Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chinese: The World's Newest Dead Language

Chinese censors strike again: this time Chinglish (pidgin English based on Chinese grammar and idiosyncratic direct translation) is to be the victim.

Chinglish, RIP 2010?

I think not. Such hybrid language usage is far from dead. This does make me wonder about both the motives and the methods of the government in attempting to impose linguistic purity amidst China's debut on the world stage and accession to the forces of globalism. Mixed messages, a righteous volley against cultural imperialism, or just another imposition of the Great Firewall of China?

One motive may be that Chinglish (as well as English and acronyms derived thereof) can be effective in circumventing government censorship. Outright use of the English word 'government' on some BBSs, for example, sometimes hyphenated or with spaces as additional protection from the censors, allows commentators to directly reference the one party regime. The government could attempt to block input of non-hanzi characters on some websites, citing this new law, but is possible to block English (and Chinglish) from all the various non-governmental mediums such as social networks or text messaging services? Again, I think not.

Let us compare, moreover, living languages--such as the current lingua-franca, English--that attain wide global usage with dead languages incapable of assimilating alien concepts or making them easy to use. This government directive, then, is one step towards a harmoniously dead language, rather than a culturally vibrant, or creative language capable of innovating or renovating itself for modern usage. Less-than-grammatical borrowed appendages of the English language may offend snobs or nativists, but they are part of a larger creative process. Where would English be without bona fide Chinglish phrases such as "long time no see" and "chop chop", much less words like ketchup and tofu? And what of more elite loan words such as fengshui, kung fu, or yin yang? Descriptions such as 'salty/sweet tomato paste' or 'oriental martial arts' lack elegance and insert bulky explanation where none is necessary. The same problem happens when the Chinese broadcasters are forced to use the entire Chinese translation of a simple (and popularly understood) concept such as the NBA.

One last thought: will China soon be attempting to popularize acronyms based on pinyin transliterations of its own language? GCD (Gongchan Dang), for example, instead of CCP (Chinese Communist Party)? Or are any acronyms (by necessity romanized) verboten?

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