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China who? Why Chinglish is not ‘sweeping around the world’

6 Sep

chinaflagOh dear. Reasons why China won’t rule the world #359. A classic People’s Daily article caught my eye last weekend. It describes how Chinese loan words and Chinglish phrases are finding their way into everyday English conversations across the planet.

As if this weren’t a subtle enough message from the Communist Party mouthpiece, it wheeled out a rent-a-quote academic, in this case Meng Dehong from Beijing Foreign Studies Uni, who claimed, with reference to the Middle Kingdom:

“The more civilised, more advanced and more attractive the country is, the more influential the language gets.”

Now Meng is spot on there, with one crucial caveat – that applies to English (England and the US), not China.

The Daily gives as its examples of China’s growing cultural-linguistic importance in the world the words shuanggui (quasi-investigation); chengguan (municipal officers); jiujielity (hesitation); and, most tellingly, don’ train for “bullet train”.

Er, sorry guys, I know you and Japan have history but you have to admit, if any loan word is going to appear in English for “bullet train” it would be shinkansen, hailing as it does from the country that invented the frigging things. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever read or heard the other words out and about, and I live in Hong Kong.

Ditto the Chinglish phrases We two who and who? meaning “We are good friends”; Go and look meaning “We will see” and No money no talk, apparently meaning “Without money, any talk is spared”. Even the People’s Daily translations sound a little odd so to utter them down the pub they probably come across at best as the incoherent mumblings of an escaped psychiatric patient.

“Hello, can I introduce you to Steve? We two who and who!”

“Er, sorry?”

“We two who and who!!!”

“Um, are you having a seizure?”

As Shanghai Daily points out, the only Chinese words that have ever found their way into English, include gung-ho and kowtow and the phrase “long time no see”, which translates in that word order from the Cantonese.

They are incredibly few and far between. Now I’ve no doubt this will change gradually as China flexes its muscles on the world stage, but let’s not confuse economic dominance for cultural. It’s not helped by the fact that, with the best will in the world, Chinese students often don’t assimilate particularly well with others when studying abroad – preferring their own cliques to sharing their culture, and language, with those from other shores.

To my mind the only Westerners likely to drop obscure Chinese words into sentences are pompous journalists and the sort of people you make a habit of avoiding at parties, but will inevitably be stuck with for 30 will-sappingly long minutes, usually at the beginning. In the kitchen. While you’re still sober.

Another route Chinese language could take to find its way into the Western lingua franca is if the Middle Kingdom had a free press we could respect, engage with and learn from, but that’s about as likely to happen as Xi Jinping taking a dump on The Communist Manifesto. Until then, spurious articles on how Chinglish is sweeping around the world are exactly the reason why it won’t.

One other route for the Chinese language to penetrate our homes is of course through popular TV shows and movies. But honestly, when was the last time you saw one of them? If the combined firepower of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Ang Lee, and over 100 years of colonial tinkering in the Middle Kingdom hasn’t made an impact then I’m sorry, but it’s probably never going to happen.

Or as they say in Beijing: “We two definitely not who and who!”