Desperately seeking: descriptivists in China

Reading this pitch-perfect account of prescriptivist and descriptivist collision

When my History of the English Language professor observed that the distinction between lay and lie was being lost among younger speakers (good luck asking a twenty-year-old to run the paradigms), I had the poor enough judgment to share this insight with Grandmother. Since I could never keep straight what was laying and who was lying, this was a lesson that resonated with me. I might as well have told her that going out in public without a bra had become the vogue. (h/t Literal-Minded)

… made me recollect a recent conversation in which I was trying to find out the word for saturated fat. I had looked up the nutritional term for fat and gotten 脂肪 but wasn’t sure about saturated fat. Since Grandma’s a medical doctor, why not ask her?

Me: 是那种肉和奶制品里面的脂肪
Shì nèizhǒng ròu hé nǎizhìpǐn lǐmian de zhīfáng
It’s the kind of fat in meat and milk products

Grandma: 就是饱和脂肪
Jiùshi bǎohé zhǐfáng [note 3rd tone on 脂 instead of 1st tone as given by ABC Dictionary]
That’s “saturated fat”

Me: 诶?是“zhǐ肪”还是“zhī肪”?
Ei? Shì zhǐfáng háishì zhīfáng?
Oh? Is it zhǐ or zhī?

Result: immediate equivocating, refusal even to answer the question of whether zhǐ is what she usually says, desperate pleading to look in my dictionary, despite my equally desperate pleadings that sometimes the dictionary gets things wrong.

I should have known better. You can NEVER ask what people actually say if there’s any suspicion that the result might differ from what some “authority” says is the right answer*, **. Maybe this is equally true in the US, and I just never pushed hard enough to realize it. But I’m suspicious that the concept of descriptivism is treated with an order of magnitude greater suspicion here than it would be back in the home country.

Coda on zhī vs zhǐ:

I’ve since snuck the question into many a conversation. The unhesitating pronunciation here in BJ is definitely zhǐ — just don’t ask anyone to vouch for it.


* Equally, if someone says, “people say X,” it’s quite likely that the intended meaning is “some authority tells people to say X,” regardless of what people actually say.

**Hyperbole is for effect. I’m fortunate enough to have several friends (native speakers from different regions of China, which is always important in this highly variable linguistic landscape) who doggedly pursue what people actually say. Descriptivists exist, they’re just hard to find.


Link: I encountered the same first/third tone conflict with “meliorative word” the other day but didn’t comment on it, just saying: bāoyìcí (also pronounced bǎoyìcí)

2 responses to “Desperately seeking: descriptivists in China”

  1. Could it be a matter of cultural humility? If their culture is to be humble, then they don’t want to correct any authorities.

    Or could it be oppression? They have been oppressed so much that they don’t feel like they can “rise against” the authorities.

  2. Zev Handel says:

    I’m pretty sure that the distinction between “lay” and “lie” has been eroding for hundreds of years — it’s not just today’s “young generation”. While many English speakers have had some aspects of the paradigm distinctions successfully beaten into their brains by prescriptivist English teachers, I doubt many people of any age have native mastery of the full paradigms.

    I seem to recall that even in Shakespeare the distinction is fuzzy, but don’t hold me to that.

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