The Westernization of Chinese

« previous post | next post »

In several recent posts (and in many earlier posts as well), we have discussed some of the ways in which English has had an impact upon Chinese:

But the Westernization of Chinese reaches far beyond the types of influences and borrowings described in previous Language Log posts.  Testimony of the extent to which this goes comes from a Chinese friend:

My mother, as I've mentioned before, said to me about ten years ago: "I often have difficulty understanding the Chinese in the newspapers," even though Chinese is her mother tongue and her only language, and she is well educated. I find it's because the Chinese newspaper's sentences are now a direct translation from English, with English, not traditional Chinese, grammar and vocabulary. The Chinese language is becoming inexorably westernized.

Following up on my friend's comment, I wish to introduce a new concept, that of Hybrid Chinese-English.  Perhaps the best way to do so is to invite Language Log readers to view this phenomenal video from Taiwan.  It has been viewed over two million times and has become something of an online iconic event.  Virtually all young people I met while I was teaching in the mainland knew about this video, and it has its own entries in the Baidu encyclopedia.  I even saw it featured in ads for instant noodles and other products.

The video stars "Miss Lin" in a virtuoso solo performance.  She is discussing and demonstrating "fashion", and uses that English word many times instead of the Chinese equivalent, shíshàng 时尚, which occurs in the subtitles.  There are many sensational moments in the video, but the one that captured the public imagination the most was when she says "hold住”.  We need to spend a little bit of time on zhù 住 to see how extraordinary this usage is.  Zhù 住 has many meanings and functions ("live; dwell; reside; stop; cease; halt; bide"), but in Miss Lin's construction it serves as a resultative complement of the English (N.B.!) verb "hold" and signifies that the action of the verb is to be maintained firmly.  In other words, Miss Lin is talking about holding a pose, which is what being a model in the fashion industry is all about.

Here we have an English verb with a Mandarin resultative complement.  Miss Lin uses this construction in a natural, fluent, relaxed manner and without any hesitation.

The subtitles of the video do not do justice to the large amount of English Miss Lin and the others who are present speak:  "welcome", "party", "thanks", "well, well, well", "Paris" (not Bālí 巴黎), "university", "What is fashion?", "don't worry", and so forth.  This is a language that all of the young people in the audience, and most other youths, speak and understand.  As such, I would say that it is well on the way to becoming a hybrid form of speech.  It is neither Chinglish nor Singlish, nor yet is it Zhonglish.

As a matter of fact, Chinese scholars and officials have long since identified and fretted over the hybridization of Chinese, as in an article called "What's your attitude towards the Chinese-English hybrid?"

I doubt that the officials and scholars can do anything to stem the tide.  Miss Lin's fans love the way she talks, and they emulate her among themselves.

The Westernization of Chinese has been going on for a long time now.  For those who wish to know more about the literary and linguistic aspects of this process, I can recommend two works by Cornelius Kubler:

  • "Europeanized Grammar in Ba Jin's Novel Jia", Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association, 20.1 (February, 1985), 39-66.
  • A Study of Europeanized Grammar in Modern Written Chinese (Taipei: Student Book Co., Ltd., 1985).

[A tip of the hat to Joel Heng Hartse and Julie Wei]


  1. Joel said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

    So glad to see this covered! There are so many interesting mashups of Chinese and English happening nowadays that it is hard to keep up — I have been wondering whether this ought to be simply covered under the rubric of codeswitching (which I think makes sense) or if it should be argued that something new is emerging.

    Tom McArthur once proposed a term that I like, though it hasn't been unpacked much, which is "the Chinese-English interface." Kingsley Bolton referred to this C-E interface as "the complex cultural and linguistic interactions between the Chinese languages and World Englishes."

    The fact that these interactions are so complex makes it unfortunate that too often people are ready to lump all Chinese-English issues under one simple explanation: "There are Chinglish signs all over China — ha ha, they don't know English," "Chinese English exists because of interference from Chinese," "English is infiltrating Chinese," "More people speak English in China than in the USA" etc etc— these all have a kernel of truth to them, but don't tell the whole story. I appreciate that there are people looking at English in China from all different angles — sinologists, anthropologists, linguists, TESOL people, and others. It's an exciting time to be doing this kind of research.

  2. Bruce Rusk said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

    Thanks for posting this–what a performance. I couldn't help but notice that even "standard" Chinese shows English (or at least European) influence–e.g., Miss Lin's question "What is fashion" is translated in the subtitles as "Shenme shi shishang" 甚麼是時尚? This word order is a calque that originated from very literal translations–it used to be normal in Chinese to put the noun and interrogative pronoun in the reverse order in a sentence like this, and it still may be the more common order. But I guess that the "int. pronoun – shi – noun" form became so common that it was naturalized and is now unmarked as an import, except perhaps in the most formal of writing.

  3. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

    As a domestic counterpart to Miss Lin's "hold住", I know Chinese-English bilinguals who tack "-ing" onto Chinese verbs, e.g. "我們說ing吧!"

    The possibilities are just boggling.

  4. Cyndy said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

    "Miss Lin" is a comedienne. Her performance emphasizes the absurd and laughable, with her smeared lips, over-painted eyebrows, garish attire, and exaggerated neck and hip movements contrasted with a deadpan expression. Her pronunciation of Chinese at the beginning of her routine parodies how (increasing numbers of) foreigners speak Chinese. Her interjection of English into her routine is likewise calculated to be ridiculous. Her routine pokes fun at contemporary Taiwanese mores (with its creeping Westernization but tenacious Sino-centrism) in the way that Joe Wong, Russell Peters in "Be a Man," and Angelah Johnson in her "Vietnamese Nail Salon" routine reflect the changing American landscape.

  5. arthur waldron said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 4:22 pm

    The other night Phoenix TV concluded a segment about Prince Harry's merry pranks with the suggestion, in English but seamlessly part of the Chinese sentence, that he "settle down."

  6. Steve Kass said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

    Has anyone transcribed this whole thing?

    At about 2:59, I caught "sexy" (it sounds closer to "sassy," as if the x were pronounced in Pinyin) in 我很想sexy的感覺 – 可是我沒有sexy的感覺. This is subtitled with 性感 (xinggǎn) for sexy: wǒ hěn xiǎng sexy/xìnggǎn de gǎnjué – kěshì wǒ méiyǒu sexy/xìnggǎn de gǎnjué. (Means something like "I want to feel sexy, but I don't.") I'd be curious to know how young Chinese speakers write "sexy"? Do they write sexy, or do they write 性感? And if they read 性感 out loud, would they say xìnggǎn or sexy depending on company?

    And right after this, did I really hear "bǐjiào better" for 比較好, immediately followed by "but(tə) wǒ…" for dànshì wǒ in "但是我現在看一下時間" ("But when I check the time…")?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

    @Daniel von Brighoff

    I once was visiting some Chinese friends and the mother said to her child, "Guānmén!" 关门! (Close the door!), and the child replied quite naturally, "I am guāning."

  8. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

    Supplement from the same friend whom I quoted at the beginning of this post:


    It was not English ("ok", "hold", etc.) imbedded in Chinese, but Chinese-derived-from-English that my mom did not understand. For example, lǐxìng yǔ gǎnxìng 理性 與 感性 (from "sense and sensibility", title of a Jane Austen novel), a phrase used a lot in Taiwan newspaper-Chinese articles (e.g., Shìjiè rìbào 世界日報 [World Journal] sold in the U.S.). or the pair lǐxìng huà 理性化 and gǎnxìng huà 感性化 ("rational/intellectual" and "emotional"), also frequently encountered in Taiwan's Chinese newspapers and magazines. Such words puzzled my mother. There are numerous other such Englishisms which are easy to understand if one knows English.

  9. Joel said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    @ Daniel — "bijiao better" is almost my favorite part of the video, except for "Fashion Bonjour University," and also the exchange: "说中文" – "I don't want!" I watched this several times last year and it still makes me laugh — she's a genuinely funny performer!

  10. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

    Here's the Youku version of the video:

    I'm working on a complete transcription of what she says.

  11. fruit said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

    It seems like nobody here knows Cantonese or any speaking language (eg Fukian) in southern China. If you speak or understand one of them you will immediately know "hold住"'s 住 got nothing to do with English. That function exist long time ago……Taiwanese Chinese (at least colloquial) is heavily influenced by Fukian and Hakka languages.

  12. Daniel Tse said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 9:17 pm

    This kind of mixing is very common in Hong Kong Cantonese. Expressions like 'keep fit' are interpreted in line with native separable V-O verb compounds, allowing expressions like "keep唔到fit都可以keep green".

  13. Poagao said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 9:25 pm

    This isn't a normal person talking, this is a comedic performance, she was actually making fun of 小S's bad Chinese with exaggerated affectations.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 9:33 pm


    "Hold" isn't English? I explicitly pointed out that the 住 part of the construction is Mandarin. And isn't Miss Lin speaking Mandarin, not Taiwanese?

    @Daniel Tse

    It is true that the non-standard topolects have been more open to Chinese-English constructions than standard Mandarin, but it is telling that such constructions are now becoming increasingly evident in Mandarin.


    Of course, it's an accomplished performance, but the point is that everybody in the audience understood it and appreciated it, as you could surely tell from their reactions. Furthermore, if 小S ("Little S") is actually the target of her satire, how did 小S get her "bad Chinese"? She's as Chinese as "Miss Lin": And why is 小S called 小S anyway?

  15. Marc said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

    Tumult in the language as doors open, horizons broaden and foreign influences intrude fascinate, and your regular sharing of the same are deeply enjoyable. Your precise observations of fleeting impressions otherwise unrecorded will, I'm sure, be very valuable to scholars hundreds of years hence.

    The situation reminds me of the Inkhorn controversy in English: . Appropriately update the language names in the "Adoption" section and it follows well the current development of Chinese (and probably will for some time).

    Thank you, as always, for your reportage and revelations.

  16. Brendan said,

    September 6, 2012 @ 11:35 pm

    It's partly a class thing too, at least in the Mainland: dropping English words into conversation marks one as an educated young professional; using pseudo-Taiwanese intonation marks one as hip and sassy. It would probably be possible for a native speaker of English with middling Chinese to impersonate a Chinese yuppie over the phone simply by eliminating the 轻声 from their Mandarin and using English words to fill in for the gaps in their Chinese lexicon.

  17. derek smith said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 3:25 am

    Hip and sassy youths in all the Asian countries I know like to throw in English terms, and choruses over most of the continet coo about love, and have for some time. The more hip and sassy things are though, the less long-lasting and significant they often turn out to be.

    Are there exceptions to this? Are there – let us hope – places where English ain't cool?

  18. Mengqi said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 4:31 am

    This is way too common in Hong Kong (and many parts of the world so long there is language contact) where code-mixing is used among people from all walks of life.
    In China, code-mixing can be risky because it's likely to invite hostility or contempt. It's probably not a very good strategy (assuming you code-mix consciously) to show you are "well-educated". I try to avoid blending English with Chinese until I am sure that the interlocutors are fine with it.

  19. Prince Roy said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 4:48 am

    Her routine brings to my mind the affected Chinese of many ABCs, the products of all those Saturday Chinese schools in the US.

  20. Poagao said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 5:01 am

    Little S and her older sister, Big S, were a group called SOS. Little S hosted a TV show called Kangxi is Here, and she does the fake ABC accent for kicks, making her a perfect target for Ms. Hold's ridicule.

  21. Simon P said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 6:03 am

    Like others have pointed out, this sort of thing is common in Cantonese, to the point of being standard. "Hold住" is used constantly by my girlfriend for all sorts of things. The "住" ending is much more commonly used in Canto than in Mando (I'd even be open to the idea that its precence in Mandarin is a loan from Cantonese). "Keep住" is another very common expression.

    Because Cantonese as a written language has so little official feel and is so seldom used, and because of the much more present role of English in Hong Kong, there are lots and lots of English expressions fully integrated into Cantonese. Two favorite ways in which this is clear:

    1: The split of English loan words into multiple syllables in constructions like "你o唔ok?" or "你a唔agree呀"?
    2: English-derived measure words, like "一pair" or "兩set".

    Really, this is simply Mandarin and Cantonese importing loan words from English. It's just like 咖啡 and other loan words, except that they haven't been given sinographs because Latin letters are now part of the Chinese writing system (no matter what The Man thinks).

  22. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 6:15 am


    Thanks! It's nice to be appreciated.

    @Brendan, derek smith, Poagao

    Fair enough, but none of that would work if sizable audiences were not thoroughly conversant with their s[c]htick. Try doing the reverse (e.g., what Brendan proposes in his second / last sentence) before audiences of TV shows in America. Nobody would "get it", so they wouldn't last very long (if at all!), since so exceedingly few people in America know Mandarin.

    I taught translation at a Taiwanese university from 1970-72. At that time, although English was widely taught and assiduously studied, it didn't seem as though it was much known on the street. When I went back in the mid-80s, I was hearing English everywhere. Now it seems to be nearly ubiquitous. That is why shows like "Kangxi Is Here" have a substantial following and performances like Miss Lin's are so phenomenally popular. They "work" because there is a huge base of people out there who know English and take delight in its intertwining with Chinese.

    @Simon P

    Excellent!! Thanks for your valuable input.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 6:52 am

    I'm pleased to report that I'm preparing a complete transcription (a. pinyin; b. characters) and translation of Miss Lin's memorable performance and will make a separate post that presents them for the delectation of Language Log readers later today.

  24. L said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 8:36 am

    > Fair enough, but none of that would work if sizable audiences
    > were not thoroughly conversant with their s[c]htick.

    And here we have a Yiddishism in English, demonstrating to me that what's going in Chinese-English mixing is nothing new – an imported language providing loan-words to the host language of the country in question. My grandmother and every borscht-belt comic I ever saw (on weekends in the borscht belt) spoke exactly this way, if you substitute Yiddish for English and English for Chinese.

    Non-Yiddish-speakers, such as myself, got most of the jokes and not only understood the terms – we learned a lot of them from the comics.

    The only jokes we didn't get were the dirty ones. The stories were mostly in English but the Yiddish punchlines were intentionally rattled off quickly and used mostly clean language and we grandchildren didn't have a large clean Yiddish vocabulary. Which is why they told them that way in the first place – so that the grandchildren wouldn't understand.

    The details of how it happens in each case are, of course, unique and the case in Chinese is perhaps the latest example to be illustrated through schtick – but by me, it's all the same mishigas.

    OK, as Ms Lin would say, OK, thank you very much, OK?

  25. Andy Averill said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 11:04 am

    The only similar process that I can think of in English is the way Americans sometimes make up Spanish words by adding -o to the end of an English word, like "no problemo". Or the "El Breako the Leaso" skit on I Love Lucy.

  26. KWillets said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

    This process has been happening in Korean for thousands of years; it just became more noticeable when people switched to English instead of Chinese. North Korean refugees complain of being forced to learn English in Korean.

    Kim-Renaud gives a good summary of the different types of borrowings and neologisms, including "좋은 하루 되세요" (have a nice day). There are many hybrid Korean/English constructions, in both nouns and verbs; it's unremarkable to add the auxiliary verb 하다 to an English word, such as "shower".

    I was tempted to become a language purification activist this summer when I caught my sister-in-law using "Oh my god" as an interjection.

  27. Jim said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 1:49 pm

    I think some commenters are missing the point. Borrowing is nothing new, but this is not plain old garden variety lexical borrowing. This is the great Never Happens, morphological borrowing.

    But there was another earlier wave of this kind of thing that gave us causative -hua4 and abstract noun -xing4.

  28. Stephen said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

    The use of English in Korean is more noticeable than Chinese (perhaps because it's so incorporated into the language), but the way English words are used is often very similar to the way Chinese words were (for instance adding 하다 to allow English words to be conjugated as verbs/adjectives). Japanese does pretty much the same thing with the verb する and the adjective ending な.

    I've been told that in Japanese they have a style of writing that is used in translations of English-language works. Apparently it feels artificial and distinctly 'not Japanese' to readers, but people are accustomed to reading translated works in this form. Actually, certain contemporary Japanese writers have been accused of writing (in Japanese) in a way that is closer to European languages than to Japanese.

  29. hayil said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

    Taiwan has a whole show that features hybrid English, but maybe a different type from Miss Lin's usage. Here is a spectacular episode that ends with the main participant asserting that "這是台灣英文" (this is Taiwanese English):

  30. Mark F. said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

    Is this happening more in Chinese than in French or German or Dutch, or is it just that people in China are noticing it more because it's a newer phenomenon there?

  31. SteveD said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

    Something similar is going in with the speech of this Russian lady, but unlike Miss Lin, she doesn't seem to be able to stop it.

    Her Russian is peppered with English words, and unlike "normal" borrowings from English in Russian, her borrowings don't feature Russian morphology – e.g, when Russian borrows "Design" ("Dizain"), the plural is normally "Dizainy", but this lady uses English -s plural, in a Russian sentence! The Russian friends I watched this with said it made them feel queasy.

    Also interesting, her Russian seems to be starting to lose a case system e.g. – the numbers at the end aren't declined as they would be in standard Russian.

  32. Steve Kass said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

    @ SteveD: The "Russian lady" Youtube you posted is from Russian Canadian Broadcasting's MixTV, and the woman being interviewed ("Zoe") appears to work at the Simon Chang boutique in Montreal.

    She's probably Canadian, and my guess is that she's fluent in English and comfortable in conversational Russian, but with a limited Russian vocabulary. When her Russian vocabulary isn't up to the task, she inserts English: For example: "красный, черный, hot pink, green apple, mango colors." On occasion, she inflects her English vocabulary with Russian case endings, but not always.

    This isn't too unlike what I sometimes did speaking with Francophones in mid-1980s Montreal. Maybe it's less shocking in that very multilingual city than in other places.

  33. michael farris said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

    The process described here for Japanese is currently going on in almost every European language as well.

    Translation pressure (from English) has created a recognizable translation register in many/most European languages with whole sets of expressions that native speakers never use (but which are ubiquitous in translations from, especially American, English).

    Small example: the phrase 'nice to see you' is always translated into Polish as 'Miło cię widzieć' a very odd expression that no native speaker (as of 15 years ago) would ever use and which older speakers find bizarre. But young people born after the collapse of communism don't find it strange at all. Mostly they still don't say it (though it's started to appear in speech as well) but they don't think it's weird at all.

    As a non-native speaker of Polish I could easily give several more examples from Polish (and I'm sure native speakers of other European languages could give many, many more).

  34. michael farris said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

    note: I could have sworn I'd written 'process described here for Chinese' instead of 'for Japanese'. I've gotta stop drinking before making comments.

  35. SteveD said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    @ Steve Kass
    Sorry, yes, the "Russian Lady" should really have been "Russian-speaking lady". I saw in the comments under the video that this was in Canada, and was wondering where exactly she was from myself.

    I guess I mostly found it interesting because her pronunciation screams "native Russian speaker", and yet she hops so casually into her (very possibly also native) English phonology and morphology in many of her borrowings. My brain can handle L2 speech with L1 interference, because somewhere subconsciously I can resolve a person's L2 speech and L1 speech into one "linguistic identity". But when someone properly bilingual starts code-switching mid-sentence, it produces this uncanny ambiguity that I find weird and thrilling.

    I appreciate this is all a bit subjective, and from what you say, it sounds like anyone who has lived in Montreal would be less amazed than me :)

  36. Victor Mair said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

    From one of my graduate students who hails from Taiwan:


    As you mentioned that "Miss Lin is talking about holding a pose, which is what being a model in the fashion industry is all about," I would like to present some different perspectives. (not academic opinions, just afew personal observations)

    For my understanding and for the context, it would be more like "to control the situation!" (the phrase "整個場面我hold住!" has been tagged on her and Taiwan people call her "Hold住姐" as her nickname). In other words, I would emphasize "hold" instead of "住".

    Regarding the meaning of "Fashion" in Linlin's performance, for me, it is more like a mimicry of certain people. One, in simplification, is ABC (American Born Chinese)— when they go to Taiwan for jobs most of them achieve stardom: DJ, VJ, etc. The other is second generation of the entrepreneur (like 富二代 in Mainland recently)— born in Taiwan and educated in the US and readily gain endorsements when they are back.

    In a word, they are favourite in entertainment and mass mediums. They bring contemporary American culture into Taiwan. Younger generations follow them, imitate them, even the ways of English speaking (more retroflex well) and the usage of certain terms (ex. "you know", "well", "ok"…) They are idols. They are "fashion"!

    Linlin never went abroad for study. For me, she is exaggerating such points of "fashion" appearing in contemporary Taiwan culture.

    By the way, she recently announced that she will end up this role and return to be a "normal" girl!

  37. Joe Rembetikoff said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

    This global and wonton borrowing and calquing is exciting and distressing at the same time. On the one hand, such creativity, on the other hand, oh! vanishing linguistic diversity! In Russia you can almost imagine young people's worship of English leading to the total extinction of Russkii some time in the next 3hunna years.
    What I would like to see is some reciprocity. Even in a city like San Francisco, most people born in the States can't get past 'Ni hao.' You get the shinnichi aping their favorite characters from anime and manga, and of course all girls love Korean drama, but there is no corresponding sinophilia. I'd be all over some Cantonese slang if there was someone to spit it with.
    I wonder if the Roman script makes slang like "牛B/牛X" less shocking or just hipper?

  38. L said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

    > This is the great Never Happens, morphological borrowing.


    By me, just like Bubbe it sounds.

  39. Eric Vinyl said,

    September 8, 2012 @ 4:21 am

    @ Stephen, michael farris

    That's really interesting – I've noticed that I can often, if not always, pick out which books have been translated to Spanish from English even before checking the copyright info in the front. I don't know if you'd call it a specialized register or just a few telltale grammatical constructions – I couldn't give you any specific examples, just a certain "feel," as, being a native English speaker, I actually find them easier to comprehend than natively Spanish-composed books. :-/

  40. Observation said,

    September 8, 2012 @ 8:48 am

    It's an interesting video and I wonder why I've never heard of it. Then again, since English:Real Cantonese ratio in Hong Kong Cantonese is about 1:10, it's really no surprise here at all! I think it would be great if there's a complete analysis about the use of English words appearing in Putonghua, how the pronunciations are be 'changed' to fit into the Chinese (this happens in Hong Kong Cantonese a lot) as well as the grammatical aspect.

    In my opinion, the 住 in hold 住 is not an exact equivalent of the 住 meaning 'tight' or 'firm' that exists both Standard Chinese and Cantonese. In Cantonese, 住 sometimes implies that the action taken is only temporary and will later be replaced by a permanent solution. For example, 你用住呢部電腦先啦 means 'Use this computer for the time being'. hold住部電話 similarly implies that the speaker will be back at the telephone soon. This 住 is different from the 住 in, say, 抓住, which refers to the action of grabbing something tightly in both Cantonese and Putonghua.

  41. Guy said,

    September 8, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

    There is definitely an increasing amount of English-derived words being used in Taiwan but I dont know if the Miss Lin video is a realistic representation…if anything the Miss Lin video is a satire on people who speak bad Chinese (ABCs) or have fake ABC accents (overseas returnees or pop stars like Xiao S and Elva Hsiao). The whole Miss Lin character was conceived as a fake ABC, which explains the nonsensical use of English!

    I totally agree with the enormous English influence on newspapers though. Most newspapers in Taiwan simply don't have the budget to staff lots of foreign correspondents overseas and end up simply translating articles from English. Newspaper articles on domestic politics and events, written originally in Mandarin, are often of noticeably better quality (in terms of grammar and word choice) than the poorly translated articles on foreign events.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2012 @ 6:34 am


    I'm glad that you addressed the issue with which I began my post. The problem of unnatural (and for some readers, virtually impenetrable, translatese) in contemporary written Chinese.

    And I agree with you and all the others who have pointed out that Miss Lin's performance is satirical in nature. But, the very fact that there are people running around Taiwan — many of them in publicly prominent places — who speak the "bad Chinese" that she satirizes, plus the fact that the audience is intimately familiar with it ("bad Chinese") and undoubtedly use plentiful elements of it themselves, means that "bad Chinese" is a conspicuous feature of the current linguistic scene in Taiwan. We need to ask of what "bad Chinese" consists, how it came about, where it is headed, how prevalent it is, and so forth.

    BTW, I have been spending many hours preparing the complete transcription and translation of Miss Lin's performance and hope to post it later today.

  43. Charlie Clingen said,

    September 10, 2012 @ 9:13 am

    A friend tells me that the video was popular in China several years ago and Miss Lin's performance lead to the coining of the term 淡定 (dan4ding4) — calm and collected, unperturbed. Maybe "cool" would be a good translation.

  44. derek smith said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 3:01 am

    People tend to borrow anything you like from a dominant imperial language that they are frequently able to hear – morphemes, phonemes, you name it.

    I don't worry deeply about the loss of diversity. I just feel that a discipline that in general does worry enormously about that behaves rather oddly when it puts on its Chinese studies hat.

  45. Victor Mair said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 5:01 pm

    @derek smith

    The Chinese script is rather special, so it doesn't receive run-of-the mill treatment, the way an alphabet or syllabary might.

  46. JamesP said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

    One consideration ; there is an enormous amount of straightforward plagiarism in the Chinese media, and one of the common methods is to translate Western material directly into Chinese. So that's a possible vector for Western word order too, especially when quickly and sloppily translated.

  47. derek smith said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 2:40 am

    It certainly is special, and not entirely in a bad way. Afer all, if tattoos were votes it would easily be the world's most popular script. It wins the Miss World contest of writing systems hands down.

    I fear what is special about it is that some people believe that westernization in Chinese of all types – including the hoped for destruction of the script as an everyday tool – is a worthy political aim which will result in better politics in the middle kingdom. That is debatable. The depressing loss of diversity is not.

  48. Ted said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 10:45 am

    In context, and with the benefit of Observation's observation, it sounds like "hold住" should be translated in context as something like "hold on, hold on," or perhaps "wait a minute."

  49. Victor Mair said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 11:18 am

    From the Financial Times
    A short course in Manglish: 88,3Q

    By Patti Waldmeir in Shanghai

    “7456. 3166. 88.” Did you get that? I said: “I am so ticked off, I’m signing off. Goodbye!” – in internet Mandarin.

    Having grown up in the age of telegrams and come to maturity in the telex era, I can hardly claim to be fluent in eMandarin – a language I like to think of as “Manglish” because it has so much English in it. But according to linguists at, a popular Mandarin learning website, China’s 500m netizens have created “one of the most diverse and creative internet slang languages on the planet”.

    They sometimes use numbers and letters to replace Chinese characters, which are hard to type on mobile phones as they must first be entered in Pinyin, or phonetic Mandarin, generating a lengthy drop-down menu of soundalike characters to choose from – a task made harder by the fecundity of Chinese homonyms.

    Even in its bricks and mortar version, Mandarin is a naturally playful language, which is perfect for punning because so many of its sounds have multiple meanings. Take it online, add a qwerty keyboard, clumsy fingers, a smartphone touchpad – and at times the desire to say things obliquely to avoid government censors – and presto, technology has sparked a burst of linguistic creativity.

    The sentence above, for example, starts out with Chinese (“7456”, when read out loud, sounds like “qisiwole”, an expression of intense annoyance), then moves on to Japanese (“3166” sounds like “sayonara”) and finishes with English (“88”, which sounds like “bye-bye” in Chinese). No surprise that internet Mandarin is causing a backlash from the same crowd that thinks BFF and LOL ought to have been strangled at birth.

    Chinese students were banned from using internet-speak in this year’s college entrance examination, the dreaded gaokao. And it is not just online shorthand that is under fire: English abbreviations of, for example, the National Basketball Association and the World Trade Organisation are also facing resistance. More than 100 scholars, linguists and journalists signed a letter to protest that their inclusion in the latest edition of the contemporary Chinese dictionary was not just unwise but actually illegal under Chinese law.
    Banx illustration

    Fu Zhenguo, a retired senior journalist at People’s Daily, the Communist party organ, and the primary mover of the complaint letter, says he likes English perfectly well – but not when used in place of Chinese. “Many big shopping malls … use English in signs but the shops are owned by Chinese people and the customers are Chinese. It would be very strange if shops in Britain used all Chinese words,” he points out.

    But China is hardly the first country to complain of English linguistic hegemony (nor is it likely to be the last to lose that battle). English teaching in Chinese schools has improved dramatically in the past decade: it seems a shame to spend time now drilling the mainland’s new English speakers to call the NBA the meizhilan. Yao Ming, the former “MZL” star? That would take some getting used to.

    Chinese internet slang is, if anything, even more threatening to linguistic purists than using an English abbreviation to denote a basketball league where everyone speaks English. The origin of most eMandarin was practical: just as it is quicker to type “u” than “you”, so it is faster to type 7456 than to express annoyance by choosing from a drop-down menu of characters. And sellers on the Chinese ecommerce site Taobao are just being practical when they tell shoppers to wait by typing two equal signs (because the Chinese word for “equals” is a rough homonym for “wait”). But Chinese netizens are also masters at using soundalike words to discuss banned political topics online, always one linguistic step ahead of the censors.

    Doubtless friction is inevitable when a 5,000-year-old civilisation rewrites its language for use on an iPad. And one can hardly accuse the Chinese of being hidebound by linguistic tradition, after all: just over half a century ago, they replaced their entire writing system virtually overnight, when simplified characters replaced traditional ones.

    But wordplay has a long and venerable history in Chinese culture and it seems a fair bet that, 5,000 years on – whatever technology does to us in the meantime – Mandarin speakers will still be out there punning. “88,3Q”, I say, in my pidgin eMandarin: read that in Chinese and it comes out as “bye-bye and thank you”. Who needs Esperanto, with Mandarin and an iPhone?

  50. Victor Mair said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    @ derek smith

    You speak of "the hoped for destruction of the script as an everyday tool", but who is advocating that? Have you set up a straw man? All that the most ardent script reformers I know of are seeking is the establishment of some form of digraphia.

  51. joe said,

    September 15, 2012 @ 7:38 am

    this is a show for entertainment. all the fun might have been created for the best effect of drama. does miss lin speak like this in everyday life? her fans might imitate her style and create their own shows or write their own pieces in blogs. it is open to discussion if this example is good enough to indicate an ongoing trend of the westernization of chinese. what about tan te? could it be construed as a song indicating that chinese is also moving in a gibberish direction? i tend to believe that one swallow does not make a summer. another thing is, many people in china, aware of the westernization, are trying to write the best chinese, meaning, in my understanding, that they are trying to weed out the western influence from the words, phrases, and grammar they use. i do think this can be understood as a current against the westernization of chinese.

    [(myl) In Hong Kong, Cantonese/English "code mixing", of the kind found in this video, is widespread and long established in everyday life. See the links in this comment for extensive documentation.]

    on the other hand, it is well known that some people working in foreign companies in china insert english words and phrases when they speak chinese. many people did this years ago. some people say it is meant to show off; some say it is convenient; some say the workplace thing just spills over into everyday life. i am under the impression that, as more and more people despise such a showy way of speaking chinese, many people have cured themselves of this habit. some people have stopped talking like this. some watch themselves more carefully.

  52. Victor Mair said,

    September 15, 2012 @ 4:37 pm


    You are engaging in wishful thinking that the Westernization is diminishing or that it would go away. Quite the contrary, as many Language Log posts during the last few years have demonstrated, and as many articles in the press show, the trend is toward more and more Western features in spoken and written Chinese, causing alarm among those like yourself who decry it.

  53. joe said,

    September 15, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

    i don't think i am engaged in wishful thinking. it's because i am not saying that westernization is going away. i am pointing out that mixed speaking is diminishing and that some people are trying to get rid of western influence in their own writing and urging other people to do the same. books that show this de-westernization (linguistically) sell.

    another thing is, books about translation in bookstores are full of such advice.

    no linguist, i am not in a position to say that the westernization of chinese is going away. i am saying that the westernization of chinese is probably not as going strong as the video of miss lin is used to suggest.

    and i am not decrying the westernization of chinese.

    well, how come am i understood to be decrying the westernization of chinese?

  54. joe said,

    September 15, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

    by mixed speaking, i refer to the way i mentioned in my first followup. the phenomenon can probably be traced to first batch of overseas chinese who came to china and work in joint ventures and foreign companies. they could manage some chinese and they spoke english. in order to communicate with their chinese employees they developed that kind of mixed speaking. some chinese employees picked it up as a fashion to show off their status. speaking that way is like a fashion something you wear. nowadays, however, as more and more overseas chinese managers speak better chinese that kind of mixed speaking, in my observation, diminishing. and more and more people no longer treat it as a fashion. more and more people think it is vulgar to speak like this.

  55. joe said,

    September 15, 2012 @ 7:00 pm

    about writing the best chinese, some chinese writers are trying to do something to chinese as hemingway and orwell did to english. if these writers can win, bad translators and their works will decrease. and if bad translators and their works will eventually decrease, the mother mentioned in your post and people like her and people like me will eventually have less opportunities to complain about so called bad chinese (poorly westernized chinese).

  56. joe said,

    September 15, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

    well, about engaging in wishful thinking. thinking i am engaging in wishful thinking is an example of wishful thinking. that's all right when wishful thinking is about me. if this spills over into linguistic works, that would do damage. i could be wrong and i really don't care about myself being wrong. i have no reputation at stake. i am eager to read things that are interesting and i am open to good ideas. thanks for your eye-opening posts. i have been reading them on and off for years.

  57. Victor Mair said,

    September 16, 2012 @ 8:04 am


    "…more and more overseas chinese managers speak better chinese that kind of mixed speaking, in my observation, diminishing. and more and more people no longer treat it as a fashion. more and more people think it is vulgar to speak like this."

    You use the expression "more and more" a lot, but it is highly impressionistic. Judging from what transpires on the internet ("internet Chinese") and from the cries of alarm raised against it by those who long for a "purer, better" kind of old-fashioned Chinese, many other observers than you would get the distinct impression that "more and more" Chinese, especially those between 13 and 40, are engaging in massive Westernization.

    We all agree that Miss Lin's performance was a tour de force achievement, and that is why I spent a week documenting it, yet, it is clearly based upon actual speech habits of many individuals. You cannot satirize something that doesn't exist. Even Miss Lin herself, who has never studied abroad, is remarkable for being able to deliver such a flawless hybrid Chinese-English monolog — not just naturally, but with flair.

  58. joe said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 1:15 am

    sure, i am giving what i see. i am not against what other people see. and i am not against so called good chinese that may or may not look highly westernized. chinese in the 20th century was in chaos, seeing changes coming from all social strata. some changes fundamental and some shallow and some gone and some going strong. in the new century, changes also come in from many places and with consequences of the changes of the 20th century. nowadays chinese has quite a lot of words translated from japanese, which i hope will not be considered as the japanization of chinese. a lot of people use words from hong kong and taiwan, as many words from the two places have taken roots in china over the past 30 years. are they part of the westernization? and the phrases and words and grammar from the catonese due to the pioneering entrepreneurs and pop stars from hong kong and guangdong in the early years of the 30-year modernization. could it be understood as another part of the westernization? these phenomena are probably more eye-catching than mixed speaking.

    if the number of academic books translated from english and other western languages (chinese texts of these foreign originals) is taken into consideration, it is probably right to say that the westernization of chinese is indeed widespread and highly visible. miss lin's show may reflect a part of reality, but that kind of real speaking is like jokes and funny things in everyday life, in my opinion. when people want to laugh, they tell jokes of this kind. these jokes may have existed for a long while and will probably continue to be popular as long as they are funny. but if this is to be taken as an example of the westernization of chinese going strong, well, i will hesitate and think twice.

    and again, chinese novelists and essayists and blog writers are making their efforts to write so called best chinese. what they are doing may not be considered purists. what i understand about the purist as you mention in your posts is a stance of language conservatism. if i understand it right, this kind of conservatism is trying to keep chinese unchanged and ask people to give up the simplifed chinese and resume the official use of the traditional chinese, among other things they want to achieve. the best chinese, as i understand it, may or may not be westernized. what may come out of it is difficult to predict. but at least, what may be expected is partly clear. something easy to read, sentences not in the jaw-dropping structure; sentenvces short enough so that you don't need to read it again to get the meaning; hints of the best classic chinese poetry and essays; new and fancy and functional so that young readers and future generations of readers will like. there will probably be some westernized elements in the best chinese. there will probably be a lot of, a large quantity of, westernized elements. it's hard to predict. probably there will be less. writers and readers will go hand in hand to find out what appeal to them both. this kind of best chinese isn't the purist-styled chinese. purists are like police guys. they guard the old. but they will pass away and go lost if they fail to create good and memorable books and essays in their purist style to attract the future users and readers. in language, it is the use, the best use, the most artistic, poetic use, no matter what this means, that grabs the readers and speakers. purists may not live long enough to hit on future generations that are yet to be born.

    another thing: about english translation of putonghua. i find it funny to render putonghua as ordinary language. putong may point to universal, general, something that should apply to everything and go everywhere adross china, that is, natioal. it should be general or universal as in 通用电气 and 通用汽车 (the chinese names of american companies),普适性

  59. joe said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 1:35 am

    a few words on 普通。some foreign linguists specialized in study of chinese may tend to think it is one word. but we chinese know this is a phrase of two words. so when we consider the phrase in a case like this, we tend to consider them separately and then together. what 普 means and what 通 means in putonghua and what they should mean when they function together in a phrase in this situation. when we think 普通 through in putonghua that way and come to our conclusion, of all the possible translations, ordinary would probably be the last and worst if the top positions are for the best.

  60. joe said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 1:39 am

    when the phrase means general and universal and national, it indicates official status, dignity, power, law, national unity, etc, etc. it really has nothing to do with ordinary.

  61. Victor Mair said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 6:10 am


    "we chinese know this is a phrase of two words"

    Not so. **You cannot speak for all Chinese.** I know thousands of Chinese who think it is one word. It is odd that yourself recognize that it means "general" or "universal" (single concepts / words), and you even spell the name of the official language of the PRC as putonghua. If you insist that it is three words (or, as you might say, a phrase consisting of three words), why don't you write it as "pu tong hua"? Furthermore, when it comes to syntactical usage, how do you explain the difference between a word consisting of three syllables and a phrase consisting of three words?

  62. joe said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

    simply because i am not writing chinese. even if i write it together, it does not prove that 普通话 is a word, does it?

    you write it separately here, does it mean that you think they are three words?

    i have no idea that chinese words can have three syllables or more. there might be, i don 't know. most chinese words, as far as i am concerned, are mono-syllable words. a phrase of different words, like 成语, mostly phrases of four words, they can come in various structures and can serve as different parts in a sentence. you know. chinese schools teach students about these phrasal structures such as 主谓结构,动宾结构,etc,etc。as for 成语,they are more complicated when they come into sentences.

    where do you get the data that thousands of chinese think it a word? you know the thousands personally? or did you conduct a study? or you just think you know? how do you compare them with a billion chinese? who are they? was the study valid and were the thousands valid subjects for the study or survey? i would like to know these details. you know, i would like to consider valid studies and data seriously.

    okay, l retrieve the sentence, we chinese know… let me say i as a chinese know. when i say we chinese know, i just assume that we get the education about the chiese and that we speak the same language. our exposure to this kind of education and culture is more or less the same. from that assumption i go on to guess it would be safe to say that we chinese…

    why not ask chinese to write a sentence of ten words and then let's count? why not let chinese count how many words are in 中华人民共和国?

  63. joe said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 10:59 pm

    another question: if phrases are not phrases but words in chinese, are there any phrases in chinese?

  64. joe said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 11:04 pm

    when we chinees write our names in english, they usually come out in two units: surname and given name. a given name can be two words or one word. when we see names such as wen jiabao and hu jintao, does that mean that chinese agree that jiabao is a word and that jintao is a word?

  65. Victor Mair said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 11:37 am


    I can answer all of your questions by requesting that you take a careful look at 現代漢語詞典, which is the standard dictionary of Modern Standard Mandarin compiled by the Institute of Linguistics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It is read, used, and followed by millions of Chinese. If that doesn't satisfy you, take a look at 漢語拼音詞彙, compiled by the 文字改革委員會 (now called 國家語言文字工作委員會), an organ of the Chinese government. And there are official orthographical rules, compiled and sanctioned by the Chinese government, that describe what a word is in Chinese and tell how to handle words of more than one syllable.

    Of course, Chinese languages have phrases, just as all other languages do, and Chinese languages also have morphemes and words, just as all other languages do. You seem badly to want Chinese languages to be peculiarly unique, or uniquely peculiar, as the case may be.

  66. Matt Anderson said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 1:17 pm


    Much of what you're saying, if you are talking about written Mandarin, is true of zì 字. But "zì", when used as a one-syllable word, is (in the vast majority of cases) best translated into English as "graph" or "character" or something along those lines, not as "word". It is true that, in modern Mandarin, almost all zì are one syllable in length, but this is simply a description of the writing system, not of the language. (And even this statement is not true in all cases – for example, the dictionary pronunciation of the graph 廿 'twenty' is nìan, but, in my experience at least, it is typically pronounced èrshí. Professor Mair has also written on this site about a number of graphs like 圕, typically pronounced tú​shū​guǎn. And it is not necessarily true of all Chinese languages other than Mandarin. Marjorie Chan (in a 1984 paper), for example, has documented sesquisyllabic (one-and-a-half syllable) colloquial pronunciations in what she calls the Zhōngshān dialect.)

    So yes, Chinese zì are, most of the time, one-syllable long. But Chinese words can be one, two, three, or more syllables in length.

  67. joe said,

    September 20, 2012 @ 2:28 am


    "Much of what you're saying, if you are talking about written Mandarin, is true of zì 字. But "zì", when used as a one-syllable word, is (in the vast majority of cases) best translated into English as "graph" or "character" or something along those lines, not as "word""

    why are they best translated as graph or character or something along those lines?

    i mean, what's wrong to call them words? why deliberately make them into characters or anything else but words?

    dialects in china are a complicated thing. it seems to me that many dialects can't be written. or developed well enough to discuss complicated issues such as lectures without borrowing words and phrases from the modern vocabulary that have grown and matured through the 20th and 21st centuries and without using words and phrases from ancient written chinese. the dialect i speak does not have a writing system. probably never has. the way i now speak it differed from the way i heard people spoke it when i was a kid. during the years from then to now, the dialect as i speak has been poisoned, polluted, or invaded or conditioned or shaped (probably more verbs here, for example, corrected, replaced, etc, etc) by what i have read and heard and written over the past decades, i mean, linguistically. i even don't know how well this dialect can act and handle complicated subjects free of the influences of the written chinese and all the texts from confucius up to now. and i wonder whether the dialect i learned to speak when i was a kid had already been by poisoned, shaped, etc, etc.

    i wonder how scholars, chinese or foreign, are sure that this is not the case with the dialects they hear and learn to speak and study now, that is, in the 20th century and the 21st century.

    written chinese may be a strange thing in china. it has hold nation together since the first emperor of the qin dynasty more than 2,000 years. when we talk about chinese, we need to remember how the written language with all the texts written with it has shaped the national language and all the dialects.

    that's partly why i do believe these words are words. dialects are complicated things that remain to be more thoroughly studied. while scholars are studying dialects in different regions and any possible ties between them and the written chinese in place since 2,000 years ago can be established, let's say these written words are chinese words. even they need to have different names in english, they are words. they have etymology and radicals act as something like prefixes and suffixes and morphs and parts of these words suggest pronunciation and other parts suggest meaning. and these elements allow inventions of new words as the word you use as an example for 图书馆,as the word the empress of the tang dynasty created for herself, and as the word created by chinese when they put 招财进宝 together and made it into one word.

    remember: these words were created first in the written chinese as single chinese words before they became examples to be used by scholars to suggest that some chinese words have more syllables.

    i mean let's look at these words more carefully before concluding that they are anything but words. i mean let's get right conclusions.

    of course i can be totally wrong.

RSS feed for comments on this post