Keeping Chinese language free from outside influence an impossible goal

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 September, 2012, 1:44am


Nations with a proud history and culture are also likely to be jealously protective of their language. For a country fast on the rise like China, that is guaranteed to be doubly so. The mainland media were told two years ago not to use foreign words, especially English ones, and now academics are pushing to have them removed from the country's most authoritative linguistic reference book, the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary. Their hearts are in the right place by wanting to preserve Chinese, but they are wrong to want to stop it from progressing; without diversification, a language and the people who speak it will suffer.

The 100 academics contend in a letter of protest that the inclusion of 240 terms containing Latin letters in the dictionary's latest edition threatens the Chinese language and violate laws. It is the same argument used in Japan, France, Quebec and other places where language protection is a key element of a nationalist agenda. But China is not trapped in a time warp, nor is it immune to outside influences. As an important - and increasingly so - part of the world, it is shaping and being shaped by what its people encounter. That is an inevitability. The ability to borrow, adapt and improve is what has made humankind so dominant a species. Language is about communication and no matter how ancient its roots, turbulent its history or unique its spoken and written forms, it evolves for the sake of convenience. The academics believe terms like "NBA", for the American National Basketball Association, and "CPI" for consumer price index, pollute the purity of Chinese, but they are more accurate and easier to use than the Chinese equivalents created to replace them.

No language can claim to be pure of outside influences. The academics surely were not ignorant of Chinese containing thousands of words borrowed and adapted from other languages, Hindi, Mongolian and Japanese among them. To shut the door on the evolution of Chinese is to do the nation a disservice and block fruitful thought and expression.