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September 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

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A 71-year-old man in Gifu Prefecture made headlines recently when he attempted to initiate a lawsuit against broadcaster NHK. Through its excessive use of foreign derived words, the man claimed, NHK had caused him 精神的苦痛 (seishinteki kutsū, psychological pain). He demanded ¥1.41 million in 慰謝料 (isharyō, damages).

The local court refused to hear the case. But Nikkan Gendai newspaper (July 5) rose to the man’s defense, saying その気持ち、よく分かる (sono kimochi, yoku wakaru, that feeling is well understood), adding 政治もビジネスも、今やカタカナ語だらけ (seiji mo bijinesu mo ima ya katakana-go darake, now more than ever, politics and business are full of katakana loanwords).

だらけ(darake) is a useful descriptive suffix implying, negatively, that something is full of, or crawling with, whatever.

The term カタカナ語 (katakana-go) is used alternatively with 外来語 (gairaigo, words that come from outside, i.e., of foreign origin), but differentiates such words specifically as being written using the katakana syllabary, as opposed to borrowings from Chinese written in kanji.

Nikkan Gendai’s writer recalls that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in his first-term inaugural speech back in 2006, had used such awkward expressions as イノベーションの創造 (inobēshon no sōzō, creation of innovation) and テレワーク人口の倍増 (terewāku jinkō no baizō, doubling the number of teleworkers, i.e., telecommuters). These terms, said the writer, resulted in 多くの国民がチンプンカンプンだった (ōku no kokumin ga chinpun-kanpun datta, came across as gibberish to many citizens). チンプンカンプン (chinpun-kanpun, gibberish) is of indeterminate origin, although its close resemblance to the Mandarin Chinese phrase 聽不懂,看不懂 ting bu dong, kan bu dong, (literally “hear-not-understand, see-not-understand”) has not escaped notice.  read more

ART: Maija Luutonen

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In the land of the blind the one-eyed man gets his good eye poked out

June 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

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On Twitter, a friend asked “Twenty years from now, how many Chinese words will be common parlance in English?” I replied that we’ve already had 35 years since Deng Xiaoping began opening China’s economy, resulting in its stratospheric rise—but almost no recent Chinese borrowings in English.

Many purported experts are willing to explain China to curious (and anxious) westerners. And yet I can’t think of even one Chinese word or phrase that has become “common parlance in English” recently. The only word that comes close might be guanxi, the personal connections and relationships critical to getting things done in China. Plenty of articles can be found discussing the importance of guanxi, but the word isn’t “common in English” by any stretch.

Most Chinese words now part of English show, in their spelling and meaning, to have been borrowed a long time ago, often from non-Mandarin Chinese varieties like Cantonese. Kowtowgung ho and to shanghai are now impeccably English words we use with no reference to China itself. Kung fu, tai chi, feng shui and the like are Chinese concepts and practices westerners are aware of. And of course bok choy, chow mein and others are merely Chinese foods that westerners eat; I would say we borrowed the foods, and their Chinese names merely hitched a ride into English.

Given China’s rocket-ride to prominence, why so little borrowing?  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Mariya Kozhanova

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