Language Thursdays: Language Protectionism

Written by Julen Madariaga on April 8th, 2010

canadagoose_300_tcm9139738_thumb34In 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.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Apr

    Perhaps Huang’s concern over the purity of Mandarin, and larger thoughts of language colonialism in general vis-a-vis Chinese, should be considered alongside instances where Mandarin itself is the dominant, and, dare I say, colonizing language. Particularly your point of:

    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.

    This is abundantly obvious in Uyghur, in just the way you’ve described it; Mandarin words are substituting, not just adding to, Uyghur words in everyday speech. Unfortunately, activism on behalf of the Uyghur language by either Uyghurs or Westerners tends to get rapidly dismissed as people naively and patronizingly trying to preserve a useless and backward language. But if the uber-gradual, voluntary seepage of English words into everyday Mandarin vocabulary should cause us to ponder about the death of languages, then what of language policy in PRC minority areas?

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    That’s a good point. It it is only fair, and in theory in accordance with government policies, to protect the minorities’ cultures as well as mandarin. And it is totally clear that Uighur or Tibetan are more at risk of colonization than mandarin.

    So why don’t the ethical Uighur, Tibetan, and other minorities present in the NPC propose the same policies for the media in their languages? Well, first because that media is practically inexistent, secondly because those representatives are puppets put there by the CCP to add some colour to the NPC carnival.

    Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head. Let’s tell that to Mr. Huang next time we see him.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Apr

    Don’t know what makes you think that lady is retarded, or that your view on language is superior and should be imposed to her; there is people who like to speak that way, people who disagree with you and Mr. Huang, and they should have a say. And I am fine with them speaking like that, even if I don’t.
    Language is a perfect democracy: let everybody speak freely and the most popular ways will raise. And we all agree that what the majority of the speakers of that language speak is what should be regarded as that language, and what it should evolve to, don’t we?
    Understandable from the Chinese government, but not that much from you who, as a Vasque speaker, know what’s being told in which way you can and cannot speak.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @ Fremen - OK your point on “retarded”. I apologize, I used the wrong word and I insulted all the retarded people in the World. I should have used “pedantic ass” instead.

    Seriously though, I agree about letting everyone speak freely the language they choose, nobody is doubting that. A different thing is that on the mass media, and in particular on TV, it is reasonable to have some rules, because these media have a massive influence on the way people speak.

    You see, the problem is that nothing is “perfect”, and democracy least of all. In the modern World, people who get a lot of TV time are not elected democratically. The mass media introduce a distortion in the traditional evolution of languages, giving immense power to a few speakers that impose fashions which might have never been mainstream otherwise. And TV showmen are often inclined to adopt unnecessary terms from the dominant cultural language, presenting them as “cool” or “sophisticated”.

    Regarding Basque, I assure you the Basque televisions also have rules about how the language should be spoken. They might be not so restrictive as the Chinese ones, and they avoid speaking of purity, but they pursue the same goal of maintaining a reasonable amount of Basque grammar and vocabulary in each sentence, instead of making it a terrible calque of Spanish. You have to see how some kids speak these days.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Apr

    You’re right. I think the Chinese written language is in dire need of a katakana-like (zhuyin?) phonetic system. Transliterations are especially challenging since Chinese characters (in Mandarin at least) can’t represent some common sounds. I mean, which other world language can’t produce basic sounds like “ki, kei, ra”?
    I’m also worried that folk-transliterations of foreign words will end up “corrupting” the meanings of the characters. E.g. What if you actually want to use 黑客 to mean “black guest” instead of “hacker”? (黑客人?黑色客人? Sounds less poetic.) And you can’t ever again say 谷歌 to mean “grain song” without people thinking of Google.
    Maybe the solution is this: eventually the characters will be appropriated for so many different meanings that they will become effectively meaningless. And Chinese characters will become the phonetic system people have been craving for so long.
    I’m exaggerating, but I think we’ll find more and more instances of Chinese people haphazardly using meaningful characters for their phonetic values only.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    @rui, In the particular case of 黑客 I beg to disagree. I think this is one of the most brilliant translations of an English word that I have ever seen, “the Dark Visitor”, LOL.

    I was referring more to things like: “Garcilaso de la Vega”, a pretty famous Spanish poet. How can educated Chinese understand a foreign text referring to him, if they have only learnt it through an invented character approximation? This puts Chinese in cultural disadvantage when they connect with the World, and this is what eventually forces some to read directly in English instead of bothering with the Chinese.

    And I know, Latin letters can also be a mess when we write Russian names like Mendeleiev. But the advantage is that they are purely phonetic symbols, and they are used by all the mainstream cultures, so they never become an obstacle to communication.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Apr

    Really good post, Julen.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Apr

    I’m curious why you think the english language blogsphere in China is so American. I find this distribution curious because my time in China always led me to think that Americans were in the minority. I have no numbers to back it up, but I always got the sense that there were far more european/canadian/austrialian/etc. expats than americans. There are lots of non americans in other english language centers of the web, so at a naive level I’d assume that it would’ve carried over to the china blogsphere, but it hasn’t. Any thoughts?

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Madariaga Reply:

    Well, I don’t have statistics in hand, but it is pretty obvious. Off the top if my head a few English language blogs I read: ESWN, Danwei, Shanghaiist, China Divide, Insideout, Peking Duck, CNReviews, CMP, CLB, Sinoglot, Sinosplice, Shanghaiscrap, Jottings, Bokane…. all of them are American except for J. Goldkorn.

    In fact, I am having trouble to think of a non-American blog that is among the well-known China-blogs in English. I can only think of Ryan’s Lost Laowai right now, but feel free to indicate some more.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Apr

    I agree with you, but the real question is where are the other european bloggers? I have no hypothesis really, and I’d fine any suggestions for why more like you aren’t present interesting.

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Nov
    China Scholarship

    I think there is also a proficieny test seperate to HSK which presenters have to take if they want to work on CHinese televison

    [Reply to this comment]

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