Wednesday 11 June 2014

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About the Chinese and the English Language)

Surrender your weapons, my dear Chinese brethren and sisters. Your linguistic ones, I mean. Resistance is futile. Look, just a few months ago, I was waxing lyrical about the Spanish language and the way it was going to take over the US on this very forum. That time will come, I’m sure. But I might have overstated a tad bit the “when”.

As it turns out you, me ol' Sino chinas (did you see what I did there? If you’re from London or are familiar with Cockney rhyming slang you’ll understand), have gone the same way the rest of the world has gone for the last seventy or eighty years. Down the Anglicised rabbit-hole. And with no chance of leaving that mad hatter’s party. You can have a stab at answering the riddle “why is a raven like a writing desk?” but you will nevar (sic) be able to come up with the goods. Because, guess what, they will be in English.

According to a recent article in The Economist Chinese language purists are trying to keep the evil influence of the English lexicon out. Ha, good luck with that! Funny, isn’t it? Mao exterminated millions through famine and his so-called “cultural” revolution (very little if anything of the former but plenty of the latter). Last week we commemorated the 25th anniversary of the massacre in Tiannamen Square and the hundreds, if not thousands, who were murdered there. All these events and the way they look to the outside world should worry the business-conscious, modern China more and yet the threat to the socialist state comes, not from reform-minded students, but from a Germanic language whose most famous icon is a 16th century-born playwright, poet and actor. Even Shakespeare couldn’t have made it up.

The irony of the tirade in China's state-run People’s Daily against words such as “MBA”, “CEO” and “iPhone”, the examples given in the article, is that it fails to take into account the rapid economic growth China has undertaken in the last ten or twelve years and its consequences. This development has come at a cost. The more a country opens itself up to investment (whether it is state-sponsored capitalism or sweatshops) the bigger the risk of its losing some aspects of its culture. I know that from my own experience. Back when I used to live in Cuba there were people who adopted an accent that was half Cuban, half American just to impress and sound more knowledgeable, worldly and important. In reality they sounded like fakes, because they were fakes. The dichotomy in the Chinese situation is that you have a country competing for markets with the USA and Europe and yet they think that they can achieve this by coming up with their Sinified version of Twitter (which is blocked in China anyway).

Let’s say it again just in case it didn’t sink in first time around. English as we know it and speak it (especially the oral bit) won’t be our lingua franca forever. Eventually either another language will take over (I’m of the opinion it will be Spanish because of the large Latin population in the States and the fact that it will be the official language of the country in fifteen to twenty years) or English will develop into unrecognisable (to us now) variants depending on which country you are. Globlish is a good example of this. That means that no matter how much the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily rails against the pernicious influence of the evil empire’s lexicon, people in China, chiefly young people, will continue to use the English term “NBA” instead of wrecking their brains trying to come up with a Chinese equivalent. In the meantime they could do something constructive and attempt to translate and answer the riddle posed above: “why is a raven like a writing desk?

© 2014

Photo taken from The Economist

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 15th June at 10am (GMT)


  1. Never really thought much on it, but yeah Spanish is sure becoming more dominant

  2. Isn't language wonderful - the way it mutates without anyone noticing? So it makes sense (more or less) to those using it? (Listen to any adolescent!!)

    I was once asked about the 'correctness' of English in India. It's right for them, I said - Indian English is different in the way American English is and Australian English is. Those of us born in the UK don't own the language!

    So Chinese will evolve, whatever those in power might say.

    And you've given me another good reason to press on with my efforts to learn Spanish!!

  3. Years back the french fought (and lost) the same battle. I think le blue jeans was their sticking point.
    Language evolves, and as far as I know no-one has ever successfully legislated against evolution. Which is a good thing.

  4. My response is somewhat frivolous... I hope it all happens after I've gone because I never was good at languages... other people's, that is!

  5. I am learning a new language for the first time (German) and I am absolutely loving it!

  6. Ha...hope I am long gone when it happens...I am hopeless at learning languages!
    English and Swedish are all I can handle. It isn't for the want of trying...but when I think of all those clever linguists out there, I think I must be language-dyslexic!! lol

    Happy Thursday :)

  7. Wait,first Latin, then English? Perhaps a new language that will reflect our interchange across the world, something that is more polyglot, allowing chop-sticks and margarita to be in the same sentence..

  8. Thanks a lot for your comemnts.

    Yes, the French lost the same war! :-) Le weekend comes to mind. Grman-speakers are not lagging too far behind, but thene again, English has its roots in old German. Anyway, I bet you anything that anyone on these shores can say "Vorsprung durch Technik" in the same way they "beans on toast". :-) That's languages for you.

    Have a great weekend.

    Greetings from London.

  9. ha. i def think it will be spanish or some such...dont we have more important things to worry about anyway...perhaps they should kick mcdonalds out...smiles...

  10. Languages are organic creations; they all change. Spanish will meld with English and they will both change. "Spanglish" is already spoken by every Mexican here in the US. I really like this about languages. The Chinese are fighting a losing battle, linguistically.

    A raven is like a writing desk...because Poe has written on both? Not sure, but I bet there are multiple answers to that.

  11. Language is influenced by kids to a fair extent, especially with all the 'text-lingo' stuff.

    There is NO answer to the Mad Hatter's question about the Raven and Writing Desk. Like the book it was a nonsense question, much like: "If it takes a week to walk a fortnight, how many apples in a bunch of grapes?" :-)

  12. A number of books I've read on China have discussed the limitations of the Chinese language and suggests it might be a deterrent to creative thinking. I don't know enough to know if they know what they are talking about, but it is an interesting point.

    With the internet--I wonder if we will end up with one hodge-podge language a generation or two?

  13. I have to agree it really does seem like Spanish is taking over. Not really sure how I feel about that.

  14. mandarin, spanish, english, hindi... that is the current list of languages by number of native speakers.. will be interesting to see how it develops

  15. I think the variety of languages we have around the world is fascinating, and I'm sorry I'm not fluent in more of them. Then again, the more widespread globalization becomes, the more one language borrows from another, so who knows? Maybe we'll end up reverting to pre-tower of Babel days, and will all be speaking the "same" language again, based on the bastardization of all our current ones.

  16. I know some Spanish and a little French and a whole lot of English...
    Sometimes I will speak to my husband in a a language I have made up and he knows I am a little mad at him .. LOL
    I have a friend that speaks 7 languages, he's a smart cookie.

  17. Language evolves and there's nothing we can do about it. Very thoughtful post.

  18. Because they are both covered in ink? Because neither is a crow? I'm coming up with things about Poe, but since he is American, probably not.

    The fact is that English is itself an amalgam of so many languages--probably including more different word origins than any other tongue--it's pretty huge. One reason for its prevalence though of course there are many others. Maybe the fact that neither Brits or americans are great linguists. But it is a very rich language. K.

  19. Outlawyer is me Manicddaily, an old blogger name I never used but that pops up,

  20. nice post me old china - cockney rhyming slang is one of my mother tongues.... Everyone needs to accept the vibrant and dynamic nature of language is impossible to halt its march - love the term globish - first time I have heard that - how do you envisage globish? Greetings from Nice...



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