14 December 2011

Word Empire Idea

Thorsten Pattberg has recently been making an impression in a few media outlets with an essay in which he attempts to assign blame for the lack of Han Chinese philosophical contribution to western imperialism and bemoan the barriers of arrogance against accepting Chinese terms into a worldwide lexicon. He supplies a few quotes and some examples, but in the end, it's his unwritten motives that stand out and not his linguistic persuasiveness.
Pattberg frames his essay this by pointing out that the general terms in Chinese used to denote philosopher, democracy, and civilization have different connotations than their equivalents in western languages. There can be no dispute that history, context, and usage can have such an effect on the meanings of words. Pattberg simply chooses to ignore what every thesaurus makes clear and pretends that he is as ignorant as a casual reader.There are many words in any language that can be found to have no exact equivalents in another. This is not new nor exciting to anybody who has looked at such matters. Definitions can even vary between native speakers across generational, class, and regional lines. This is the reason why dictionary entries are ranked by number in order of most common usage. Exact correspondence from one language to another is not controversial. It only becomes a controversy when a lack of overlap between terms in one language and another becomes a kind of sticking point upon which one can skewer an innocent strawman.
"I estimate that there are over 35,000 Chinese words or phrases that cannot properly be translated into the English language." It's impossible to know what to make of such a number or what to make of what it means to properly translate a word. Adding "phrases" to the number of untranslatables is a qualifier that lets him off the hook of accountability. He might be alluding to Chinese Yanyu 諺語, proverbs, often in a 4-character phrase, called Chengyu 成語. Dictionaries exist to compile these expressions and to explain their meanings. Even the Chinese can be confused due to the truncation of phrases taken from literary sources. But the purpose of Pattberg's essay is not about how to understand Chinese nor the challenges of translation.
Pattberg checks off his points by attempting to overwhelm most readers with their lack of knowledge of the Chinese language. He then makes the following claim: "In many countries, adopting Chinese terminology is a taboo." If it is a taboo (or is that even the right word?), then how can he have mentioned earlier in his essay the adoption of Chinese words into English. "Words like yin and yang, kung fu and fengshui.", words he claimed were all untranslatable. He seems to suggest a kind of circular argument: words are untranslatable when they are borrowed directly and therefore not translated. I wonder what Pattberg's definition of proper translation is. And in how many countries exactly is it taboo to say: tea, typhoon, gung-ho, soybean, or kowtow? Has anybody felt the need to refer to a one-handled, iron pan for stirfrying vegetables euphemistically lest he cause others to blush?
It took me a few readings to understand why I needed to reread this essay so often. Pattberg is an academic but, or because so, he is an inferior scholar. By this I mean that he wants to construct an essay well enough to make himself appear like a viable candidate for an academic post. I suspect that he really wants a permanent position at Beida. It's probably also why he wrote his book, which even now has only gotten one comment on its googlepage. In fact, his writing style reads like so many essays by Chinese students that I have had to edit. I suspect that his intended audience is the Peking University faculty selection committee.
The essay ends with an appeal that we all adopt Chinese terms as part of a larger discourse, specifically, minzhu (democracy), wenming (civilization), and shengren (philosopher). Yet there is no reason given as to why such terms ought to be adopted or how anything can be gained by doing so. Some languages are very conservative when it comes to borrowing foreign terms. e.g. Icelandic, Chinese; whereas, some languages are promiscuous with incorporating foreign words. e.g. English, South Korean.
In more adoptive leaning languages, words are borrowed when speakers and writers decide that a foreign term has advantages. Two examples pointedly bear this out. The word guanxi 关系 has gained a foothold in English to describe relationships inside Chinese society and between businessmen. Its general meaning of connections, or network with hints of cronyism and nepotism made its adoption useful in describing guanxi's overwhelming importance within the context of China. It remains to be seen whether guanxi might used in a general sense.
Another way for a language to borrow from another is with a calque, an overlapping of words from one language onto another's. The founding of the People's Republic of China was a heady time of news ideas and bold political energy. For those people who lacked the obligatory revolutionary fervor, techniques were developed to persuade them to conform to the right-thinking manner of the new ruling power. The Chinese term for this is 洗腦, xinao, or literally 'washing brain'. Directly from this wording along with knowledge of the technique the calque, brainwash, entered the English language.

Pattberg bemoans the lack of Chinese terms in a wider discourse while he ignores evidence of words that have entered general usage. He simultaneously interweaves bits of China's humiliation narrative into a poorly constructed thesis on comparative linguistics, beginning the essay with the assertion that he earns the charge of "culture treason" for highlighting such injustice. For the record, words are borrowed from the Chinese language when there is a need, not simply because doing so might help a postgrad curry favor with his Chinese academic advisors.

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