Saturday, January 8, 2011

Chinese Characters

There was a local news item the other day regarding Chinese authorities concern about the “purity” of the Chinese language. They are apparently contemplating means to prevent the popularization of non-Chinese words (mainly English) together with the use of non-Chinese letters and characters.

Let me admit first up that I have no knowledge at all of Chinese – I can neither read, write nor speak any words in that language, so what I am saying now is based on my general knowledge, not on specifics. But I understand that Chinese is not a phonetic language (it is tonal), in that a Chinese “word” cannot be broken down into individual vowels and consonants, like words based on the Indo-Persian–Greek-Latin languages (ie English!). I am hoping that someone, with knowledge of Chinese, will correct me if I am wrong!

Be that as it may, how the Chinese authorities are going to enforce the “purity” of their language is difficult to imagine. Being an authoritarian government I suppose they could employ undercover “word police” arresting people who dare to use non-Chinese words in their speech. The trouble with this approach is that it poses two problems for the “language purity” authorities and the Chinese people in general:-

a. As soon as authorities “ban” the use of a word the message has to be disseminated somehow. The media generally – posters, the press, TV, the internet and cell phone SMS would all need to be employed to spread the message. Immediately many millions of people who had never heard of the “undesirable” word would now know what it was! So rather than curtailing the spread, the consequence would be to spread it even further – albeit, with a warning.

b. The world is a dynamic place and language follows. Many “new” words would represent new ideas, technology, inventions and concepts and “slang”, which may have no equivalent in Chinese characters or sounds. If the authorities wish to prevent these “new” words from entering and “polluting” their language they will need to employ an army of linguists to study every and all publications and the social media so as to constantly devise new characters or combinations of existing characters to equate to the new “sounds” and meanings.

The French tried this (to prevent the encroachment of English into French) and I believe that they have given up a battle they discovered they would never win. Society changes faster than any government authority can hope to emulate and as I said before language follows a similar course. This is the “advantage” of English – it is so adaptable – it absorbs and incorporates any new, useful word, from whatever language and then “adopts” it as its own – and nobody cares one way or another.

English (simply put) is based on three principal languages – Latin, Germanic (Saxon) and French, but has incorporated words (at least the sound but with Anglicized spelling) from Scandinavia (Norse), Holland (Dutch), Greece, the Middle East (Arabic), India, Australian Aboriginal, North American Indian, many other countries and yes, even Chinese.

Remember that a language is purely a means of communication, so it does not really matter which language is used as long as people understand the message! English has now been adopted as the “official” language of air and marine safety and many other international organizations. This came about, through a process of “soft power” – admiration, striving to emulate the activities of successful people, in music, in literature and a general accessibility. Authoritarian rule will never stop a “natural” process.

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