Importing words to chinese

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by skaught, Jun 20, 2013.

  1. skaught The field its covered in blood Valued Senior Member

    Hey everybody! Haven't been around for a while.

    At any rate, I've rekindled my interest in linguistics. And I've been getting interested in the languages of China. I remember Fraggle (is he still here) saying once how it's difficult for the Chinese specifically mandarin) to loan words form other languages. Can't remember the details, nor can I find the original post.
    Tell me, if you will, why this isn't possible.
    Also, what about other languages in china? How similar are they to mandarin? Are they mutually intelligible? Do the others have difficulty borrowing words?
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  3. CHRIS.Q Registered Senior Member

    Chinese Mandarin? I ............
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  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Welcome back!

    I hope I had something to do with that.

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    Good for you for remembering that they are distinct languages, not dialects.

    If two languages have very different phonetic structures, it is very difficult for a speaker of one to pronounce the words from another.

    Children have very versatile speech centers in their brain so they can hear the sounds of a foreign language distinctly. They also have very nimble speech organs, so with a little practice they can reproduce these sounds. But those abilities begin to attenuate in early adolescence, as both the brain and the physical organs stabilize for efficiency in one language and lose abilities they don't need. This is why it's so important to teach children a foreign language as early as possible. Adapting their speech center and their speech organs to two languages makes them both a little more careful about discarding unused skills, on the hunch that there might be a third language in their future. Not to mention, obviously, that if you learn a language at age five you'll probably grow up to speak it like a native, whereas if you wait until you're twenty you'll always be struggling with the strange sounds, grammar, syntax, and the basic world view of the culture it represents. (Why do Spanish verbs have to have a preterit subjunctive tense? Why does the definite article in German have to be declined for case and gender? Why do the Chinese pay so little attention to time? How can a Japanese sentence have no subject; is their whole country one giant Zen koan?)

    This means that when one language community tries to borrow a word from another, they won't be able to copy all the sounds exactly. The Spanish R is quite different from the American English R. It's a flap like the British R between two vowels, which is exactly the sound of a D or T between two vowels in American dialect. But when we say vah-keh-ro instead of ba-keddo for vaquero, "cowboy," the word is still recognizable. (Notice that the earlier borrowing, "buckaroo," retains the hard inital V of Spanish but still muffs the R and also moves the accent to the wrong syllable.)

    Spanish has only a few phonemes that English lacks, so we can borrow their words and they remain recognizable. English has a much richer phonetic structure than Spanish so we have many sounds they can't imitate, which is why a "Spanish accent" sounds so funny to us.

    Getting back to Chinese, it isn't just the smaller set of phonemes that's the problem. It's also the phonetic structure of the words. Every Chinese syllable can start with only one consonant, and it can only end in a vowel, N, or NG. This makes it very difficult to absorb foreign words in a form that makes them even slightly recognizable. "Nixon" was transcribed as Ni-kuh-sun. Coincidence allows them to occasionally pull off a cute trick: "vitamin" comes out as wei-ta-ming, "Only it gives life." "America" is Mei-guo, "beautiful country."

    Another problem with transcribing foreign words into Chinese is that every syllable already has a meaning. In fact, on average each one has three. So when you string syllables together that sound vaguely like a foreign word, you're actually juxtaposing words, and the combination may imply a definition that has nothing to do with the original. There's also a reason they don't even want to do this: our words have too many syllables! "Petroleum" is Latin "stone oil." They translate it as shi you, which means, by golly, "stone oil," but gets it in two syllables. "Telephone" is dian hua, "electric speech." Why bother with a three- or four-syllable foreign word, when your own only has two?

    The languages of China form a group within the Sino-Tibetan language family. They all evolved from a common ancestor. Before they began diverging, the Chinese writing system was invented. Since it uses logograms rather than phonetic symbols, each language was free to change the sounds of the words, but they kept the same words in the same order (about 95%, anyway).

    I'll let you decide how similar they all are to Mandarin (the official language of the country since it is the language of Beijing) and to each other. "Five" is wu in Mandarin, but ng in Cantonese. They both derive from the ancient Chinese word ngo.

    They are not mutually intelligible at all: this is the difference between a language and a dialect. Due to the similarity of syntax and the fact that the words are the same except for pronunciation, it's easier for a speaker of Wu to learn Mandarin than for a Frenchman to learn Bengali (its distant relative), but it will still take several months or even a year, although it might be done by immersion and not require a formal class. It's much harder for a speaker of Mandarin to learn, say, Fujian, because it has many more tones and many more phonemes.

    Yes. Their phonetic structure is similar enough to Mandarin that none of them have a significant advantage in trying to assimilate an English word. Furthermore, since Mandarin is the official language, they all take their cues from Mandarin and wouldn't adopt a word that doesn't exist in Mandarin except for slang or something like that.

    Now other languages are easier. Japanese syllables are all of the form consonant-vowel so they could adopt those words. Except for the fact that most important Japanese words were borrowed from Chinese in the first place and are still written with the Chinese logograms. So they just borrow them back and pronounce them in their modern Chinese readings.

    Now Hawaiian: there's (as far as I know) the world's most phonetically impoverished language. It only has the consonants HKLMNP, making it easy to understand while you're standing on a raft in the middle of the ocean shouting to the guys in the next raft. I don't think the Chinese would have any trouble borrowing Hawaiian words. Perhaps they have an occasional luau.

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    Last edited: Jun 20, 2013
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