Why so little Chinese in English?

Language borrowing
Johnson Blog
Why so little Chinese in English?
Jun 6th 2013, 16:06 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK


How to kowtow

ON TWITTER, a friend asked “Twenty years from now, how many Chinese words will be common parlance in English?” I replied that we’ve already had 35 years since Deng Xiaoping began opening China’s economy, resulting in its stratospheric rise—but almost no recent Chinese borrowings in English.

Many purported experts are willing to explain China to curious (and anxious) westerners. And yet I can’t think of even one Chinese word or phrase that has become “common parlance in English” recently. The only word that comes close might be guanxi, the personal connections and relationships critical to getting things done in China. Plenty of articles can be found discussing the importance of guanxi, but the word isn’t “common in English” by any stretch.

Most Chinese words now part of English show, in their spelling and meaning, to have been borrowed a long time ago, often from non-Mandarin Chinese varieties like Cantonese. Kowtow, gung ho and to shanghai are now impeccably English words we use with no reference to China itself. Kung fu, tai chi, feng shui and the like are Chinese concepts and practices westerners are aware of. And of course bok choy, chow mein and others are merely Chinese foods that westerners eat; I would say we borrowed the foods, and their Chinese names merely hitched a ride into English.

Given China’s rocket-ride to prominence, why so little borrowing? We import words from other languages that are hard for English-speakers to pronounce. We borrow from languages with other writing systems (Yiddish, Russian, Arabic). We borrow from culturally distant places (India, Japan). We borrow verbs (kowtow) and nouns (tsunami) and exclamations (banzai!, oy!). We borrow concrete things (sushi) and abstract ones (Schadenfreude, ennui). We borrow not only from friends, but from rivals and enemies (flak from German in the second world war, samizdat from Russian during the cold war, too many words to count from French during the long Anglo-French rivalry).

So perhaps China’s rise is simply too new, and we just need another 20 years or so. We’ve seen a similar film before. Japan’s sudden opening to the world, a world war, and then forty years of an economic boom put quite a few Japanese words and concepts into the Anglophone mind: kamikaze, futon, haiku, kabuki, origami, karaoke, tycoon, tsunami, jiu-jitsu, zen and honcho are all common English words that nowadays can be used without any reference to Japan. Add to that the more specifically Japanese phenomena well known to the English-speaking world: karate, judo, sumo, bonsai, manga, pachinko, samurai, shogun, noh and kimono, say, not to mention foods from the bland (tofu) to the potentially fatal (fugu). Of course, Japanese borrowed some of these words from Chinese, like zen (modern Mandarin chán) and tofu (dòufu). But English borrowed them from Japanese, not Chinese.

It seems likely English will borrow from Chinese, too, as trade, cultural and personal connections between China and the west grow. And perhaps there’s an elusive “cool” element, a cultural cachet in the West that China has yet to attain. If China gets there one day, this would certainly boost China’s linguistic exports. Whether future Chinese borrowings will be new edibles, cultural items or even philosophical terms will depend on China’s development and how the West responds. In other words, we should hope Chinese terms we will adopt will be more of the guanxi than of the flak variety.

Linguistic neighbours

LAST Saturday saw Denmark win the Eurovision Song Contest, the country’s third win in the contest’s history. A prototypically apple-cheeked blonde (pictured) took the trophy for her country, but she did so with the rather un-Danish name of Emmelie de Forest and the equally un-Danish title, “Only Teardrops”. 

The contest has always been about more than music. Every year comes a slew of articles about the political nature of the voting. Countries that share ethnic or political friendships routinely give each other high marks: Greece and Cyprus typically give each other the maximum of 12 points while stiffing Turkey with nul points, for example. Estonia and Latvia this year gave Russia 12 points, no doubt because those countries’ large Russian populations voted for their neighbour. 

Language, of course, plays a role in this as well. “Ethnicity” in Europe is often linguistic: an ethnic Russian is not apparent on the streets of Riga until he opens his mouth. Linguistic neighbours will tend to be generous to one another. Finland and Estonia are friendly not only because they are nearby but because their Finno-Ugric languages resemble each other, while being utterly unrelated to their neigbours’. (Hungarian is also Finno-Ugric.)  Each country can give 12 points to only one other country, and this year Denmark and Sweden gave their 12’s to Norway, Norway its 12 to Sweden, as befits the Scandinavian language continuum.

But the Scandinavians share something else besides apple-cheeked blondes and North Germanic languages: their tendency to sing in English. In that, they are like most countries nowadays. But some interesting variation clouds the picture.

The French, of course, overwhelmingly prefer French. (France has, however, sent two entries in Corsican and one, in 2008, mostly in English.) Spain nearly always opts for Spanish, and Italy for Italian. But it isn’t true that big countries sing in their own languages while small ones opt for English. Germany has sung just one German title (“Frauen regierien die Welt”, or “Women Run the World”) in the past ten years.  And a few small countries opted for linguistic pride over Anglophone Euro-cheer this year. Iceland’s Eyþór Ingi offered up a dreary ballad in Icelandic, the perfect accompaniment to an official video in which he glumly fillets a fish in the rain. The highest-ranking song not sung in English this year was technically Greece’s “Alcohol is Free”, an upbeat ska tune in which the verses were in Greek and only the three-word chorus in English. It came in 6th place. The highest-ranking song entirely devoid of English was Italy’s “L’Essenziale” (7th).

Songs mostly in English have won 24 times, while songs in French have won 14. That leaves just about a third of the contests won in any other language. This is despite two periods (1956-1965 and 1977-1999) in which contest rules required countries to sing in their own languages. Perhaps the only true global hit to come out of the contest—Abba’s “Waterloo” (1974)—was sung by Swedes in English. It is clear that pop is just another area in which English is taking over Europe, alongside business and the politics of the European Union. French is holding a solid second place, as it does elsewhere. The rest of Europe’s many language communities divide up what remains. Whether you find this linguistic convergence cheerful as an Abba foot-stomper or depressing as an Icelandic fishing trip will say as much about your politics as it will your views on language. 

Correction: This post has been updated to note the 2008 singing of “Divine”, from France, mostly in English. Apologies for the error. 

Clarification: The famous Abba recording of “Waterloo” is in English, but Abba sang it in Swedish for Eurovision. Thank you to the commenters who pointed this out. 

(Photo credit: AFP)