To hanzify or not to hanzify…
02 Nov 2004
Hanzi (汉字 or 漢字) is the Chinese word for “Chinese character.” The Chinese language has been written in hanzi for a very long time. As the Chinese tell me, hanzi have been in use since approximately 3000 years before the Big Bang. It’s quite a tradition.
When an institution has been in place for that long, it can be incredibly hard to implement change. For example, when the new Communist emperors wanted to reform and “simplify” hanzi, some old fuddy-duddies opposed. Still, significant change was effected, but only in the writing system of mainland China. The two bastions of traditional characters to this day remain Hong Kong and Taiwan, two territories well known for their linguistic backwardness — many of the people there can’t even speak good Beijing Mandarin!
The PRC’s Emperor Mao had an even more radical scheme. He was in favor of eventually replacing Chinese characters with pinyin — a romanized form of Chinese. This idea was so upsetting that some experts believed it may reverse the Big Bang itself. It is also one of the stronger pieces of evidence that Emperor Mao’s personal doctor cited for his belief that in his later years Mao suffered from WTF Syndrome.
But allow me to get to my point. While those are all old issues better forgotten by fashionable people, there are new issues. More radical issues. No one is trying to further simplify Chinese or replace it with pinyin, but something else upsetting to the fuddy-duddies is happening. English is creeping into Chinese!
Now, I’m not talking about English being thrown in here and there, like someone saying “sorry” instead of “dui bu qi,” the cultural equivalent of an American saying “amigo.” Those are inevitable results of internationalization. They’re different. I’m talking about an English word becoming the preferred nomenclature, in Chinese.
- Pose. When Chinese people take pictures, they might tell those having their picture taken to strike a pose. The traditional Chinese way to say this is “摆个姿势“. Nowadays, though, you frequently hear young people say “摆个pose”. Why the word “pose” might be singled out for adoption I have no clue.
- High. When young Chinese people talk about a feeling of excitement, they often use the word “high” in its adjectival form, as in “很high的感觉” (a ‘high’ feeling). This usage is not related at all to drugs.
- Kitty. I’ve been told that Hello Kitty is officially known in written Chinese as something like “凯迪猫,” which is basically “Kitty Cat.” The thing is, no one pronounces the “kitty” part as it as written, kǎidí. They all say “kitty 猫,” following the English pronunciation. (Incidentally, I’m really suprised by the “decision” to drop the “hello,” a word the Chinese normally seem to adore.)
- Cheese. The traditional Chinese word for “cheese” is 奶酪. In recent years phonetic transcriptions of the English word have cropped up on trendy menus (mighty catalysts of monumental linguistic change, as we all know), like 芝士 and 起士, but the actual word for cheese you hear coming from young Chinese people’s mouths is quite different. It is undeniably the English word “cheese,” although the final /z/ sound is often pronounced as an /s/ sound.
To Chinese language purists, this English creeping into Chinese must all be very terrifying. Why? Because English words cannot be written in Chinese characters! What’s the big deal about that? Well, Chinese is always written in Chinese characters! And only in Chinese characters! The reason, as mentioned before, has something to do with the Big Bang and the stability of the space/time continuum. The fate of the universe, it seems, rests precariously on the tongues of this new reckless generation of Chinese youngsters. Yikes!