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Communication & Technology

China’s campaign against foreign words


When English absorbs Chinese words, the terms are romanized. When China copies English terms, however, they are often adopted without change, dropped into Chinese text as is.

Twice in late April, People’s Daily railed against the incorporation of acronyms and English words in written Chinese. “How much have foreign languages damaged the purity and vitality of the Chinese language?” the Communist Party’s flagship publication asked as it complained of the “zero-translation phenomenon.”

So if you write in the world’s most exquisite language—in my opinion, anyway—don’t even think of jotting down “WiFi,” “MBA,” or “VIP.” If you’re a fan of Apple products, please do not use “iPhone” or “iPad.” And never ever scribble “PM2.5,” a scientific term that has become popular in China due to the air pollution crisis, or “e-mail.”

China’s communist culture caretakers are cheesed, perhaps by the unfairness of the situation. They note that when English absorbs Chinese words, such as “kung fu,” the terms are romanized. When China copies English terms, however, they are often adopted without change, dropped into Chinese text as is.

This is not the first time Beijing has moaned about foreign terms. In 2010 for instance, China Central Television banned “NBA” and required the on-air use of “US professional basketball association.” The irony is that the state broadcaster consistently uses “CCTV” to identify itself, something that has not escaped the attention of China’s noisy online community.

In response to the new language campaign, China’s netizens naturally took to mockery and sarcasm last month. They posted fictitious conversations using ungainly translations for the now shunned foreign terms. On Weibo, China’s microblogging service, they held a “grand competition to keep the purity of the Chinese language.” The consensus was that People’s Daily was once again promoting the ridiculous and impractical, as the substituted Chinese translations were almost always longer and convoluted.

The derision has not stopped China’s policymakers from taking extraordinary steps to defend their language. In 2012, the Chinese government established a linguistics committee to standardize foreign words. In 2013, it published the first ten approved Chinese translations for terms such as WTO, AIDS, and GDP, ordering all media to use them. A second and third series of approved terms are expected this year. How French.

There is a bit of obtuseness in all these elaborate efforts. As People’s Daily, China’s most authoritative publication, talks about foreign terms damaging “purity and vitality,” it forgets that innovation, in the form of borrowing, is the essence of vitality. And as for “purity,” the Chinese people are not buying the Communist Party’s hypocritical argument. “Do you think simplified Chinese characters pure?” asked one blogger.

The party, starting in the early Maoist era, replaced what are now called “traditional” Chinese characters for a set of “simplified” ones, thereby making a wholesale change of the script. The new set of characters may be easier to write, but the forced adoption meant that young Chinese in the Mainland can no longer read classic works in their own language unless they have been transcribed into the new characters.

The party, it seems, is just anti-foreign. “Since the reform and opening up, many people have blindly worshipped the West, casually using foreign words as a way of showing off their knowledge and intellect,” said Xia Jixuan from the Ministry of Education, quoted in People’s Daily. “This also exacerbated the proliferation of foreign words.”

Are foreign words inherently bad? In China, unfortunately, we are seeing further evidence of the closing of Communist Party minds.

Source: World Affairs Journal – “China’s Campaign Against Foreign Words”

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3 thoughts on “China’s campaign against foreign words

  1. If English didn’t adopt foreign words into the language, there would be no English language. It is all German, Latin, Greek and just about everything else you can imagine. English is the most ubiquitous and pragmatic language in the world because it is focused on communication and little unhampered by politics and the machinations of would-be cultural engineers.


    Posted by edbrittonblog | May 5, 2014, 9:10 pm


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