China’s linguistic police

If you, like me, are a fan of languages then you might enjoy this piece for NewsChina magazine last month, musing on China’s nascent effort to regulate its linguistic evolution in the tradition of l’Academie Francaise. Read it here or on NewsChina’s website:

The Linguistic Police
By Qi Zhai 2010/06/05

When French president Nicholas Sarkozy recently visited China with his stylish wife, Chinese media hailed the event as a bilateral rapprochement. I dutifully read splashy headlines featuring the dashing couple and thought back to earlier that month, when China took a quieter, rather unilateral step towards bringing itself in line with France.

In early April, China started “linguistic policing,” in the tradition of l’Académie francaise, without making a fuss. News reports surfaced that the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television had ordered major broadcasters, like CCTV and BTV, to stop using English acronyms – such as NBA, WTO, and CPI – on air.

What pernicious harm could these three-lettered words possibly have caused to warrant censorship? As far as I can tell, the linguistic policing effort stems from remarks made by Huang Youyi, Vice President of the International Federation of Translators, “If we don’t pay attention and don’t take measures to stop the expansion of mingling Chinese and English, Chinese won’t be a pure language in a couple of years,” Huang cautioned.

Details on the Chinese linguistic purity movement are sparse – as with many top level directives – but it’s no doubt reminiscent of the ardent Gallic mission to keep French French.

Established in 1635, l’Académie francaise is the authority on French grammar and vocabulary. Readers coming from less lofty linguistic backgrounds can think of l’Académie as the bouncer at an exclusive club – it decides who comes in and who stays out. Each year, l’Académie and the panoply of related government bodies go through a cumbersome, but regimented, process of translating, defining, and approving new entrants to the French lexicon (around 300 new words are admitted annually).

An example illustrates the workings of the French linguistic police and, perhaps, serves as a model for the Chinese. In early 2008, a member of the General Delegation for the French Language and the Languages of France came across the term “cloud computing” in a magazine and brought it to the attention of linguistic authorities. Although the term was deemed important enough to receive priority in the queue, eighteen months later, a select committee was still debating how to incorporate it into French.

The committee had considered a few options: a literal translation (informatique en nuage, literally “computing in cloud”), a poetic turn; (Capacité Informatique en Ligne, abbreviated as “CIEL,” meaning “sky”); or a total scrapping of the heavenly allusions (dans les nuages, or “in the clouds”).

This brings me to the nascent Chinese linguistic police. In spirit, the “acronym ban” emulates the French model. In practice, our system lacks rationale and rigor.

For all its inefficiency, the French mission is at least enshrined in the Constitution, which states, “The language of the Republic shall be French.”

By contrast, the Chinese attempt is vague and opaque. The government hasn’t made official statements on the acronym ban, there are no comprehensive lists of the forbidden abbreviations, and broadcasters themselves are confused about when the rule applies. Enforcement has been lax, probably because there’s general befuddlement as to who exactly should be doing the policing.

The only rationale I can think of for this sudden interest in linguistic purity is promotion of cultural-linguistic nationalism, part of a wider push for a greater voice for Asia – especially for China – in the global media.

Whatever the reasons and means, the French and Chinese may both be wasting their time. Policing has proven unsuccessful in France (and will likely follow suit in China), where even the prestigious national universities teach marketing using English terminology.

I’d also make a low-brow argument for taking it easy on language – it’s simply less fun. As commerce, culture, and communities evolve, language morphs to reflect social changes. I enjoy a good chuckle every time I recall the English roots of not-so-recent additions to the Chinese vocabulary, like “sofa” (shafa), “jeep” (jipu), and “coffee” (kafei).


6 thoughts on “China’s linguistic police

  1. There’s a very active Language Police enforced in Quebec, which performs audits on businesses of every shape and size, to ensure that all signs are in French, if there are any signs in English the French has to be 60% larger than English, all signs in the welcome area must be only in French, including posters, artwork etc. In Quebec, they take their French very seriously, and as much as the locals will poke fun at what the Language Police are doing, they have done a lot to ensure that Quebec maintains that European flair. Personally I think they go a little too far, but it definitely helps to promote pride in their language, culture, so it ends up being not as ridiculous as it all seems.
    Great article Qi! Look forward to reading more!

    • Roxy,

      Thanks for sharing some very interesting tidbits about Quebec! I love the 60% rule. When I finally get around to visiting Montreal (I never seem to catch the city when it’s NOT winter) I’m going to run around town with a tape measure and report an deviant signage from the regulated size.

      Keep reading!

  2. Okay, so we all know English is like Shooters to whatever the exclusive club that l’Academie French is, so make me a prediction: what will be the first Chinese character that can be comfortably written into an English language publication without needing explanation (kind of like how one could write ‘gringo’ without needing to explain what it means)?


    • Kristoffle,

      My northern Chinese pride wants to say it’s going to be an awesome Mandarin slang adjective for which there could never be an English equivalent, like “zhuai”, “ge”, “te”, “dia”…but, given how commerce tends to drive the world I think it’ll realistically be something Cantonese. Perhaps “fat” has already made it into mainstream English, as in “gung hei fat choy.” The next step in the evolution is “fat” as a stand-alone descriptor, like “Duuude, he’s seriously ‘fat'” (“Duuude, he’s seriously loaded.”). What thinks you?

      • Hard to say. I bet the first one that people will recognize and be able to pronounce will be 中, just because it’s easy and everywhere. I can see China’s government using it in an ad campaign promoting tourism. Unfortunately, not many cool uses. I’m holding out for 鬻, ‘to sell your children’.

      • Hmmm, I don’t know about that. Visually it’s easy to process, but it’s a hard one to say and it doesn’t have a lot of relevance in spoken conversation. I still think it’ll be something commerce related. Let’s make a bet…say one that expires in 20 years?

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