With more and more publications mixing Chinese with English, measures and regulations should be adopted to avoid English invading Chinese, suggested Huang Youyi, director of the China International Publishing Group. “If we don’t pay attention and don’t take measures to stop the expansion of mingling Chinese and English, Chinese won’t be a pure language in a couple of years,” said Huang[.]
“In the long run, Chinese will lose its role as an independent linguistic system for passing on information and expressing human feelings.” Huang was referring to a popular phenomenon in China, in which English words are interwoven in articles and conversations. (China Daily)
Is Chinese under fire? Should something be done about it? Should China emulate French or Québécois language laws?
OK, I think we can all agree that China should not study the French on this issue, and as far as that language they speak in Québéc is concerned, well, best to leave that alone. All that aside, certainly the practices bemoaned by Huang are commonplace. Pick up any scholarly article on trade, for example, and you will definitely find it chock full of “English” acronyms, such as WTO, UN, ASEAN and GATT. To be completely accurate, these are acronyms that use Roman letters, and not English words per se, but close enough.
Leaving aside the greater issue, what about this use of acronyms? Unfortunately, these shortcuts are really useful for technical subjects, such as science, trade, law and international relations. Who wants to write “the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade” when “GATT” will suffice? We all have carpal tunnel syndrome (or Blackberry thumbs) at this point, so we desperately need to pace ourselves at the keyboard.
Therefore it makes sense to use “WTO,” three keystrokes, instead of “世界贸易组织,” six keystrokes (actually more than six, once you factor in a menu-driven Chinese character input system). We’re all busy, Mr. Huang, give us a break here! When commonly accepted nicknames and shortcuts exist in Chinese, then absolutely, let’s use them. But if we are going to replace a three-letter acronym with a long, formal name, count me out.
Turning to the use of English names, let’s see what Huang’s criticism is here:
Clarifying his stance, Huang said he was not only referring to the use of technical terms, but to the appearance of English names, places, people and companies in newspapers and other printed publications.
Recommending that translations be used instead, he said: “You rarely see Chinese characters in any English newspaper. They use pinyin, instead of Chinese characters.
“I’m not against using borrowed words,” he added, “but they must be translated, either by their sounds or their meaning, into our native language, which is Chinese characters, or else Chinese have to learn English to understand what they read.”
Huang has logic and the principle of reciprocity on his side. Foreign publications do not use Chinese characters, so Chinese publications should not use Roman letters. Case closed?
Well, to be fair, pinyin is not English. It is still Chinese, just a different way of expressing the language on paper. It certainly cuts away all the history and artistic nature of Chinese characters, but it is still a way of conveying the Chinese language. For example, when an English publication includes the name “Hu Jintao,” that is not English, it is not a translation. In comparison, Jackie Chan’s first name is English.
But still, Huang has a fair point that foreign names should be translated into Chinese. I have no problem with that because, as Huang said, not everyone in this country is familiar with English. An article about U.S. politics, for example, can use “奥巴马” instead of “Obama.” As long as there is an agreement on the translation, then fine.
However, Huang goes further, identifying three initiatives needed to keep the language pure:
- All documents and speeches of top government officials should be written in pure Chinese, without the use of GDP, WTO or CPI.
- A law or regulation should be made as a guideline for the use of foreign words in publications.
- A national translation committee should be organized to translate foreign names and technical terms, which can then be published on a website.
Government documents? Absolutely, keep them as pure as driven snow. Translation website to keep track of foreign names and technical terms? Sounds useful, go for it. But a new law on how one is supposed to use foreign words in publications? A bit too Orwellian for me. Thanks, but no thanks.
Huang finally tips his hand with this sentence:
Acknowledging that people increasingly like to mingle languages, Huang said:”Some of our people mistake using foreign words as being open minded and international. I don’t think so.
I think I see what’s going on here. All those publications and websites that sprinkle in English to sound more sophisticated — those just piss him off. Those arrogant, English-speaking, upper class folks should not lord their English skills over the rest of the population.
Again, I am sympathetic to Huang’s discomfort. A similar tradition existed in the U.S. until recently. Substitute French or Latin, and you had a foreign language being used by the upper crust to signal their status. And yes, the same thing is going on here with respect to English by Chinese 小资 types (sort of like “yuppie,” but for a better definition, see the now-canonical post on the subject by Elliott Ng).
Huang feels threatened. I get it. English has flooded into China in recent years, while Chinese is very slowly filtering out to the rest of world. Will there ever be a balance sufficient to make Huang comfortable? Has Huang ever seen Firefly/Serenity? Doubtful. He’s probably not a big Joss Whedon fan.
The use of English does not mean that Chinese people lack confidence in their language. Using English can be very efficient and useful, and at worst is just a cool thing to do that shows off your knowledge and education. Nothing wrong with that. Expats do it all the time with the gratuitous use of Chinese, particularly when they visit home and in client meetings. It can be annoying, but it’s nothing I would outlaw by fiat.
I’m willing to meet Huang halfway on this one. Let’s make sure that translation is standardized and make sure that government publications only use Chinese. But please, don’t take it further than that, and if possible, be lenient on those acronyms. Without those, there is absolutely no way I’d ever be able to slog my way through anything written in Chinese about economics or trade.