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.