialisms used in the PRC in Latin-alphabet letters that derive from foreign language other than English? (I assume when talking about international soccer regulation they might write "FIFA" just as we do in English, although that's the initials of the French name of the relevant organization. But other examples?) Hasn't "renminbi" been lexicalized into English (and perhaps other non-Chinese languages) the same way "yen" and "ruble" etc. have been (as the standard English-or-whatever word for "the currency used by country X")? Did the RMB abbreviation first arise among Mandarin-speakers or among bankers/forex-traders/etc. who were Anglophones or at least working in a bilingual business environment?

    The Global Times story suggested that in addition to common expressions in Mandarin customarily written using Latin-alphabet letters there may also be some expressions customarily written using the Greek alphabet. I would be fascinated to see an actual example of such a Greek-letter usage, unless for some reason US college fraternities have become a topic of discussion in discourse conducted in Mandarin.

  4. Zesheng Chen said,

    August 30, 2012 @ 11:01 pm

    @J.W. Brewer perhaps LV? That's the only abbreviation of foreign origin in daily use I can think of so far. I believe there are others as well but they are less used.
    Greek alphabet isn't in daily usage, but mainly taught in high school physics and chemistry.(not the entire alphabet, but some essentials such as alpha, beta, gamma, delta, pi, rho, omega, etc)

  5. cantab said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 12:04 am

    Well there are some examples other than LV for Louis Vuitton, which doesn't really count since it's just a name of French origin, instead of a phrase in French. Examples include NHK for Japan Broadcasting Corporation, KGB for Committee for State Security (a phonetic transliteration of КГБ – “克格勃” is more customary though). They are not as widely recognized as Latin abbreviations such as a.m., p.m., and AD. But these acronyms, derived directly from their languages of origin, are probably just as widely used everywhere else in the world. I can't think of an acronym of this kind that is unique to the PRC.

    Also unaware of expressions involving Greek letters beyond usages in science.

  6. Rubrick said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 2:11 am

    "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."

    Misplaced, yes, but surely not strangely. Linguistic borrowings have always been the bogeymen of language purists, everywhere and everywhen.

  7. John F said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 4:33 am

    Let us in the northwest of europe be rid of this strange Etruscan script and return to runes and ogham!

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 5:50 am

    @John F



    "…derived directly from their languages of origin…."

    What you otherwise say about these non-English acronyms is true, but all of them probably came into Chinese through English.

  9. derek smith said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 7:58 am

    It is usually acceptable in linguistics to talk about "enrichment" and give compliments to languages and linguistic situations, while it is essentially taboo to say anything negative about anything, though clearly contrasting "impoverished" linguistic situations must exist. This is fundamentally dishonest, and is one good reason, amongst a few bad ones, why nobody much cares what linguists think about linguistic situations.

    [(myl) And here I was worried that we're too negative. Many of our most popular posts are at minus eleven on a ten-point negative-to-positive scale — take this or this or this as random examples.

    It's true that we tend to be skeptical of factually-challenged jeremiads about the loss of linguistic purity, but that's because they're, well, factually-challenged jeremiads, not because we think it's taboo to say anything negative about anything. In fact, if we really observed a no-negative-comments taboo, we'd compliment those FCJs, am I right?]

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 9:28 am

    From Anne Henochowicz:

    China Digital Times: Scholars Fight Back Against Roman Invasion

    From Bob Bauer:

    As for wéishēngsù 維生素 ("vitamins") A, B, C, D, E, etc., do the purists have alternatives?

  11. L said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 9:53 am

    > Let us in the northwest of europe be rid of this strange Etruscan script and return to runes and ogham!

    Let the Etruscans be rid of this strange Greco-Levantine script!

    Let the Greco-Levantines be rid of this strange Phonecian script!

    Let the Phonecians be rid of this strange Sumerian script!

    Let the Sumerians be rid of… whatever it was… and let us all be rid of tally marks…

  12. Acilius said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 10:16 am

    It's difficult to reduce a nationalistic argument to absurdity. The more absurd a nationalistic claim is, the likelier someone will fervently agree with it. So, one of the the fascistic groupuscules in interwar France, Celticisme, included people who argued in all sincerity for a scrapping of the Roman alphabet and a revival of pre-alphabetic writing systems.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 10:52 am

    On Derek Smith's point, my sense is that one of the organizing axioms of the current discipline of linguistics at least in the Anglo-American academic world is that spoken language is the "real thing" and writing systems are sort of an odd cultural artifact off in the corner. This may be one reason why the general taboo against suggesting that language A is in some sense "superior" to language B does not necessarily carry over to criticism of writing systems.

  14. Vic said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    @J.W. Brewer Since the Chinese use the metric system, I'm guessing someone occasionally refers to at as SI (systeme internationale).

  15. foljs said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 11:16 am

    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.

    The language of a country with millennia of extremely rich culture, will be "enriched" by borrowing more English expressions?

    Which, to be frank, will be mostly idiotic business terms, BS pop culture references, and SMS/Web vernacular?

    Modern linguistics are laughable, and doubly so when they try to make qualitative arguments.

  16. foljs said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 11:21 am

    It's difficult to reduce a nationalistic argument to absurdity. The more absurd a nationalistic claim is, the likelier someone will fervently agree with it.

    It's also difficult to reduce an argument made by the prevalent ideology du jour, masked as "objective science" (as if the thing exists in the humanities).

    Like, you know, anglo-saxon scholars all drinking the latest linguistic dogmas from the hose, including most of the assumptions that come with the western world, and imposing their theories to every country as if they were written in stone, with all the colonialist gusto of times past.

  17. D.O. said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    Isn't anticolonial rage a Western shtick as well?

  18. x31eq said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

    卡拉OK is a Japanese word spelt phonetically. I don't know if it came in via English. It's the example I take as evidence that written Chinese has added 26 new characters that sit quite at home with the older ones.

    Is KTV a Chinese coinage?

  19. Acilius said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

    "anglo-saxon scholars… imposing their theories to every country as if they were written in stone, with all the colonialist gusto of times past." Surely that's just another form of nationalism. Internationalism is all too often a disguise for the narrowest nationalisms of all. Not that I'm convinced that anyone around here is guilty of such a thing, I hasten to add.

  20. Chris Waugh said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 5:37 am

    "Most importantly, however, pinyin is used by the overwhelming majority of the population for computer and cell phone inputting"

    And what of handwriting input on cellphones and tablets? I have a wealth of anecdata suggesting it is widely used.

    On my own phone, when the handwriting input is set to Chinese, I can input Latin characters and Arabic numerals without changing any settings and have the option of hitting buttons to make it prefer Latin characters or Arabic numerals over Chinese characters. Examples like x31eq's 卡拉OK and KTV and Bob Bauer's 維生素 A, B, C etc lead me to suspect that it's less digraphia than two new sets of characters and numerals being incorporated into written Chinese.

  21. Bob Violence said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 6:06 am

    The language of a country with millennia of extremely rich culture, will be "enriched" by borrowing more English expressions?

    Psh, everyone knows Chinese went downhill when those colonialist Austroasians began imposing their lexicon on it.

  22. derek smith said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

    In reference to the reply to my mail above then, I challenge anyone here to name a language which is "impoverished" at this juncture, since we are seemingly able to locate the enriched ones.

    I do not see why a successful campaign by any government to make people stick to long-winded native versions of foreign terms would result in impoverishment. I think such efforts are quaint, and nice, and aim to maintain global variety. I'm not so silly as to think such a campaign has much chance of success though.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 1, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

    @derek smith: via google you can find a few brave souls willing to characterize Mandarin as "phonologically impoverished," especially by comparison to Middle Chinese. It's harder to find languages affirmatively characterized as "lexically impoverished," at least since the first few pages of google results often turn up defenses of particular languages against such charges (including a blog comment I myself wrote hypothesizing that Jamaican Patois was not particularly lexically impoverished). But you can find a noted prescriptivist suggesting that English was thus impoverished before it stocked up on learned Latinate loanwords, and a note in turn in the Loeb translation of Macrobius' Saturnalia to the effect that many classical Latin authors assumed/accepted that their own language was lexically impoverished when compared to Greek.

  24. Bob Violence said,

    September 3, 2012 @ 7:03 am

    via google you can find a few brave souls willing to characterize Mandarin as "phonologically impoverished," especially by comparison to Middle Chinese.

    This is actually seems to be a common notion among Cantonese speakers, and I would guess more than a few Hokkien speakers as well. (I recall seeing a Taiwanese dictionary that boasted of 台語's superiority to 國語 in the introduction on these exact grounds.)

  25. June Teufel Dreyer said,

    September 3, 2012 @ 10:50 am

    the goal of maintaining linguistic purity is (a) misplaced and (b) can't be done. A propos of (a), languages are enriched rather than diminished by foreign loan words. We can find English words for Schadenfreude, gung ho, raison d'etre, and many other terms, but somehow they don't seem to express the (pardon) geist of the terms as well.
    As for (b), past efforts to do so have quickly failed. When I worked for Teijin KK in Osaka a long-time employee told me the story of the WW II Japanese government's efforts to substitute "real" Japanese words for bes-boru terms like "su-trike-ee wan". He reported that, even though it was dangerous to resist, everyone in stands snickered contemtuously when the referee used the new politically correct terms. "NBA" is going to stay NBA in China no matter what the government says.
    My daughter, who has lived in France for a decade, has many example from the entertainment field, in which she works, where the government's efforts have failed. Furthermore, today's French language is itself a pastiche of words from Occitan, Bretagne, and so forth whose originals often survive in the names for local culinary specialties. I recently discovered that Nanterre comes from Nemptodurum, the Roman term for that area, meaning "hill fort of the sacred wood." And so on.
    One wonders what sort of insecurity is at work in China (I know in the case of France)

  26. Victor Mair said,

    September 3, 2012 @ 10:56 am

    South China Morning Post

    Keeping Chinese language free from outside influence an impossible goal
    Comment›Insight & Opinion
    SCMP Editorial

    Nations with a proud history and culture are also likely to be jealously protective of their language. For a country fast on the rise like China, that is guaranteed to be doubly so. The mainland media were told two years ago not to use foreign words, especially English ones, and now academics are pushing to have them removed from the country's most authoritative linguistic reference book, the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary. Their hearts are in the right place by wanting to preserve Chinese, but they are wrong to want to stop it from progressing; without diversification, a language and the people who speak it will suffer.

    The 100 academics contend in a letter of protest that the inclusion of 240 terms containing Latin letters in the dictionary's latest edition threatens the Chinese language and violate laws. It is the same argument used in Japan, France, Quebec and other places where language protection is a key element of a nationalist agenda. But China is not trapped in a time warp, nor is it immune to outside influences. As an important – and increasingly so – part of the world, it is shaping and being shaped by what its people encounter. That is an inevitability. The ability to borrow, adapt and improve is what has made humankind so dominant a species. Language is about communication and no matter how ancient its roots, turbulent its history or unique its spoken and written forms, it evolves for the sake of convenience. The academics believe terms like "NBA", for the American National Basketball Association, and "CPI" for consumer price index, pollute the purity of Chinese, but they are more accurate and easier to use than the Chinese equivalents created to replace them.

    No language can claim to be pure of outside influences. The academics surely were not ignorant of Chinese containing thousands of words borrowed and adapted from other languages, Hindi, Mongolian and Japanese among them. To shut the door on the evolution of Chinese is to do the nation a disservice and block fruitful thought and expression.
    Contemporary Chinese Dictionary
    Chinese Language
    Source URL (retrieved on Sep 3rd 2012, 10:57pm):

  27. Bruce said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 12:43 am

    The 汉字 purists dare not let their mask slip. It is promoted as a unified writing system for the entire group of Sinitic languages even though it is a force fit at best for 广东话 (Cantonese) and artificial for Hokkien and other dialect groups (see other postings onLL for details). If it proves insufficient even for the Beijing topolect, then its legitimacy for other topolects becomes questionable and the whole edifice may come down.

    Japanese has solved the problem of importing foreign words with its kana, but as most people reading this will know, there is no such mechanism in Chinese. Instead you designate Chinese characters with an intersection of meaning and sound to approximate the foreign sound.
    Actually the Chinese system of a silent radical plus another part of the character to suggest the sound can create amusing rebus puzzles. For instance, an ethnic Italian potlicial candidate around here wanted a Chinese name. His Italian surname begins peschi (fish). So the five syllables of his name were compressed into three Chinese characters approximating three of the sounds, with 鱼 (fish) the radical of one of them. Very amusing and bright, but hardly something average people who lack understanding of all three languages could possibly appreciate. So Chinese characters are beautiful and capable of these wonderful mind games but that doesn't make them a practical writing system, especially if there is no standardized sound system for foreign words. In Japanese, the kana have no foreign sounds. They are simply stylized versions of particular kanji's with the appropriate sounds.

  28. derek smith said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 7:31 am

    I think the charge that Mandarin is lexically impoverished is pretty daft – what linguists perhaps ought to maintain is that you shouldn't hurl these kind of negative terms at any language simply because it has less of certain features than another language.

    What most linguists do though, in fact, is now and agian cast aspersions on "imperial" languages like French and Mandarin (so, admitted, negativity is allowed in that case) while waxing lyrical about minority languages, using terms like "enriched", which suggest opposites.

    In what way would native terms for foreign items be "less accurate" I wonder? Is there there any evidence for that? Anyway, if the government actually try to impose genuinely inferior terms they are certainly doomed to fail, so why worry about it? And what harm does it do? If it slows down a march towards the globally linguistically unified capitalist techno-future, are linguists wise to be upset about that?

  29. Gianni said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 10:23 am

    Language purists never acknowledge that meaning is universal and one language is not. Even English is filled with written signs from outside. Forget about those "Arabic" letters, we have mathematical/astrological Greek and non-Greek signs, emoticons, traffic signs, prohibition signs and so on, which are certainly non-Latin. Thinking of the vividness and creativity of those open scripts such as Akkadian and Japanese, and the short lives of those closed "pure" scripts such as Old Persian, Jurchen and Khitan large scripts, we should keep in mind that even for sinographs with such a big sign inventory, the resistance of foreign scripts is suicidal.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    September 4, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

    From a friend:

    …nearly all countries think they have a proud history and culture. It is insecure nations, particularly those who fear they are losing their prestige, who become sensitive to “impurities” creeping in from outside. The British empire welcomed new words, as does the US.

  31. derek smith said,

    September 5, 2012 @ 5:16 am

    I'm sorry, I meant to say "phonologically" impoverished in my last post, responding to J.M.Brewer. Mandarin doesn't have a lot of phonemes, and that surely doesn't help Madarin speakers when they learn other languages with more – but linguists ought to avoid drawing harsh conclusions based on that kind of thing in a more consistent way.

    Yes, people have misplaced ideas about protecting illusionary "purity". Why look at it so narrowly though? They are also protecting diversity. Do we always wish the more efficient to replace the less efficient? That will certainly consign the writing system of China to the dustbin – a linguistic equivalent to the burning of the Summer Palace and then some.

    Anyway – does "welcoming" new words, an odd notion, make a difference? Isn't the criticism supposed to be that these deluded purist government cadres have no control over the tide of language anyway? If so, why worry?

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