Tongue-tied realities

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2005, 12:00am

Chinglish is both the bane and highlight of existence in the capital. Not even after several years of editing articles, applications and ad copy am I able to figure out a standard set of guidelines. It is, in a way, a much more interesting language than plain old English, though editors rarely put on rose-coloured glasses when on deadline. But if you're down, and spot a billboard proclaiming a new skyscraper will feature 'national cream' how can you not cheer up?

This truly original language is directly related to dependency on the dictionary: the use of centuries-old vocabulary, a flair for adjectives for which 'flowery' only begins to apply, spelling that goes far beyond phonetic, and grammar featuring the worst of both English and Chinese. Chinglish headlines jump off the pages of newspapers; they cause rubbernecking as one zips by yet another fantastically named condominium complex or a street sign not yet vetted by the city's translation team (or, perhaps, already vetted).

CCTV 9, the country's English channel - exported to viewers around the world - slips Chinglish into programmes ranging from English-speaking contests to hard news interviews; no one channel has so often made me scream at the television in horror. Hosts and narrators - both native English and Putonghua speakers - seem powerless to depart from scripts that may have been proofread by native English speakers, but are obviously subject to the final approval of people who were not raised speaking the Queen's language. Might they be doing it on purpose?

A popular cash cow for native English speakers is recording cassettes that accompany language textbooks. The books are published before the cassettes are recorded, so voice artists are unable to fix what they know to be not-quite-English. Not a desire to nip Chinglish in the bud, nor even an hourly wage can keep us in the room after hours reading dialogue peppered with errors.

As in Singapore and Hong Kong, another form of Chinglish features Chinese sentences peppered with random English words: spreadsheet, boss, budget and rock'n'roll jumping out of Chinese conversations around the city. Could a French-style campaign to cleanse the language be far off?

If the Chinese can have their Chinglish, then foreigners can have 'Yinglish' (ying means English in Chinese). 'We really should hezuo (co-operate),' we'll say, only partly because the Chinese words are easier to remember than the English ones: there is a slightly sinister game at work, whereby the more skilled linguists can vex newbies with increasingly high numbers of Chinese words, and safely exit a conversation with those who haven't spent enough time here to master the real language.



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