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New Chinese dictionary including English words stirs up language row


09:37, August 30, 2012

Over 100 Chinese scholars have signed a petition calling for the removal of English words from an authoritative Chinese dictionary, reigniting a debate on language purity.

The petitioners, most of them linguists, said the newly published sixth edition of the Modern Chinese Dictionary includes 239 English words and acronyms, which they believe constitutes a violation of the country's Law on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language.

Fu Zhenguo, a senior journalist with the state-run People's Daily and one of the organizers of the petition, said that if the Chinese people ignore the inclusion of words like "NBA" and "GDP" in their language and do nothing to exclude them from the dictionary, the language they use will end up as a bizarre mixture of Chinese and English.

"It will become a combination of Chinese characters and English words and acronyms," he grumbled.

Fu said the petition has been submitted to the General Administration of Press and Publication, China's publishing watchdog.

But an official with the administration who declined to be named said the petition has not been received, although she did admit to hearing about the controversy elsewhere.

The 40-year-old Modern Chinese Dictionary, one of China's best-selling dictionaries, became the target of linguists like Fu after 239 entries ranging from "WTO" to "CPI" were included in this year's edition.

However, this year's edition was not the first to include English acronyms. There were 39 English acronyms in its third edition in the 1990s and more than 120 in the fifth edition.

"If they keep growing, we could have over 10,000 English entries in 100 years," said Fu, who has instead proposed translating English words into their Chinese equivalents before including them in the dictionary.

"When the English language absorbed the Chinese vocabulary, it used pinyin, the phonetic system that romanizes Chinese characters, instead of the Chinese characters themselves," he said.

"So why do we take in these English acronyms and words without translating them into Chinese characters?" he asked.

"Since words like 'Nuojiya' and 'Motuoluola' are well accepted and commonly used in our language instead of 'Nokia' and 'Motorola, ' why don't we translate 'iPhone' or 'iPad' into Chinese before we use them?" he said.

However, the Chinese language has never been entirely pure, English or not. The words "dang" ("political party"), "jieji" ("class," as in social strata) and "douzheng" ("struggle") are borrowed from Japanese, while "dejia" (the German Bundesliga) and "yingchao" (the English Premier League) are from Western languages.

Fu's concerns were met with disapproval by Mei Deming, a professor of the English language at Shanghai International Studies University.

"Maybe they are a little old-fashioned," he said. "Language is always developing while absorbing new elements."

Mei said he believes introducing English words to the Chinese dictionary is fine as long as communication is not impeded.

"For another thing, it should not be decided by these experts," he said. "It should be decided by the users of the language themselves."

The Chinese have taken a split position when it comes to including English words in their dictionaries. Some desire a purified language, while others believe it is unnecessary to make a fuss.

"If they are angered by such a little thing, how would they react to the fact that Chinese literature graduates need to pass English exams?" said Lao Bi, a DJ at a radio station in east China's city of Suzhou.

The controversy could be seen as an extension of a debate on whether Chinese language programs should use simple English abbreviations for some terms for the sake of simplicity, as their Chinese equivalents are often quite lengthy.

The debate was first sparked after some Chinese media, including China Central Television, were told by the country's media regulators to avoid using certain English abbreviations in their programming.

The most well-known outcome of the linguistic ban was the replacement of "NBA" with "meizhilan", the Chinese equivalent of "the National Basketball Association of the United States."

The move reportedly came amid surging appeals from national statesmen to safeguard the purity of the language.

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