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Purity of Chinese language debated
By Xing Zhigang (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-09-13 08:42

Few people living in large Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai are still unfamiliar with loan words in their daily lives such as maidanglao (McDonalds), kendeji (KFC) and xingbake (Starbucks).

Meanwhile, technical terms taken from other languages, especially English, are even more common. They include nami (nanometre) or yinqing (engine), to name just a few.

In fact, the emergence of loan words in Chinese has been so fast that official statistics suggest about 1,000 such new words are added to the Chinese vocabulary each year.

Some Chinese linguists hail the practice as a symbol of vitality and openness of the Chinese language, with a history of more than 5,000 years.

They say the mushrooming of foreign loan words in Chinese is an inevitable trend, given China's closer exchanges with the outside world and the sped-up globalization bid.

Besides these loan words, the re-emergence of pidgin English (yangjingbang) is expanding Chinese vocabulary.

Pidgin English, Chinese mixed with English words, was once very popular among traders in South China's Guangdong Province during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The use of pidgin English, which used to be denounced as a painful legacy of Western colonization in China, has begun to stage a strong comeback.

Nowadays, it has become almost a fashion for young people to speak their native language mingled with a few English words, either to show their educational background or just for fun.

Even the official Chinese-language newspapers are flush with English abbreviations such as WTO (world trade organization), CBD (central business district), GDP (gross domestic product) and CEO (chief executive officer).

However, the use of Chinese mixed with English words has triggered hot debates among pundits and linguists about how to safeguard the purity of the Chinese language while keeping its openness.

Media commentator Xue Yong manages to justify the use of Chinese mixed with English words as a move to enrich Chinese words and strengthen their creativity.

Unlike alphabetic languages, such as English, that are technically open, Chinese as a hieroglyphic language has a born disadvantage in borrowing words from other languages, Xue adds.

With China's opening-up, he notes, it has become increasingly difficult for the Chinese language to sinicize the huge influx of new loan words, whether through transliteration or free translation.

"It is unavoidable for people to use some English words in their Chinese," Xue says.

Evolvement of Chinese?

Citing the use of katakana in the Japanese language, he says the syllabic writing system used for writing down foreign names, places and words of foreign origin has greatly contributed to the huge absorption of foreign culture into Japanese.

Likewise, Xue stresses, the acceptance of foreign words in Chinese should be taken as a necessary linguistic strategy to embrace new things.

Dong Kun, deputy director of the Institute of Language Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, goes further to point out that the increasing use of foreign words in Chinese may become an unstoppable trend in the future.

He describes the trend as a new direction for the Chinese language to evolve, which is set to make it more easily to accept unique English words.

His judgment has been well supported by the compilation of English words commonly used by the Chinese people in a special part of the newly-edited Modern Chinese Dictionary, the country's most authoritative guidebook for standard use of Chinese and published by the Commercial Press.

Included in the dictionary are English words like CD (compact disk), VCD (video compact disk), and CT (computed tomography), often called CAT scans.

The endorsement, however, has been criticized as "inappropriate" by other pundits who warn that tolerating the nonstandard use of English words in Chinese will erode the language and even endanger its existence.

Liu Bin, former minister of education, says that standardizing the use of words is the basic and most important work for any language in the world.

"Allowing disorder to exist will greatly undermine the healthy development of our mother language," he notes.

Liu is now a member of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislature, and also a member of the NPC's Education, Science, Culture and Public Health Committee.

He underlines the "alarming" and "abusive" use of English abbreviations in Chinese-language newspapers and magazines, saying it violates the National Language Law of the People's Republic of China.

Article 11 of the law stipulates that any foreign words that appear in Chinese-language publications should have Chinese notes behind them.

The standard use of an English abbreviation is to give its Chinese translation and then put the abbreviation in a bracket for the benefit of accuracy, according to Liu.

But he complains that the stipulation has been largely ignored while the nonstandard use of foreign words has become rampant.

"The word-formation function of Chinese is actually strong enough to ensure any English word and abbreviation can be given an accurate Chinese translation," Liu argues.

"Sadly, most people have not bothered to do so nowadays."

Professor Hu Shoujin of the Shanghai-based Fudan University goes further to say that the abusive use of English words is posing a grave threat to the purity of the Chinese language.

Call for standard use

He cautions that Chinese risks becoming a hodgepodge language as the embedding of English words into the language has already hurt its internal harmony as a hieroglyphic language.

The professor suggests that the penetration of English words into Chinese comes as one of the ill-effects of cultural invasion from the powerful English culture and language.

"Like any other language in the world, Chinese is facing the threat from English and the situation has become more solemn since China joined the World Trade Organization," he says.

Professor Hu points to the fact that about 2,500 languages out of the total 7,000 in the world are facing the danger of extinction partially due to the impact from other languages.

Although the Chinese people do not have to worry about the extinction of their mother language spoken by such a huge population, they have a duty to develop Chinese into one of the main global languages, according to Hu.

He urges the Chinese Government and all Chinese people to model the efforts by major countries such as France, Germany and Russia to protect the purity of their mother languages.

In 1992, the French Parliament even decided to add "French is the official language of France" to the country's constitution as a major effort to underscore the importance of using pure French.

He proposes a better implementation of the National Language Law, enacted in 2001, to ban any nonstandard use of foreign words in Chinese.

Meanwhile, mass media should be encouraged to play a leading role in using Chinese in a standard way.

For instance, Hu notes, the China Central Television (CCTV), as the country's State TV station, should replace the English abbreviation of CCTV with Chinese characters of "zhongyang dianshitai" as in its station emblem.

The professor also initiates the introduction of an annual Chinese-language Festival to help promote standard use of the language.

Under mounting pressure from the academic community, the authorities have taken moves to ban the use of Chinese mingled with foreign words.

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has issued regulations prohibiting anchorpersons from speaking foreign words in Chinese-language TV programmes.

In Beijing, local newspapers have been asked to give accurate Chinese notes to any foreign words that appear on their pages.

International expansion

Better regulating the use of foreign words in Chinese will also benefit the promotion of language in the world, says Li Yuming, director of the Department of Language Information Administration under the Ministry of Education.

"Establishing a scientific and effective system of regulations and standards will not only facilitate the learning and teaching of Chinese but also help improve its international fame," he says.

"We should scientifically deal with the relationship between our mother language and foreign languages and never allow foreign languages to eat away our mother language, despite our need for foreign language education to intensify our opening-up drive."

Li admits that Chinese, though spoken by a large population, is still a weak language, compared with English.

Although Chinese is listed as one of the six working languages of the United Nations, it is rarely used at regional and international organizations and conferences.

The use of Chinese in international exchanges in diplomatic, trade, technological and educational fields is also very limited.

Li stresses that it is now feasible for Chinese to play a more important role at international occasions, given China's growing economic and political influence in the world.

Chinese is rapidly spreading around the world, fueled by the country's economic progress and close exchanges with the international community as well as the widespread ethnic Chinese population abroad.

Data from the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language show that some 25 million overseas people are studying Chinese and over 2,300 universities and colleges in 85 countries and regions offer courses of the language.

The "Chinese language fever" has swept through not only neighbouring countries such as the Republic of Korea and Japan but also France, Britain and Germany.

Teaching Chinese as a foreign language has gained momentum after China's entry into the World Trade Organization and its successful bid for the 2008 Olympic Games.

Since its introduction in 1993, Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), or the Test for Chinese Proficiency, has been spread to 82 cities in 34 countries and regions, attracting 50,000 participants around the world each year.

Interest is high among foreigners studying inside China as well.

At the Beijing Language and Cultural University, more than 60,000 overseas students from 167 countries and regions have studied Chinese.

The number of overseas students in China totalled up to 85,000 in 2004 and is expected to jump to 120,000 in three years.

The surging Chinese language fever has prompted English linguist David Graddol to predict that Chinese will become the most commonly used language in the world.

By 2050, Chinese is forecast to become the second most powerful language next to English and the proportion of Internet content in Chinese will rise to about 40 per cent from the current 10 per cent.

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