In a smaller world, lingos will mingle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2011, 12:00am


For a diplomat, former foreign minister Li Zhaoxing certainly did not mince words. Speaking at a gathering this week about his career, he went on a diatribe against those Chinese people whom he feels fall short in respecting the purity of the national language.

'I detest those people who like to mix English words in their [Putonghua] conversations,' he said.

To love China, he added, one must love its culture, language included.

Li thereby expresses a sentiment common among Beijing's mandarins. Some critics have attributed it to rising nationalism, even Chinese chauvinism. That's true, to an extent. But to be fair, it's not unusual for officials from countries with a long history to take great pride in their national language. Japanese nationalists have advocated eliminating Chinese characters and replacing them with Japanese scripts. A few years ago, the French had a heated debate about banning all foreign words from public displays and documents.

These mixtures are inevitable in a world that's getting smaller.

Criticisms like Li's hide the extraordinary success with which Beijing has imposed the myth of Putonghua as a pure language. Today, many young Chinese who may routinely mix and joke with English words believe in the Chinese language in the singular. In reality, there is no sole Chinese language. There are hundreds, including ethnic dialects. Putonghua itself evolved from northern Han and Mongolian dialects and from Mandarin from the Qing dynasty.

Someone is bound to ask, what's the difference between a dialect and a language? Joseph Stalin probably gave the best answer: a language is the one with the army.

Today, Putonghua is the language with a very large and powerful army.