The Middle Kingdom Strikes Back


Tom Cole

Is Grasshopper (a.k.a.: David Carradine) responsible for teaching a whole nation how to mispronounce the name of an ancient Chinese martial art? As Grasshopper wandered around the US practicing tremendous patience before kicking and punching the daylights out a person, or often people, that richly deserved it, many aspiring martial art youths were learning some great moves while learning the incorrect way to pronounce the martial art itself. With it rendered as Kung-fu, it is little wonder that few ever figured out that the proper pronunciation is /gouN fu/. In one fell swoop, the initial consonant has lost is voiced-ness and the vowel that follows has shifted from a low back vowel to mid-central schwa.

However, this type of treatment of a word as it enters another language can almost be considered mild. Loan words from Japanese that have found their way into the English lexicon are often subjected to the same rough treatment. The quintessential piece of Japanese clothing, the kimono has more than its train trampled on when it finds its way into an English sentence. The switch from /kiy mou no/ to /ki mou n? / and the change in intonation make the word seem like a distant cousin to the original. Add this to that popular American pastime of flapping the /t/ in VtV environments and you have a recipe for phonological disaster. To be fair, I must also point out that words from English that make it into other languages as loan words do not have an easy time of it either. Examples of the metamorphosis of English words as they become Japanized abound, but some common traits found include opening up closed syllables (herikoputa: helicopter), getting pared down (teribi: television) and taking on different meanings (cunning: kaningu-meaning to cheat in Japanese).

The focus of this project is on how a country with 5,000 years of history is exacting its revenge on those that still pronounce its capital like it rhymes with “seeking.” I will provide examples of the treatment of English and Japanese words as they are treated in the mainland and the renegade province (Taiwan), with an emphasis on the shifts in pronunciation. These examples will show that the Chinese language is not taking the war of words sitting down.

To help make the phonetic comparisons a little easier to understand, I would like to provide some background regarding reasons for shifts in pronunciation or downright mispronunciation. One of the main reasons for these problems is that there are currently at least three different “accepted” ways to render Chinese words into English: Wade-Giles, GWOYEU ROMATSYH, and the UN Mandarin Phonetic Symbols (Pin-Yin). In addition to this, there is the Mandarin Phonetic Symbols (zhuyin fuhao or BoPoMoFo) which is the Chinese version of hiragana. Since this last system was set up especially for Chinese, to teach native speakers how to read characters, this is the most accurate system. However, this is of no help to those trying to write Chinese words in English.

The two people that probably did more to help non-native Chinese speakers “learn” how to pronounce Chinese words are the scholars by the names of Wades and Giles. They are to be lauded for the efforts to enable non-character readers to read Chinese through their romanized rendering of the language but criticized for adding new symbols that create pronunciation confusion except among the most ardent Sinologists. One example is the way this system uses p to represent /b/ and p’ to represent /p/. One other consideration is that there are many different dialects in China for which the Wade-Giles system is used but it was designed for the Mandarin spoken in Beijing which a has very prominent ‘r’ sound.

The GWOYEU ROMATSYH makes use of the English alphabet and goes a step further to insure confusion and mispronunciation. Though this system’s treatment of consonants is pretty straight-forward, it stumbles badly with its handling of vowels. This system sort of reminds one of Norwegian or Swedish, where there always seem to be an extra vowel or two. Please refer to the chart.

The U.N. Mandarin Phonetic Symbols, Pin-Yin, is the system that is currently used in Mainland China and for obvious political reasons is spreading throughout the world as the accepted manner in which to write Chinese in English. Since the phonetic and phonemic systems of English and Chinese are different, this system has had to adapt some letters of the alphabet by giving them new readings. For example, the letter C is used to represent the /ts/, Q is used for /tS /. Please refer to the charts for more examples.

Now let’s take a look at how foreign loan words are ‘acclimated’ into the Chinese language. As is often the case, the words that have been adopted into Chinese are those for which no appropriate Chinese equivalents exist. One other important factor to keep in mind is that Chinese does not make use of a phonetic alphabet like katakana, so all loan words must be written in Chinese characters.

Basically, there are three ways in which English words are handled in Chinese:

  1. Use of characters that approximate the sound of the word without regard to meaning.
  2. Use of characters that describe the meaning without regard to sound of the original word.
  3. Use of characters that have the exact meaning without regard to the sound of the original word.

Categories #2 and #3 are similar to a certain degree but the examples that I provide will show why I have separated them.

The first category of words covers a variety of words, most prominently place names. For example, the United States is rendered as 美国 (mei guo). Most Americans are very pleased by the fact that the Chinese have decided that America should be written with characters that mean ‘beautiful country’ but the choice is actually based on phonetic reasoning. When written out in full, America is actually 亜美利加 (ya mei li jia) but has been simplified to 美 (mei, beautiful) 国 (guo, ‘country). For the same reason, when America is written in kanji in Japanese it comes out as米国 or rice country. Similar examples include 法蘭西 (fu ran si, France) shortened to 法西 and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics which becomes a tongue twister in its own right when written 蘇維埃社会主義共和国聯邦 (su wei ai she huei zhu yi gong he guo lian bang) or 蘇聯 (su lian) for the less ambitious. It should be noted that not all place names are handled in this manner. Some places are written with characters that represent the meaning. For example, San Francisco is written as 旧金山 (jiu jin shan) or ‘old gold mountain’.

Another group of words that fits into this category includes those imported along with the objects that they represent. The Chinese were not big hamburger eaters until McDonalds (麦当労, mai dang lao) set up stores in Hong Kong, Taiwan and, now more recently, the mainland. One has not lived a full life until he/she orders a 漢堡 (han bao, hamburger), 可口可樂 (ke kou ke le, Coca Cola) and 薯條 (shu tiao, potato sticks or French Fries). Or perhaps you decided to visit your favorite 倶楽部 (ju le bu, club) to relax in the 三温暖 (san wen nuan, sauna) and then sit around on the 沙發 (sa fa, sofa) chatting with friends. Examples of this sort are numerous but I will refrain from the temptation to 作秀 (zuo xiou, do show or, put another way, show off).

The next group of words is that in which the meaning maintained but the pronunciation is completely different. As the examples provided bear out, many of these words describe recent technological advances. The 電 (dian, electric)-words can be found in any magazine, newspaper, etc. one happens to come across. If one wants to know what is on the boob tube, then a quick scan of the 電視 (dian shi, electric view) section would provide the answer. Those interested in seeing something on the big screen will refer to the 電影 (dian ying, electric shadow) magazine. Other examples include 電報 (dian bao, electric message) and the more macabre 電気椅子 (dian qi yi su, electric chair).

At this point I should point out that different parts of the Chinese speaking world may use different ways to write the same word. This is particularly true for places or people’s names. When a local politicians hits the jackpot and get the opportunity to perform on the international stage, their names must be written in Chinese characters to make it into the Chinese language press. For example, when an unknown governor from a backwater state was elected president in 1992, decisions had to be made about how to write his name. In Taiwan, the Foreign Ministry selects the characters to be used based on the pronunciation of the name. The Foreign Ministry in China also makes this call. In the case of Taiwan, Clinton is written 克林頓 (ke lin dun) while in the Mainland press his name is produced as 柯林頓 (ke lin dun).

With the advent of personal computers, the name 比X蓋茲 (bi er gai cu) and his company 微軟 (we Nan, micro soft) often finds its way into the Chinese press. In Taiwan, computer is written as 電脳 (dian nao, electric brain) while in Mainland China they use the characters 計算機 (ji suan ji, calculate machine). The word 計算機 is also used in Taiwan but refers to a calculator.

The last group of loan words I will deal with are those that are direct translations of the original meanings in English. The company listed above, 微軟 (Microsoft) is an example from this group. Unlike words such as 電視 (electric view, television) where the meaning is inferred, these are ‘carbon copies’ of the English originals. For example, Oscar Meyer’s main product is written as 熱狗 (re guo, hot dog). No rocket scientist needed to figure that one out. If you went out to 都市 (chao shi, super market) to pick up some of the aforementioned 熱狗, when you get home you might pop them into the 微波爐 (wei po lo, micro wave oven). It should be noted that the Chinese have been eating sausages for generations and as such have words to describe them but to differentiate the Chinese sausage from the American hot dog the word 熱狗 was cooked up.

Now I would like to take a quick look at the exchange of words between the Chinese and Japanese languages. Because the Japanese started to adopt and adapt Chinese characters beginning in the 6th C, words that move between these two languages often times need only a change in reading before they can be used. Of course, there are many words in Chinese that do not exist in Japanese and vice versa, there is a great degree of overlap. The way Chinese words are pronounced in Japanese depend on the point in time that the words were brought to Japan.

The first shipment of Kanji, which arrived in Japan via Korea at the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th C, consisted mostly of words related to Buddhism and are referred to as 呉音 (go on). The next batch was brought over from the Chinese capital at the time, Chang An, in the beginning the 7th C by Japanese exchange students and priests and are referred to as 漢音 (kan on). The third major import of Chinese characters occurred in the Muromachi and Kamakura Periods (1200~1400AD) and the readings of these characters are quite similar to those in modern Chinese. This last group of characters is referred to as 唐音 (to on).

So when words skirt across the borders, the characters remain the same but the readings have been changed to protect the innocent. Therefore, Chinese readers can look at a Japanese newspaper and arrive at a general idea as to what the article is about. The Japanese can also guess at the meaning of a Chinese article but this process has been made more complicated as the characters used on the mainland have been simplified. But when it comes to pronouncing the words, this is a completely different ball game. Examples using the names of politicians will help illustrate this point.

Table 1. Names of Chinese Politicians 

Before one begins to feel sorry for the Chinese because of they way their names have been mangled, a quick peak of Japanese names in Chinese is in order.

Table 2. Names of Japanese Politicians

There are cases in which the characters from one language do not exist in the other, which means that other methods must be found. Since Japanese has katakana to fall back on, this problem is easily remedied in the Chinese→Japanese direction. Chinese solves this problem by using characters that approximate the reading, like category 1 for English words. For example, that beast that roams and elbows its way through crowds on trains, The Obasan, is written as 欧巴桑 (o ba san). However, my personal favorite is the Chinese version of karaoke which is 下拉 OK (ka la OK).

What I have attempted to present in this paper is not an exhaustive comparison of the treatment of loan words but rather a general guide-line as to why and how the words change once they cross linguistic borders. My other aim was to show that there are many ways in which loan words can be altered to fit into its new language. Many might argue that English with its Roman alphabet and Japanese with its katakana are in a better position to take in words from other languages but I feel that Chinese with the 3-category system that I described is equally as adept, if not more creative, in this regard. Despite the efforts of ‘language purists’, the intermingling of languages will continue so it is important that each language have a satisfactory manner to adapt the new loan words and make them feel at home linguistically.