The continuous growth of China economically has urged many individuals and corporations to equip themselves with a 21st century must-have skill, the ability to speak Chinese. Speaking Chinese opens up many windows for Western countries who wish to establish solid and enduring relations with China.
However, anyone who thinks about languages will soon notice a paradox. If the Chinese language is rising into such prominence, why isn’t there a substantial number of words that have been borrowed from Chinese into English? After all, English is known for adopting and adapting words from many other cultures and languages.
What kind of challenges and hindrances prevent words of Chinese origin from entering the English language?
It’s too soon
Cultural, commercial, and financial interactions are still new. For years, China has chosen to exclude the outside world due to political principles and circumstances. It’s been only 35 years since Deng Xiaoping inaugurated the market-based, capitalism-oriented economy which has catapulted China into its current position as the 2nd largest economy in the world.
This economic growth and all its implications are only now getting into high gear or maturing. Given that transactions and relations with China are just starting to systematize, it is expected that in the near future, Chinese will find a way into the English language, especially with regards to cultural concepts not present in western cultures.
Thus far, Chinese has introduced many cultural notions in English, from food (chow mein) to commerce (guanxi, lose/save face) to the spiritual (feng shui, Chi). But as these interactions deepen and intensify, one can only imagine how Chinese can enrich the English language with a fresh and intriguing cultural discourse.
A logographic system and the lack of an alphabet
Another reason that there aren’t more Chinese words in English is that Chinese characters do not correspond to letters but whole syllables. A Chinese character matches a concrete syllable that cannot be further analyzed. A Chinese character might be a stand-alone word, a concept or abstract idea, or even a symbol signifying the tone or pronunciation of that syllable. Contrast this with the alphabet-based English, where words are formed of individual letters, and it’s easy to see why the translation and adaptation has been slow.
Because of its complex and symbolic nature, anyone unfamiliar with how the Chinese language is constituted, spoken and written will find it hard to grasp the intricacy and splendor of Chinese, something that has slowed down the incorporation of Chinese words into the English language.
Pronunciation is hard and unpredictable
For non-Chinese speakers, decoding Chinese characters can be a real struggle. Adding to this the five pronunciation tones that need to be implemented when speaking Chinese, and the endeavor already seems like a lost cause. So even if Chinese words make it into English, there will be a long time before a common, accepted pronunciation and meaning of that word are firmly established.
Cultural connotations get lost in translation
With a uniquely variegated and rich culture that spans over 4000 years, it’s impossible for Chinese words to get picked up as easily as English words do, at least for non-native speakers.
The Chinese culture is too immense and complicated for people to properly grasp the full range of meanings and connotations of its culturally charged words. Simple words like “dragon” have come to represent power and fortune and luck, but there are so many other layers of discourse behind each word, unknown and ungrasped by other cultures, that simply using the literal translation of a word leaves out the full meaning that would be understood in China.
The idiosyncrasies of the Chinese language and the Western’ world’s unpreparedness and unfamiliarity with the language are some of the reasons why Chinese words haven’t easily found their way into English, but as more cross-cultural and linguistic exchanges occur over the upcoming decades, the richness of the Chinese language will further enrich English vocabulary as well.