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Barbarians at the Gate

The Economist June 10, 2014




Efforts to keep the language pure


THE guardians of Chinese language purity are challenging the French in their bid to keep out dastardly English words. A recent rant in the People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, said intruders such as “MBA”, “CEO”, and “iPhone” were not welcome in Chinese when written in their Romanised form.

The paper cited experts who blamed laziness or infatuation with Western culture for the “excessive” use of borrowed terminology, and warned that this was “damaging the purity and health of the Chinese language”. (Never mind that thePeople’s Daily website last year said the growing number of Chinese terms used in English showed that “linguistic contribution reveals national power”.)

The anti-borrowing screed drew sharp criticism, and not just from the microbloggers who routinely mock such pronouncements. The Xinhua Daily Telegraph said what was really needed to promote the purity of Chinese was greater respect for usage choices made by ordinary speakers, and less “narrow-minded linguistic nationalism”. Caixin Onlinewas (in English) just as sharp, saying the People’s Daily was perhaps the “real enemy of the Chinese language”, as “its habitual criticisms and tone corrupt the language far more than the people it criticises”. The writer noted China’s long history of borrowing foreign words, and described a Qing dynasty official in the 19th century who condemned the growing use of a term taken from Japanese and put into Chinese characters: jiankang. It means “health”, and was used in the People’s Daily commentary.

Some modern loan-words have been Sinified. “E-mail” first emerged in romanised form. Then it became yi mei er, using characters based on the sound of the English word. Now it is written using two characters (dian you) that mean electronic mail. But many romanised words are already too deeply ingrained to be changed. “YouTube”, for instance, is not Sinified (nor even accessible, blocked by the authorities). Nor is “NBA”, broadly used by millions of followers of America’s National Basketball Association. NBA games are shown to huge audiences by the official broadcaster, China Central Television—better known as “CCTV”.

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