Scholars Fight Back Against Roman Invasion

More than 100 scholars have protested the inclusion of 239 English words and abbreviations including NBA and PM2.5 in the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary. From Global Times:

In the letter, experts point out that including such terms breaches the Law on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language and the Regulation on the Administration of Publication.

The collection of terms using Latin or Greek letters in the dictionary violates the law, which stipulates that publications in Chinese should conform to generally-followed criteria and standards of the language.

“Listing those terms and replacing Chinese characters with letters in such a dictionary, which is supposed to be an exemplary linguistic standard, deals the most severe damage to the Chinese language in a century,” Li Minsheng, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Monday.

‘NBA’ was also among the English abbreviations proscribed by a 2010 directive from “a relevant Chinese government department” to national and local broadcasters. The ban apparently did not apply to the logo of state broadcaster CCTV.

Xinhua’s report on the petition points out that Chinese has already adopted many terms from Japanese, including ‘dang’ (political party), ‘jieji’ (social class) and ‘douzheng’ (struggle). But the scholars’ complaint is less about foreign loans than the preservation of Chinese script, the defining expression of the Chinese culture. From Xinhua:

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.

[…] “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.

The protesters’ vehemence echoes 20th century discussions of writing reform, in which a comprehensive shift to alphabetic script was proposed on grounds of efficiency and modernity. That argument is long dead, but those fighting to keep the Roman alphabet out of Chinese face an uphill battle. One major beachhead is technology and the Internet, where alien letters spill over from URLs and pinyin character entry into online slang and culture (from Ministry of Tofu, via Eveline Chao). From Didi Kirsten Tatlow at The New York Times:

William C. Hannas, a linguist and author who speaks or writes 10 languages including Chinese, says the debate on going to an alphabetized writing system, which flourished into the 1950s, is over.

“There is no debate in China — or anywhere today — on writing reform,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We resent being asked to give up a tradition, or hearing from an outsider especially, that a piece of our identity is flawed.”

Nevertheless, something along those lines is happening unofficially, he says.

Especially online, Chinese are experimenting with the Roman alphabet: government, “zhengfu” in pinyin, is often shortened to “ZF.” An interpersonal competition is a “PK” (taken from video game terminology). To digitally alter images with a program like Photoshop is to “PS.” To make love is to “ML.”

“Digraphia — the coexistence of character and alphabetic writing — is happening in China not by policy from the top down, but by default from the bottom up,” Mr. Hannas wrote.

See more on changing language and the eternal treadmill of dictionary updates via CDT, as well as our Grass Mud Horse Lexicon and Word of the Week series.