History and Culture

The misnomer that is purity of language

2017-03-27 10:40:00 (Beijing Time)         China Daily

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The debate on purity of language is not new to China. Words from other languages are being more frequently used by Chinese people and many of them have been almost accepted as part of the Chinese language, much to the chagrin of some people.

Some cultural and language experts in China have always led the criticism against the use of loanwords, because they believe the "official" Chinese language should use as few words as possible from other languages to maintain its "purity".

Such concerns are not unique to China. Other countries have also witnessed "pure language" campaigns. For instance, in 1994 France approved a law forbidding the use of foreign language in public announcements, advertisements and broadcasting.

But a language is not an inflexible and insulated system. Languages have evolved through multilingual, multinational communications. Many languages have seen large-scale "loanword absorption" periods, mainly because of cross-border trade and communications. And at a time when globalization has pushed cross-border trade and communications to historic highs, it is very difficult to maintain the purity of a widely spoken language.

Besides, the "borrowed word" phenomenon is not a unidirectional thing. If Chinese people use such loanwords as "sofa", English and many other foreign languages also use Chinese words such as kung fu and dim sum.

Nevertheless, we cannot just laugh away people's concerns over a "foreign language invasion", because the outflow of loanwords is almost always determined by the social and cultural power behind the source language. In other words, "dominant" languages generally "export" more words to other languages, while "weaker" languages "import" more foreign words.

There are more Chinese speakers than English speakers in the world. Still, the Chinese language is no match for the English language in terms of global influence. And the English language, despite being the de facto lingua franca of the world today, is still "absorbing" words from other languages.

The influence and popularity of a language are determined not by the number of people speaking it but by the soft power it exercises. But the situation is gradually changing thanks to China's increasing economic and cultural prowess and expanded global communications networks.

The outside world today knows a lot more about and has a much closer relationship and interaction with China than it did even a couple of decades ago. That China is a unique social, economic and cultural milieu has been frequently reported by the foreign media, which has helped "export" more Chinese words to other languages.

An interesting example is China's "Single's Day". Instead of being a holiday, "Single's Day", or Nov 11 every year, is actually a shopping day "created" especially for single men and women by online retailers-which is similar to Black Friday in the West.

Foreign media have introduced this typical term and phenomenon with Chinese characteristics to other countries. The big push behind this Chinese "export" is the increasingly strong Chinese e-commerce and domestic consumption power.

As far as being alert to any so-called cultural invasion is concerned, we should keep an open mind, because absorbing loanwords can also be seen as a process of learning from the outside world. And new concepts could also benefit the Chinese language in unexpected ways.

Admittedly, the integrity of culture and language is of great significance. But perhaps it is better to enhance the cultural advantages of a language than to shield it from the influence of other languages, as a robust culture is always more attractive than a feeble one to outsiders.

And robustness was on full display when many foreign journalists asked questions in fluent Chinese at the news conferences during the recently concluded annual sessions of China's top legislature and top political advisory body.

Such developments suggest the international community is developing a better understanding of Chinese language and culture.

The author Wang Yiqing is a writer with China Daily.