There have been stories in the news lately about a new edition of a Chinese language dictionary including a few English abbreviations. Purist Chinese language scholars have lodged a protest against the inclusion of these abbreviation, such as WTO (World Trade Organization), NBA (National Basketball Association), PM2.5 (an air pollution measure), and about 240 others. Even Chinese TV is abbreviated CCTV on every TV set in the country. Some 100 linguists have signed a petition against this encroachment.
This is an understandable and undoubtedly well meaning attempt to preserve the purity of the language, but the real question is why? There are language scholars who devote a lifetime in the study of Latin, a dead language. Chinese is spoken by many more than a billion people. It is not unreasonable to expect Chinese and other linguists want to study and preserve the language, but to what end?
Toward the beginning and middle of the last century Latin was considered the language to know if one was interested in religion, law, or medicine. French was the language of diplomacy. Even today a U.S. passport has its rules and regulations written in both French and English. A knowledge of German was needed in the fields of science or engineering. English was the language of business. Because there are so many Spanish speakers in the world, others studied Spanish. As China began its ascent some began to study Mandarin.
Slowly, but surely English began to replace these languages, mainly because American culture and business came to dominate the world, and English is a relatively simple language to learn and use. Since it is easy to learn, doing business, writing literature, and talking to associates is better facilitated if done in English.
Language is used to convey thoughts and ideas. The less difficult it is to accomplish these things, the better. The English language is relatively easy to learn, understand, and use in communications. Chinese is difficult. The concept is simple.
English employs 26 letters to make some 171,000 words. Some experts estimate that it is possible to communicate at a reasonable level in English using 1000 or fewer of these words. Many get by using only 300 words in day to day life. Chinese uses as many as 10,000 written characters to make an almost uncountable number of words. The complexity of the language insures it will never be used internationally.
The Global Times reported that at the recent Beijing International Book Fair the stands of foreign publishers were crowded while the Chinese publishers were relatively quiet. Why was this? China has no shortage of talented writers. The answer seems to be twofold. First few westerners read Chinese well enough to understand the subtleties and nuances of the language, so they can’t fully appreciate the stories. Second, the Chinese are anxious to read books in western languages, especially English, so they ignore books written in their native language.
On a personal level, I have been in China off and on more than six years. It was my intention to informally learn Chinese while I was here. By that I mean I wanted to pick it up from daily interactions, not attend classes or do other formal studies. My plans didn’t materialize as it seems that most every Chinese I meet wants me to help them with English, or to practice English with me.
The reason English acronyms and words are finding their way into Chinese is simple. They are easily and widely understood by both Chinese people and foreigners. In addition to acronyms, many English words and abbreviations can be found being used in everyday Chinese language. There was a picture of a Chinese military ship in the paper a few days ago. COAST GUARD was written in its bow. Many stores have their names in both Chinese and English. Restaurants have bilingual menus. Out my window I can see two hospitals, both have their names written in English on the outside of the buildings. There are signs reading EXIT all over my apartment. The examples are endless.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to preserve the purity of the Chinese language, in the long run nothing will come of the efforts but having a nice, clean, dictionary. English will continue to make its way into the fabric of China, just as it has done all over the world.