The Most Fascinating Part of Chinese

Mandarin is not my favorite language. I consider it neither the most beautiful nor the most interesting language I have ever studied. The only reason that I am better at Mandarin than any of my other non-native languages is that it has been a lot more useful, and thus I have had way more practice.

However, there is one thing I find fascinating about Mandarin and the other Chinese languages, something which I have found in no other language – the vocabulary. Mandarin/Chinese relatively rarely borrows vocabulary from other languages, yet it is a modern language.

For example, the Japanese word for ‘camping’ is … ‘kyampingu’. The Mandarin word is ‘lùyíng’. One is related to the English word, the other is not. The Japanese word for ‘campground’ is ‘kyampu-jo’, which comebines Japanized English and Chinese. There is also another rarely used word for camping in Japanese – 野營 – which I am guessing it is a loan word from Chinese.

This is something I ran into over and over again in Japan … when I looked up a word, I often found that the word was borrowed from either English or Chinese. The vocabulary from proto-Japanese sources were generally either really common words (such as ‘taberu’ – ‘to eat’) or things very specific to Japanese society. However, in Mandarin, they describe nearly everything using vocabulary coined within the Sinophonia. For example, even though the Internet was not invented by Chinese speakers, they have their own word for it – ‘wǎnglù’. Not only did they coin their own word, they use the logic of the Chinese language to coin additional terms, such as ‘shàngwǎng’ which means ‘get online’.

When you borrow words from another language, to some extent you are importing the thinking of that other language. Granted, all loan words have to be adapted for the new language in some way – ‘kyampingu’ is not identical to ‘camping’ – but I feel it is easier to get into another way of thinking if the word is totally different than if the word is similar and I have to figure out the semantic differences.

When I hear people talking in indigenous Formosan languages, I sometimes suddenly actually understand something they are saying because they are using words borrowed from Mandarin (for example, the Yami word for ‘United States of America’ sounds like the Mandarin name). This is even more true with Korean, which has borrowed tons of words from Chinese. When reading a novel by a Rukai person set in ancient Taiwan (before any Chinese speakers were around), I was struck at how Sinitic it feels. It is probably inevitable that any work written in natural Chinese, even if set in a totally non-Chinese setting, will reflect certain aspects of Chinese culture simply because it is being described with Chinese words.

Granted, Chinese does have a few words borrowed from other languages – here is an article about English loanwords in Mandarin – but it would be difficult for me to come up with a long list. This article about Arabic words in Mandarin shows how, while some Arabic words (such as ‘yīmǎmù’ – ‘imam’) do get into Mandarin, Mandarin prefers to “translate the concept rather than instruct people in how to pronounce foreign syllables.”

There are ancient languages where I can get away from English/Indo-European lexicons – but I do not think any modern language can so thoroughly immerse me in a different lexicon as Chinese can.


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9 thoughts on “The Most Fascinating Part of Chinese

  1. I’m pretty sure Mandarin has had so few loan words in the past couple of centuries because it’s an ideographic writing system, which makes transcribing sounds without attaching meanings you don’t necessarily want a struggle. Meanwhile, almost all (non-East Asian) loan words are written in katakana in Japanese (although there are a few early imports, like 煙草), which is strictly phonetic.

    As for Chinese not having loan words before that…well, being the lingua franca for much of its history probably helped a lot.

    • The writing system certainly explains quite a bit, though there are characters which are primarily used for phonetic transliteration of foreign words (particularly Sanskrit words – I’ve even seen pure Sanskrit written in Chinese characters) so it wouldn’t be that hard to transcribe sounds without attaching much meaning.

      I am not sure about the lingua franca bit … has lingua franca status stopped English from borrowing words from other languages?

      I think that culture (aside from the writing system) also plays a role. For example, even though Mumbai and Hong Kong were both part of the British Empire for a long time, I know that the Hindi used in Mumbai movies has a heck of a lot more English loan words than the Cantonese you hear on Hong Kong TV (or even in ordinary conversation) – and Cantonese is primarily an oral language (i.e. it is not used so much in writing). I think this is best explained by cultural and social differences between Mumbai and Hong Kong.

      • I’m not sure English has historically had the same sort of primacy as Chinese, though. It’s really only become the lingua franca in the past 200-ish years, whereas cultured people in Japan were expected to be able to read and write in classical Chinese until a little over 100 years ago. But I don’t really know; I should ask the linguists in my department.

  2. Interesting… I guess because Japanese has a phonetic writing system that is specifically geared towards the use of imported foreign words, it may just be more easy to bring in those English words. I was in Shenzhen yesterday and saw this ‘new’ (new to me, anyhow) Chinese word: 奥特莱斯 – (shopping) Outlets. Bit more of a struggle in Chinese huh?! I want to ask you a question- how do you keep up the different languages. I just started learning Japanese and am busy using anki for that – so now I don’t look at my Chinese anki anymore. How do you balance and maintain proficiency in each lang.? any tips?

    • I don’t focus on multiple languages so much. In Taiwan, I mostly focused on Mandarin (while learning a little bit of a few other languages). I picked up some Japanese while I was in Japan for almost six months total this year, but it was for travel purposes – which is why I know some vocabulary related to, say, camping, but I am terrible at politeness (or rudeness).

  3. Yes, I agree, Mandarin as used in Taiwan/China doesn’t have as many words taken from other languages, IMO because of how homogenous the whole place was historically.

    However, Mandarin in Singapore has taken quite a few words from English and Malay. See for example, 巴刹, taken from pasar, meaning market in Malay. In Taiwan, market would be 市场, no? Another example: 德士 (de2shi4) is used to refer to a taxi in Singapore, while in Taiwan or China, it’s 出租車

    • Technically it’s 市場 since Taiwan uses traditional characters, and taxis are usually called 計程車, but yes, you’re basically right. And I am aware of the existence of Singapore’s ‘cock’ language.

  4. Pingback: I Didn’t Love Mandarin Until I Learned It | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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