Chinese puts in a good word for the English language

Updated: 2013-11-02 00:37

By JIN ZHU in Beijing and CHEN JIA in San Francisco (China Daily)

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Words of Chinese origin are playing a key role in driving the ongoing globalization of English, experts in both languages say.

"The fact that some 300 million Chinese people are now studying or have studied English means the important impact of Chinese on the language can't be denied," said Paul J.J. Payack, president and chief analyst at Global Language Monitor.

The consultancy, based in Austin in the US state of Texas, documents, analyzes and tracks trends in language usage worldwide, with a particular emphasis on English.

It says some 10,000 words are added to the English language annually, with about 1.83 billion people using English as their native, second, business or technical language.

But the global figure was only about 250 million in 1960, with English-speakers mainly located in Britain and its Commonwealth of former colonies, as well as the United States.

"It's estimated that a new English word is created every 98 minutes," Payack said.

"One example of a word used in English that originated from Chinese that has appeared recently is chengguan (city patrol officer). A quick Google search results in nearly a million citations, far in excess of our minimum number of required citations.''

The Oxford English Dictionary, which waits 10 years before entering a word to ensure it has "staying power", now has about 1,000 words of Chinese origin, such as taikonaut.

In China, taikonaut refers to a person trained by a human spaceflight program to command, pilot, or serve as a spacecraft crew member.

"It's estimated that Chinese, one of the prime drivers of the globalization of the English language, will continue its influence throughout the 21st century," Payack said.

In August, The Wall Street Journal used the term dama, which is Chinese pinyin for "big mother", to describe the middle-aged Chinese women driving the global gold market.

In a video report, it said it is largely because of dama that China can compete with India as the world's largest gold consumer. Many Chinese people saw the use of dama as evidence that the more advanced a country becomes, the more influential its language is.

Wei Chongxin, dean of Beijing Foreign Studies University's School of Chinese Language and Literature, said he believes such influence is rooted in China's growing global clout.

"When more native English speakers come to learn more about China and have closer relations with the country in daily life, it's normal to see the Chinese and English languages infiltrate with each other's words," he said.

The convergence of the main languages of global powers has many precedents in history, including the Greek and Roman conquests and the unification of ancient China. In more recent times, the languages of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France and Britain dominated many of the colonies they established from the 16th to 19th centuries, according to GLM.

However, compared with the impact of English on the Chinese language in the past, experts say Chinese still has a limited influence on English.

"One reason for the difficulty in translation between English and Chinese is that they stemmed from entirely different language families," Payack said.

He added that English, with Proto-Indo-European roots has some kinship with Greek, Latin, Celtic, the Romance languages (which include French and Italian), Polish and Russian, and even Kurdish, Farsi and Sanskrit. Meanwhile, Mandarin stems from the Proto-Sino-Tibetan family of languages.

"This makes the contemporary mixing, melding or mash-up of English and Mandarin even more interesting and complex, which is one reason why some 'Chinglish' phrasing strikes outsiders as confusing and even amusing," Payack said.

But Han Baocheng, a language professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said the use of "Chinglish" phrases cannot be regarded as Chinese words having an influence on the English language.

"At present, most of the limited number of new words with Chinese origins that have been regarded as entering the English language are those that cannot find proper words in English to express the original meanings in Chinese," he said.

But Wei Chongxin, who is also a senior professional in cross-cultural communication, said such mixing of the two languages provides Chinese- and English-learners with an opportunity to improve their studies and make them easier.

"Moreover, because the two languages can absorb from each other, both can be more vigorous and have a wider range of users," he said.

Lisa Hoffman graduated from the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing this year and now works at Guinness World Records in the city.

The 24-year-old Canadian can speak Mandarin fluently.

"Since the two languages are completely different, it's really difficult for foreigners, especially those living overseas, to remember Chinese words," she said.

"For instance, my mom, who can't speak any Chinese, has to remember ni hao (hello) by 'knee' and 'how'," she said. "But she can easily say words with Chinese origins, such as baijiu (liqor), as those words frequently appear in her daily life."

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