English Cited as Threat to “Purity” of Chinese Language

People's Daily alerts readers to yet another external threat

After decades of English education being a national priority in China’s schools and increasing exposure to Western soft power, especially via movies, television and the internet, some Chinese have become concerned with the influence of English upon the Chinese language, which they say threatens its “purity”.

A recent article by the People’s Daily reported that the practice of inserting English words into Chinese speech is starting to receive a backlash from the public. Called jiazati (夹杂体 jiāzá tǐ, or “mixed system”), it’s a way of speaking among Chinese that conveys professionalism and of having a higher pedigree. Here’s an example originating from a corporate workplace that was quoted in the article:

这个project的schedule有些问题, cost偏高。目前我们没法confirm手上的resource能完全take得了

Did you get that? In English, that quote reads as “There are some issues with the project’s schedule, the cost is a bit high. At present we cannot confirm that we have the full resources in hand.”

Here’s another:

遇到tough question应该怎样handle?

In English, that Chinese speaker is saying, “When encountering a tough question, how do you handle it?” Even a non-Chinese reader can see that knowledge of two languages is required in order to understand what this sentence means. Some people don’t like it one bit.

Sichuan Normal University professor Miao Xiaowu said that Chinese should insist on pure forms of spoken Chinese without the use of foreign words. Professor Miao insists that “pure Chinese” should be used during formal occasions or else “it will harm Chinese traditions and affect the cultural heritage of the Chinese language.”

Miao is critical of Chinese who use English words as the subjects, objects, and/or verbs of their sentences, saying that “People believe that mixing languages makes them look more stylish and like they have good taste. ” However, he asserts, this shows they have no confidence in their own culture as this idea is superficial at best.

But despite Miao’s protests in favor of to keep the Chinese language “pure”, the use of English within the construct of Chinese language has been going on for a long time – and is unlikely to stop anytime soon.

Even before jiazati came to prominence in the upper-echelon of the mainland Chinese business world, the Chinese language has come under the influence of English through the former British colony of Hong Kong.  Hong Kongers have long thrived on the use of peppering their Cantonese with English, something done casually among friends and not necessarily to impress one’s peers in the office. Hong Kong films, which are popular among non-Cantonese-speaking mainlanders, have also been a transmission vector for this linguistic miscegenation.

In the 1992 cult favourite Hard Boiled, Tony Leung’s character is described by a Chinese forensic detective as “好professional” (“Very professional”) after performing a hit on a mob rival in a library when he hid a gun inside a book. In Naked Killer, another 1992 cult film, Chingmy Yau’s character told Simon Yam that the most romantic thing she wanted was a “candlelight dinner”, switching mid-sentence to English.

The influence of Hong Kong aside, mainland China has long incorporated English into its language and culture, something so ingrained that it would be difficult to maintain where the “purity” of Chinese language even begins in modern times.

Even though the corporate example features six English words crammed into two sentences, Chinese have long employed the practice of shoehorning English words into Chinese speech, just at a less frantic pace. Example of this include “你out了” (“You have fallen behind on current trends”),”很high” (“very excited/happy”, and not associated with the English equivalent), and “hold不住” (“can’t take it anymore”), which originated from a Taiwanese TV show from several years ago. These examples all use short and simple English words and are easy enough to understand by those who haven’t learned English. Unlike the use of jiazati, these phrases are all dependent on context and aren’t used interchangeably in other grammatic structures.

Also in line with this simplicity is the use of English acronyms in Chinese speech. The big difference with which Chinese society uses them terms is that these acronyms don’t necessarily represent anything, and even if they did, don’t hold any significance in Chinese. Commonly used English acronyms used in China include KTV (karaoke), VCR (video clip), and PK (used the same way as “vs”; possibly originating from the online gaming term “player killer”).

China opened its doors to the world after US President Nixon’s visit to China in the 70’s, and with it came an official need for Chinese names for a world filled with proper nouns including people and place names. The default method for finding a way to give Chinese names to things in different languages was to transliterate the English name for this into a Chinese pinyin equivalent. This became is a widespread practice that only excludes places near to China that historically-used names, like those for North Korea or Thailand. The result has been the Chinese names of foreign things to overwhelmingly have an “English accent”.

And Chinese have exceeded at it. Many words used in the Chinese language is the English transliteration, and are often more popularly used than its Chinese “pure” version. A “jacket” in Chinese is “夹克” (jiákè), a word that doesn’t have a “pure Chinese” version. Even though a microphone can be called a 话筒 (literally means “speech tube”), you’re just as liable to hear it called by its English-sounding equivalent 麦克风 (màikèfēng), a word that will leave you scratching your head if you try to understand by Chinese semantics alone.

Before English crept into Chinese speech, it has been infiltrating Chinese culture via T-shirts and the names of Chinese retail stores. When Chinese people want to stand out in a crowd, they often give themselves English names that are simple and easy enough to be adopted by Chinese speakers of all varieties, often regardless of how they may sound to native English speakers.

And against the criticism that the Chinese language should remain “pure” stands the examples of words that have absolutely no specific Chinese equivalent. Words used by Chinese exclusively in English include iPhone, duang, and GIF.

Looking through all of this, it appears that English has long been a part of Chinese culture. For its part, the original article has this to say about the issue:

Language is a tool for communication and media, but it is also an important part of national culture.

English teachers in China have often heard from their students how “language is a tool”, something heard when explaining why they want to study English. But as any language teacher will tell you, learning a language is much more that just a tool for communication, but a way to experience and appreciate the world. Like art or music, language is way to see the world from a different perspective.

After several generations of English students, even if China hasn’t produced legions of fluent English speakers, it has produced many people who think in English, or at the very least, in fragmented English.

But maybe the spread of English isn’t the most pressing threat to the proliferation of the Chinese language. After all, many young Chinese can’t remember how to write out certain Chinese characters by hand because they only write Chinese using keyboards on computers and phones.


Charles Liu

The Nanfang's Senior Editor