Ban on Building B?
We’ve all heard that in 2010 China’s General Administration of Press and Publication (中华人民共和国新闻出版总署) started worrying about the purity of “Chinese” and asked the press to rid themselves of the unseemly habit of using English names and abbreviations in their reports. See, for example, this BBC report from December.
But if school gate conversations* are to be believed, there’s a new front in the Chinese purity movement. A fellow parent at my daughter’s Beijing grade school reports that the standard old names in her apartment complex — A座, B座 (i.e. Building A, Building B) — are getting changed. Why? She claims the regulatory authorities are requiring it. No more “English” letters to be used in the naming of buildings, they say. She also says it’s not just her apartment — that she’s heard from friends of this happening elsewhere in Beijing.
I don’t read much news at all, let alone local Beijing news. Has anyone else come across this?
[Update — don’t miss the links in jdmartinsen’s first comment below. They include the proposed regulations and some newspaper articles about them]
During the conversation, thinking of Kellen’s ordered lists post, I asked her, “So what are they replacing it with? Is it 甲，乙?”
Alas, nothing so interesting. She says they now have 东南西北 (east, south, west, north) and some directions in between.
*It’s taken me two years of participation in the daily school-gate-pickup circus — complete with double parked gridlock, shady sausage vendors, and heartfelt reunions at the emotional level of “hostages released after days in captivity” — to be able to find my own equanimity, groove to the cacophony, and just chat obliviously with fellow parents.
The rules are in draft-for-comments stage and are available on the Beijing Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision website. From early February in the local media, there’s a Beijing Evening News article, something from the Beijing Daily, and an article with dismissive comments from the locals in the Beijing Morning Post.
Interesting that you seem to use so many letters for buildings in Beijing. In Shanghai I don’t see compound with letters, most seem to use numbers already — 1号楼，7号楼 etc.. letters are more used inside the building to name the apartments in each floor.
I don’t have any problem with the media having rules to control the use of foreign words, we have the same in many European countries and it makes sense when used rationally. But to extend the ban to all foreign symbols is stupid, because then they would have to get rid of the numbers, the pinyin, most of the punctuation marks, the math signs, etc. etc.
On the other hand, it would be cool to have all the buildings numbered according to the earthly branches and heavenly stems. I love my 甲乙丙丁戊, and this way it would be much easier to remember all the symbols and understand them when you read history books, like 甲午战争，etc.
I vote for the Branches and Stems! (seriously)
jdm: impressive list, thanks. I see the proposed regs are even stricter than I anticipated, trying to stamp out superstition by disallowing the skipping of numbers (targeting 4, 13, 14): 只能使用阿拉伯数字依次顺序编号.
I see that last story quotes “netizens” as pointing out the obvious next target: license plates. For more amusement they could’ve pointed out the use of “foreign letter” abbreviations in the proposal itself, such as “mm” or, my favorite, “LED” with a parenthetical translation into Chinese: “发光二级管”.
Julen, I’m not sure what form of media rules you’d support “to control the use of foreign words.” I don’t have any problem with a newspaper deciding to go with local over “foreign” words as an editorial policy, but I can’t support any form of government control in this area. It’s a waste of resources at best. In its worst forms it contributes to insidious authoritarianism and opportunity for corruption.
I happened to have the list on hand — someone asked me back in February…
甲 is already used in a lot of places when there are two of a particular building number at the same address, but I’m not sure what sort of pattern it follows. It does give the opportunity for lame questions about real vs. fake building numbers (“真5号楼还是假5号楼?”), though.
@syz – this is a far more complex issue that most native English speakers usually understand. There was a big debate about it a year ago when the measures were first announced and I already wrote extensively about it.
In a nutshell: non-dominant languages (ie. all except English) are vulnerable to excessive use of anglicisms in a way that destroys the language rather than enriching it. And by destroy I mean: replacing words and expressions for which perfectly valid ones with identical meaning existed already, and in large quantities.
This is very different from the quaint loans into English like “long time no see”, “guru” or “siesta”, all of which introduce a meaning or connotation that make the language richer with multicultural elements. This is not so when a speaker introduces 3 English words per phrase, with no other connotation than: look how American I sound, cool, yo!
I am a fierce descriptivist and as such you might find it weird that I want to but barriers to the evolution of a language. The thing is I am also a speaker of a tiny minority language and I know how all this works out in the end.
In the old times perhaps things happened more naturally and speakers selected from abroad what they needed. But nowadays the media have enormous power, and any expression a teenage presenter adopts can become an accepted word nationally within days. It is not completely stupid to imagine that such a power (bestowed undemocratically, note) should be limited by government regulations. The government is there precisely for that, to protect the public good in situations where market forces fail to do so.
Of course a different question is whether mandarin is really in such a vulnerable situation (I think yes) and whether these rules are drafted sensibly (I think not). But I just wanted to explain my position that the idea is at least worthy of debate, and not to be directly dismissed as the brainfarts of crazy nationalists.
For obvious reasons all this may not be immediately obvious to native English speakers. But try to look at it from the other side.
You wouldn’t have any way of knowing it, but I’m an ardent defender of minority languages and languages with small populations of speakers. It’s a stance I developed when working at a rural school in Latvia and learning Latvian, a language that had been second class under the Soviet Union and was only then (1992) re-asserting itself as the primary national language. The language has all of a couple million speakers total, and in the process of becoming an honorary member of that 2m club I had plenty of discussions with the school’s language teacher about what was proper Latvian and whether certain words in common use — say, “telefons” for “telephone” — should be prohibited and replaced by native words like tālrunis, which at the time was used in some formal contexts and in print, but not in everyday conversation.
I don’t think you’re wrong in saying that legislating protection for languages with few speakers “is a far more complex issue than most native English speakers usually understand.” But when you say to “look at it from the other side,” I think you’re wrongly assuming I’m one of those who believes it’s simple. Insofar as it’s possible to understand anyone else’s feelings, I think I understand the frustration and sense of encroachment, even the threat, that the Latvians felt at having thrown off the official anti-Latvian prejudice of the Soviet Union only to find that English was threatening an even more thorough inundation of the language.
So what would my “ardent defense” of small-population languages consist of? I believe, first and foremost, that people should speak to their children in their native language. I’d support legislation that allows schooling in more native languages and into higher levels of education. I like regulations that require multi-language labeling of products in areas that have sufficient speakers of those languages.
Those are a few examples (and not ones on which the PRC or the US have good records at all).
What I do NOT support is allowing government control over what words people use in everyday writing, a category that for me includes journalism. That’s all I was responding to. It’s too much intrusiveness and not a good use of government resources.
I’ve come up against this minority languages thing twice in my life, with my father, whose native language was Welsh, and my long-time partner, whose first language (of eight) is Tik-Monjiaang, “language of the people,” the people being the Monjiaang, nicknamed the Dinka because the first male child of any couple is named Ding or Deng.
The first job my father held, after graduating from college in English as a chemist, was with a project to modernise the Welsh language. He was to concot neoterisms for “hydrogen,” for instance, as “water-maker” in Welsh. He left after a week, considering the whole thing ridiculous, and went on to successful careers in chemistry, pharmacy and building. The Welsh language went on to some rough years in apparent decline, and is now in an apparent resurgence, with radio, television and schools in operation in Welsh. We shall see. I have the family Bible, which is in Welsh — but I’m going to have to fill in half the family tree inside the back cover in Dinka and the other half in Japanese, since those are the languages my family looks like speaking down the line.
My Dinka partner grew up in the upper, i.e. university-educated or Toyota-driving, class of a tribe she calls eighth century in culture. For all of her country’s backwarness, he family has two rules for education: One, everybody gets either an M.D. or a PhD in a hard science, and Two, new with this gneration, This includes the women. Fortunately one of her father’s wives is a business genius, and the fishing fleet, plantation, etc. etc. are able to pay for dozens of sets of university fees in a variety of countries, despite a generation of civil war.
Her own education consisted (it continues) of camp-fire stories until the age of 13, then two years of Catholic finishing school and two years of law school at Gordon College, now University of Khartoum.
Now here is the language angle: Arabic is naturally her second language, so whenever she told the family’s stories to her younger siblings, her ather would watch attentively, and the reward for using an rabic corrupted word in a narrative was a verbal or physical slap in the head.
I encouraged her, in Canada as a refugee from the war, to dedicate herself to the preservation and development of Tik-Monjiaang, the language being threatened not just with massive “corruption” but concievably with extinction. Her reaction was exactly like my father’s, that the whole effort is ridiculous.
My predictionis that like Welsh, Tik-Monjiaang will acquire radio and tv stations, a university or two, and at least a generation of re-birth — and again, I speculate, like Welsh an uncertain longer future. It may survive, but my guess is that a Nilotic Swahili not yet in existence is the more likely descendant.
Here I think Cantonese is the model for many of the world’s minority languages. It changes with volcanic force and speed, it “corrupts” itself from half-a-dozen surrounding sources, and it grows with great energy. The computer word processor slyly distrubuted with the assistance of the Hong Kong government already contains over a thousand “Han”zi expressing Cantonese words, I am told, and who knows where it will go?
With the Dinka diaspora now in universities all over the world I think we’ll see their language, similarly, growing through accretion, not just from Arabic but from English, Italian, the emerging Indonesian language, and from others. A cousin of ours, a Dinka mathematician, was for some years the judo champion of Japan, so Japanese supplies some of the vocabulary of Dinka martiality…
Just to chime in as somebody who thinks it is exactly “brainfarts of crazy nationalists” and nothing more:
Language is a means to communicate and not a fixed entity unto itself – if language evolves (as it does by adopting foreign words, letters, …), such as it always has, then that’s a good thing and trying to make people say what other people believe is the ‘proper’ word for something is simply… brainfarts of crazy nationalists.
And anyway, how do you get the idea that somebody’s idea of what ‘original Mandarin’ looks like constitutes a ‘public good’, and that ‘market forces’ aren’t working, simply because people prefer one word over another?!
@syz – Wow. You have some interesting experience, I would love to hear more of that when I get the chance to meet you. Of course my message above wasn’t directed to you, but to the average native English reader. In terms of linguistics you are clearly not “average”.
@max – this comes down to a political discussion rather than linguistic. Whether a language or any other intangible asset is a public good, this is something that only the speakers community can decide, and not the cold scientific look of a linguist.
Your utilitarian view of the language is a valid opinion, but it is no more than that. It is an opinion easier held by a speaker of English than of any other language. If we carry it to the extreme, it leads to the conclusion that all the other languages formal education should be abandoned for English (technically it is feasible), which would indeed produce a more efficient and better communicated World.
This is also a valid opinion, but you will find that most people in the World oppose it. Why? because they obviously attach a value to their language that goes well beyond the pure use as a communication tool. This has a value for them, even if it doesn’t for you.
Also, we are not even considering here restrictions on the way people speak, but only on the mass media, which has an enormous power to distort the natural evolution of language. I don’t intend to convince anyone here to support these regulations (I am quite skeptical myself) but just to see the problem from the other side and understand it is a complex issue.
Fascinating discussion. Allow me to toss in a couple cents here, in no particular order, and with no real unifying theme as I’m not really sure how I feel.
On the one hand, Mandarin has more native speakers than any other language in the world, yes? I believe that’s true. It’s hard to imagine there’s really a serious threat to its survival, and “purity” is a term that frankly creeps me out. Even with the nationwide mandatory years upon years of English language education, no one here is switching to English. I don’t think the tides will be turned by A座 and other similar naming systems.
On the other hand, using roman letters doesn’t always offer any kind of advantage. Just yesterday I was witness to a scene in which one Chinese person was describing a telephone address to another over the phone, which went something like this:
There’s no real reason to use foreign letters here, and in fact, they make things sort of confusing.
That said, there are circumstances in which the use of foreign words and/or transliterations makes sense. For example, it would be ridiculous to require Chinese programmers to use the Chinese names of programming languages, rather than C++, HTML, PHP, or whatever. I don’t even know if these have Chinese names, to be honest, but I don’t see what the benefit in having a uniquely Chinese word is when it serves only to obfuscate what it refers to and excludes people from understanding (my guess is that many Chinese people have heard of HTML but never seen the term “超文本置标语言” before).
Other random thoughts:
-I vaguely recall taking a cognitive science class in college where we learned that the language one speaks actually affects the physical pathways of the brain. For example, the most English speakers can remember a seven digit sequence fairly easily in their short term recall, but longer sequences get lost. That number changes, though, in speakers of other languages, depending on the words they use for the numbers themselves. It’s a simple example, but it’s the only one I can remember. Anyway, if languages can affect thinking processes and memory in this fundamental a manner, preserving languages could be beneficial to our understanding of the mind, even if it doesn’t have any practical use in terms of communication between peoples.
-Ultimately, though, I think the preservation of the “purity” of a language is decided by the people, regardless of what the government decrees. I know the French keep a tight grip on their language, but I distinctly recall learning about “le wet look” in a high school French class devoted to the topic of hair styles. Ultimately, Chinese people will use foreign letters, words, and transliterations where they are useful, and abandon them where they aren’t. While I’m sensitive to Julen’s concerns about kids wanting to look “cool”, I think that’s a very short term effect. After all, how many Chinese kids do you hear saying “cool” or even “酷” these days? Ultimately, foreign adoptions that are just used for “style” will be replaced by the newest “cool” words, which is why so many people are now saying (ugh…) “给力” instead.
Alas, it appears I can’t edit my original post. By “telephone address” I meant “address”, by “the most English speakers” I meant “most English speakers”. Probably there are other mistakes too…
Sure, mandarin is not exactly in danger of extinction. And in general the language I hear in Chinese TV and radio is already “pure” enough for my taste (certainly more so than the language used in many European countries).
In fact I don’t even agree with the new regulations–it is just that I enjoy debating on the internet and I wanted to make an abstract point
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English had a massive importation of vocabulary from French in the centuries following the Norman conquest. The amount of borrowed vocabulary dwarfs by far English vocabulary borrowed into Mandarin. Yet today we don’t feel that words like “beef”, “vessel”, “acquire”, and so forth signal the destruction of the English language.
Mandarin itself has received massive influences from Tungusic and Mongolic languages in its recent history. Not all of these influences involve borrowed vocabulary, but more fundamental changes like loss of final stop consonants, grammatical shifts, tone reduction, and lexical stress patterns with neutral tone on the second syllable.
Languages change all the time. No government regulations will stop speakers of Mandarin from borrowing English words into the language. Mandarin is under no threat of extinction. No language stays the same over time; no language is “pure”, nor has any language ever been. Language contact causes language change. At every stage in history, Chinese has borrowed words from other languages.
Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese all have huge quantities of Chinese words in them — over 50% by some ways of counting. Yet they remain vibrant distinct languages.
In short, the argument over English words in Mandarin is not one about language survival or extinction. It is about a notion of language purity that has no basis in history. Of course, people’s emotional responses to language change, though lacking a rational basis, are valid expressions of identity. They should be taken seriously and respected. But there is no linguistic justification for them.
@zrv – Sure. What you say in the first 2 paragraphs is true and should be obvious to everyone in a forum like this. In fact, if you use this broad definition of “loanword”, without any limitation in time, you easily reach the conclusion that 100% of the words in every language are loanwords. So yes, from that POV there are no “pure” languages, just as there are no “pure” races…
And yet, there is “correct” language. When you were at school and you wanted to use a cool word seen on an American movie (just imagine for a sec you are not American) the teacher told you it was wrong. Back in the USA, minorities are not allowed to write a work report using their own words, even if that is the speech they use everyday in their communities, and even if the word is widely understood by other speakers.
I agree that the word “pure” sounds creepy, only a Chinese politician could be so un-PC. But if you think of it, this notion of “correct” is not all that different. Not “pure” in the historic sense of the term (whatever that means) but pure in terms of a standard that a society decides at a certain point in time.
Back to the point: You say “No government regulations will stop speakers of Mandarin from borrowing English words into the language”, assuming, I suppose, that languages are the result of a natural process that political action cannot change. Nothing further from the truth: most languages as we know them today are the direct result of political action. Without that, we would have a dialect continuum all over the world, only broken by geographical accidents, with some major commercial languages extending their tentacles along trade routes, only to fade quickly into the hinterland…
So, is the Chinese regulation good or necessary? I don’t think so. But my point is that it is not essentially or linguistically absurd, as some people want to make it here. Quite simply, government and political powers shape languages, just as the Norman conquest of England is responsible for the examples of loans you cite.
Finally: on your point that Japanese/Korean are vibrant… not so sure of that. They are not studied outside a tiny circle, much less than the economic might of these 2 countries would indicate. This proves that indiscriminately adopting English words does not make a language any more “open” or “popular”. On the contrary, they have exaggerated the trend to the point where even the word “rice” is said in English in some contexts … this is IMO a sad state of affairs, and one I would certainly not like to see for my own mother language, or indeed for Chinese – but this is just my opinion, of course.
I have no problem with the English-ification of the Chinese language. In fact, I think to become a member of a global society, it is required. English as a language isn’t as much a sign of cultural dominance these days as much as it is of a cooperative society. If English were to become an official state language, I don’t think the culture of China would suffer.
People here are never going to forget their home tongue; it is reactionary and ludicrous to think that China would stop teaching Chinese in favor of English. But to politically promote a society that is threatened by other languages is backward and will only result in backward people.
It would be another thing entirely if schools switched to English-only education, like some schools have done in the United States (Spanish-only); that is just lazy, and if that happened in China, that would be a tragedy. I know there are some English-only schools, and that is fully deserving of annoyance and possibly anger.
@Ben – I have no problem with the English-ification of the Chinese language. In fact, I think to become a member of a global society, it is required. English as a language isn’t as much a sign of cultural dominance these days as much as it is of a cooperative society.
Er, Well, yes, I tend to think the same way about English, that is why I use it all the time on the internet. But “English-ifiyng Chinese” … Jeez! I hope you were joking. This is about the laziest solution I can imagine to become “global”!
No, listen really. The only way to become a member of a global society is to learn well BOTH your mother language AND English, separately. Forcing English words into mandarin to “English-ify” it will not make it any more understandable to foreigners — it will just create a big mess that will eventually stir up the feelings of “cultural colonization” and yearning for purity.
A different thing is to accept new international words as they come, such as “email”, “GDB”, “Gini Index”, whatever. In this case I agree it would be beneficial, as this would make life much easier for Chinese scientists/engineers to read international publications.
This is why I oppose the new Chinese regulations, which very often concerns technical/proper names. And this is why I actually agree with OP — I was just obnoxiously making a point that to protect a language from foreign influence is not always necessarily absurd. OK, sorry all, I give it up now…
@Julen – I’m doubtful whether or not words in the English language borrowed from the French, German, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, etc. have stirred in native speakers of English this “cultural colonization.” I’m sure at first it felt that way, but for the most part people in businesses who establish apartment buildings and media magnates who operate tv channels and newspapers aren’t trying to replace or mutate their language (maybe it’s a plan from the V’s…).
Now there’s nothing wrong with teaching a pure language, but if the only reason to support this pure language is national fervor against the rest of the world, then it becomes reactionary.
I don’t know much about the history of the Chinese language, except that other countries have adopted it but it hasn’t necessarily adopted other languages. The romanization system pinyin isn’t really used in a communicatory capacity outside of signs and textbooks, whereas in Japan romanji has become somewhat of a third wheel to the language. So it could be argued that people here aren’t terribly interested in evolving their language.
That being said, this kind of reaction has happened many times before in history, when concerned officials erect a defense mechanism against alien forces. I do hope this doesn’t turn into an east vs. west battle though, which some officials seem quite interested in pursuing.
It’s important to remember that, as they say in France, “Paris, ce n’est pas la france.” That is, Beijing ain’t (all of) China. Thank god!
As usual, this thread has generated some interesting comments. But Beijing is a highly politicized city and I would argue that much of what goes on there has little to do with the reality on the ground elsewhere in China.
Those of us coming from south of the Yangtze find the capital a rather bizarre place, frankly. Nobody in Guangzhou, for instance, pays the slightest attention to how buildings are named up in the North. In the early 1980s the Cantonese stopped using many of those central-planning terms with a militaristic flavor to them — which the Beijingers still seem to love. No more “danyuan” in buildings. Factories and schools have names, not numbers. New housing blocks have wild names suggesting wealth, opulence and lush vegetation, and often proclaim their bourgeois names in flaming traditional characters…
Bruce, good point. I’m glad for China’s sake that it’s not Beijing, just as the US is glad it’s not Washington DC. I also hope the proposed regs are too ridiculous even for politicians jumping over themselves to show their patriotic colors.
Thanks for your comments. I wanted to follow up on two of your statements from comment xiii above —
1. “Nothing further from the truth: most languages as we know them today are the direct result of political action. Without that, we would have a dialect continuum all over the world, only broken by geographical accidents, with some major commercial languages extending their tentacles along trade routes, only to fade quickly into the hinterland…”
It is only in relatively recent times that nation-states have taken it upon themselves to define and codify standard languages. Most languages as we know them today are not the direct result of political action. There was no official standard Chinese language until 1913. The identification and definition of standard languages in modern times is sometimes the result of political action, but this varies widely from country to country. Generally, the more autocratic the government, the more rigidly they try to control the language. What is the standard language of the United States? There isn’t one. There is a more or less general social agreement on what constitutes the standard written language, but it is not the result of government action. As for the Norman conquest, French borrowings in English were not politically imposed, but filtered into spoken English through cultural influence. No authority forced Shakespeare to borrow words from French when he created new English words for his plays.
In places where governments do make an attempt to codify the language, the effort is only successful to the degree that educators, broadcasters, newspaper editors, etc. follow government directives. In France, no amount of government effort has successfully kept words like “le weekend” and “le shampooing” out of the language. The Chinese government will ultimately fail in its attempts to freeze the language as well, although it may make some short-term progress because it has a greater degree of control over the media and education system.
2. Korea and Japan are incredibly vibrant languages; each has a large number of native speakers, long and rich literary traditions, and thriving media (including TV, film, music radio) with both national and international followings. I don’t see how these languages and cultures can be called anything other than vibrant. Even taking your rather odd measure of language vibrancy — the number of foreign learners — these languages vastly outperform other languages with similar or greater numbers of native speakers.
It’s certainly true that contact and borrowing can endanger languages when there are few speakers and the language has low social prestige. This has happened to many native American languages and many minority languages in China, and is happening in many other places around the world. But powerful languages happily absorb enormous quantities of foreign vocabulary and continue vibrantly along. Japanese has enormous quantities of both borrowed Chinese and borrowed English vocabulary, but it’s unmistakably still Japanese. English has enormous quantities of French vocabulary, but it’s still English. Chinese will survive and be enriched by its contact with other languages like English.
A final point: Arabic numerals haven’t hurt written English. Roman alphabet letters designating Chinese buildings won’t hurt the Chinese language, either. Fear of foreign elements in language is a sign of xenophobia and nationalistic sentiment. They are understandable emotions, but not rational ones.
@zrv – I try to answer as briefly as possible, because this is drifting quickly off-topic, and anyway I agree with you in the essence of the discussion.
1- I was not referring to conscious action by a government to standardize a language. I was referring to political influence in language in general, which long predates the existence of states. The invasion of 1066 admittedly didn’t have as an objective to introduce “beef” into the dictionary, but it was still the direct cause of it. Hence, political action changes language. OK, this is not taking us very far in terms of the OP topic…
2- I will not discuss Japanese and Korean “vibrancy”, this is a matter of opinion. The only point I am quite sure is that Korean and Japanese societies have not become more open and vibrant as a result of adopting English words. In fact, these societies remain in many respects extremely closed to foreigners, and their general level of English is abysmally low for developed countries.
Just to close this discussion: In all countries political forces influence language. In some cases it happens unintentionally, in other cases, (like for example the Spanish “Real Academia de la Lengua”) it is explicit. There is no proof that government action on a language is harmful to the culture or the well being of the speakers, if applied sensibly. I get the idea of descriptivism and I am truly a fan, but English speakers should recognize that these ideals are easily held by a main dominating language than by others, who get easily “bullied”.
Finally, I agree the new Regulations described in OP are absurd and completely unnecessary for mandarin today.
[…] story comes to us via the excellent language blog Sinoglot, and there’s some fascinating discussion going on in the comments there about whether or not […]
[…] story comes to us via the excellent language blog Sinoglot, and there’s some fascinating discussion going on in the comments there about whether or not […]