Language Thursdays: Language ProtectionismWritten by Julen Madariaga on April 8th, 2010
In this week’s language post I want to speak about language protectionism. I am not sure this is the word I am looking for, but if you have been following the blogs for the last couple of weeks you probably know what I mean. It all started with this proposal last month to ban English words from the media in order to preserve the “purity of Chinese language”. Now it looks like the authorities have taken it seriously, and yesterday the TV channels were officially notified of the new language policies.
I am of the opinion that the blogosphere, including some respected linguist sites, have made a lot of noise for no reason. Or rather, for two reasons: one is the old problem of Chinese messing up their PR (the word “purity” is a particularly bad choice in the context of culture). The other one is that the China blogging scene is overwhelmingly American, and it is difficult for Americans to understand the problem of language colonization.
I am a big admirer of the openness and flexibility of the English language. Reading blogs like the Language Log I learnt to appreciate the descriptivist approach to linguistics (to study how a language is, instead of vainly dictating how it should be), and I believe this laissez-faire attitude has helped to make English the richest language in the World.
But what we should keep in mind is that English has not achieved this just through the holiness of its linguists. It is rather political and economic events that ensured its status as the World’s dominant language, and it is thanks to that status that the English language can afford to be so open today without losing its soul. This cannot always be replicated by others.
Purity vs Colonization
Everybody knows that there’s not such a thing as a pure human language. Believe it or not, most of the Chinese I have asked are cool with that. They know that words like 社会 come from Japanese, and that Mandarin has many loans old and new. In fact, contrary to Western peoples who take pride in their military feats, the Chinese prefer to show pride in the strength of their culture: they were conquered many times, and yet their culture absorbed those of the conquerors.
So why then protect the language, if foreign loans are a part of its natural development? Well, the main reason is that the advance of technology and globalization makes languages much more vulnerable to colonization than they were before.
It is one thing for English to adopt cool exotic expressions like “long time no see“, or nouns like “pundit” to express an idea that didn’t exist before. All those thousands of loan words are accessories that enrich the language, giving it a vast vocabulary capable of expressing all sorts of nuances. But I am not so sure English speakers would feel so enriched if all the kids in the US started speaking like this: “Tian-ne, I’m very Shou, you come Look-see!”
This is exactly what I heard recently in the fashion TV channel, as a young Shanghainese explained the merits of a new product to lose weight: “变得很SLIM,要SHOW一下，OHMYGOD!”. Needless to say I puked slightly in my mouth, and I wished for a moment that there were still Re-education camps in China. But I hope at least this serves to illustrate the point I want to make: When speakers start to use words from the dominant culture to replace their own language instead of adding to it, it is not about purity anymore, but about survival.
So is Mandarin endangered by English?
The colonization danger I describe can be very real. As a minority language speaker, I have seen first hand how small languages can be completely disfigured by the dominant culture, to the point that older speakers cannot understand the young ones anymore. It is perfectly understandable that speakers should try to protect their languages from this. In fact, many countries have adopted protectionist policies before China, and they are fine as long as they don’t push it to absurd extremes.
The real question here would be whether mandarin, the largest language by number of speakers, is really a weak language that needs government protection. I think the risk today is very much overstated, if only because most Chinese speakers don’t know enough English to be influenced by it. Fortunately, retarded ladies like the one in my example are a small minority, and as far as I can see the language is still pretty healthy with its occasional “bye bye” or “DVD”.
In fact, the main danger to Chinese is not the excessive use of foreign terms, in my opinion, but rather the opposite.
I have always maintained that the exclusion of latin letters from Chinese writing is a mistake, especially now that all the Chinese learn the latin alphabet at school. I see no reason why foreign names of people, places or brands should not be rendered with their original latin script when they are not well known among the Chinese. In fact, this is done already in some newspapers, but only as a clarification in parenthesis, while an invented character-based name is given as the main term.
The key here should be the popularity of the names to consider. Terms like WTO or “New York” are known to most Chinese as 世贸 or 纽约, in a similar way as the Spanish would say OMC or “Nueva York”. To use foreign terms in these cases sounds pedantic at best, and the media would be right to avoid them. But a different thing is to invent a new character-term for any obscure foreign name that makes a brief appearance in the Chinese media. This is absurd, and it makes it more difficult for Chinese to communicate with other cultures.
In the end, a radical exclusion of all foreign script from the media may have the effect of debilitating the language even more. On the linguistic level, it forces the characters to adopt a purely phonetic function for which they were not designed, the solution is inelegant. More importantly, it pushes many Chinese engineers and scientists to read and write their technical material in English, where they can recognize terms like PCMCIA without having to check a technical dictionary. This is happening already in some fields, and it is a deadly strike to the validity of mandarin as a top World language.
In any case, what I am giving here is only my opinion, and ultimately it is up to the Chinese to decide how they use their own language. But I did want to write this post to put into perspective the statements of deputy Huang. His choice of words was unfortunate, and his proposal is ill-conceived, but we should not dismiss the whole thing as a blind surge of xenophobia. There are languages dying all the time in the World, and it is perfectly understandable that a country takes political measures to protect its language against a disadvantage that, at its origin, has only political sources.
The more interesting discussion now is whether these measures, and which of them if any, are really effective.
NOTE: I have been absent his week, and the next one probably even more because I am on my final run-up to HSK. I hope I can keep up at least with my Thursdays but this is not guaranteed.