Mandarin borrow-ing English grammatical forms

click for image of complete campaign poster; the slogan, shown in this image, reads '????ing'Putting English words in Mandarin sentences is of course extremely common in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia, generally because this is thought to look cool and modern. But last month I was surprised to see Mandarin sentences with just English’s -ing added — and not one but two examples of this.

The image here is from a poster for the DPP’s presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh, that came out in March but which I didn’t see until a few days ago. It reads ????ing (“Táiw?n wéix?n-ing“): “Taiwan is modernizing.” (Click the image to see the whole poster.)

The other example I noticed was in a newspaper headline about the Hong Kong pop diva Faye Wong: ????? ?????? ????? ????ING (Míngnián p?n l?os?n — ti?n hòu zàn bù fùch? — L? Yàpéng, Wáng F?i j?jí zuòrén-ing. “Next year work hard to produce third child — superstar temporarily not appearing — Li Yapeng and Faye Wong are energetically working on making a baby.”)

There are several other interesting things about the Faye Wong headline, such as the way in most other contexts zuòrén (lit. “be/make a person”) means something like “be a mensch.” But I don’t want to digress too much lest I never finish this post.

In both of these examples, -ing is used to emphasize the currentness of the actions. But it is of course possible in Mandarin to stress that something is going on now — and to do so without borrowing forms from English. For example, with zài:

  • L? Yàpéng, Wáng F?i j?jí zài zuòrén
  • Táiw?n zài wéix?n

Has anyone seen or heard other examples of this -ing grafting?


For lagniappe: lyrics to the Faye Wong song “Bù liú” in Pinyin, which has lots of examples of Mandarin’s b?.

Assimilation of Roman letters into the Chinese writing system: 1994 study

The latest rerelease from Sino-Platonic Papers is The Sino-Alphabet: The Assimilation of Roman Letters into the Chinese Writing System (2.3 MB PDF), by Mark Hansell. This was first published in May 1994. Since then, of course, Roman letters have come to be used even more widely in texts written otherwise in Chinese characters.

Here is the introduction:

One of the most striking changes in written Chinese in recent years is the increasingly common use of the Roman alphabet in both loanwords and native coinages. To modern urbanites, vocabulary such as MTV, PVC, kǎlā OK, and B xíng gānyán are not exotica, but are the stuff of everyday life. The explosion of alphabetically-written lexical items is made possible by the systematic assimilation of the Roman alphabet into the standard repertoire of Chinese reader/writers, to create what I have called the “Sino-alphabet”. This paper explores both the formal structure and the function of the Sino-alphabet. Structurally, the Sino-alphabet represents the adaptation of the English alphabet to the Chinese system in terms of 1) discreteness and 2) directionality. Chinese characters (henceforth “Sinograms”) are “discrete” in that each graph represents an independent chunk of phonological material, influenced very little by its neighbors. Roman letters, in contrast, are non-discrete because only in combination with other letters can they form meaningful units of speech. The use of Roman letters as fully discrete entities sets the Sino-alphabet apart from the Roman alphabet as used in other languages, and makes possible its assimilation into the Chinese writing system. In terms of directionality, the Sino-alphabet exhibits the full range of options that are present in Chinese: left-to-right, top-to-bottom, and right-to-left; while the traditional Roman alphabet as used in the West never allows the right-to-left direction.

The main function of the Sino-alphabet has been the adaptation of graphic loans from English. Graphic borrowing has a long tradition in Chinese; for example, graphic loans from Japanese have contributed a great deal to the modern Chinese lexicon (e.g. 科學, 經濟, 幹部 and hundreds of others). The emergence of English as the main source of loan vocabulary, as well as schooling that has exposed the mass of the population to the Roman alphabet, laid the groundwork for graphic borrowing of English vocabulary .Increasing graphic borrowing solidified the position of the Sino-alphabet, which in turn made possible more borrowing. Now firmly established, the Sino-alphabet is available for other functions such as transliteration of foreign or dialectal sounds.

The adaptation of Roman letters into the Chinese system would seem to highlight the difference between alphabetic and morpho-syllabic types of writing systems. Yet it also shows that Roman letters are not inherently alphabetic, and can quite easily change type when borrowed. Throughout the history of writing, the creativity and flexibility of writers and readers have overcome radical structural differences between writing systems and between languages. The development of the Sino-alphabet is proof that the peculiar structure of the Chinese writing system presents no impediment to the internationalization of the Chinese language.

This is issue no. 45 of Sino-Platonic Papers.

Reviews of books about China, languages, Buddhism, etc.

Sino-Platonic Papers has rereleased the fourth volume in its series of book reviews: Reviews IV (2.7 MB PDF).

This volume was first published in November 1992.

Here are the books reviewed in this volume:

  • YU Taishan. Saizhong shi yanjiu (A Study of Saka History)
  • QI Rushan. Beijing tuhua [Peking Colloquialisms].
  • Parkin, Robert. A Guide to Austroasiatic Speakers and Their Languages.
  • Rosemont, Henry, Jr., ed. Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts: Essays Dedicated to Angus C. Graham.
  • Faure, Bernard. Le Bouddhisme Ch’an en mal d’histoire: genèse d’une tradition religieuse dans la Chine des Tang.
  • Bernard Goldman. The Ancient Arts of Western and Central Asia: A Guide to the Literature.
  • Steven F. Sage. Ancient Sichuan and the Unification of China.
  • Joan Grant. Worm-eaten Hinges: Tensions and Turmoil in Shanghai, 1988-9.
  • Michel Soymie, et al., ed. Catalogue des manuscrits chinois de Touen-houang: Fonds Pelliot chinois de la Bibliothèque Nationale.
  • XIANG Chu, ed. and annot. Wang Fanzhi shi jiao zhu [The Poems of Brahmacârin Wang, Collated and Annotated].
  • François Jullien. La propension des choses: Pour une histoire de l’efficacité en Chine.
  • MORIYASU Takao. Uiguru=Manikyô Shi no Kenkyû (A Study on the History of Uighur Manichaeism. — Research on Some Manichaean Materials and Their Historical Background).
  • ZHOU Yiliang. Zhong-Ri wenhua guanxi shi lun [Essays on Sino-Japanese Cultural Relations].
  • Denis Sinor, ed. The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia.
  • WU Jiacang and JIANG Yuxiang, ed. Gudai xinan sichou zhi tu yanjiu [Studies on the Ancient Southwest Silk Roads].
  • Derk Bodde. Chinese Thought, Society, and Science: The Intellectual and Social Background of Science and Technology in Pre-modern China.
  • YOSHIKAWA Kojiro. Five Hundred Years of Chinese Poetry, 1150-1650: The Chin, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties. Translated with a Preface by John Timothy Wixted. Including an Afterword by William S. Atwell.
  • Mabel Lee and ZHANG Wu-ai. Putonghua: A Practical Course in Spoken Chinese.
  • A. D. Syrokomla-Stefanowska and Mabel Lee. Basic Chinese Grammar and Sentence Patterns.
  • LIU Wei-ping, Mabel Lee, A. J. Prince, Lily Shaw Lee, and R. S. W. Hsu, comp. Readings in Modern Chinese.

This issue also includes a note to the editor from Edwin G. Pulleyblank.

See also

Panama moves toward compulsory Mandarin in schools

A bill that would make the teaching of Mandarin compulsory in all schools in Panama has passed the first of three readings in the Panamanian National Assembly.

In looking for details on this, I found a document on the Panamanian National Assembly’s Web site from September 5, 2005: Que Establece la Enseñanza Obligatoria del Idioma Mandarín, en los Centros Educativos Oficiales y Particulares del Primer y Segundo Nivel de Enseñanza y Se Dictan Otras Disposiciones (PDF).

If that represents the draft that was passed yesterday, here is a quote that may provide important information:

El Ministerio de Educación establecerá la carga horaria necesaria, que garantice el aprendizaje efectivo del idioma desde los primeros niveles de enseñanza, lo cual implica que el estudiante que culmina el bachillerato pueda comunicarse verbalmente y por escrito en mandarín. (emphasis added)

So this isn’t just for spoken Mandarin. Students who gain a bachillerato would be expected to be able to not only speak but also write Mandarin. (Can someone help clarify just what level a bachillerato represents?)

As much as I would like for more people around the world to learn Mandarin, it’s necessary to be blunt here: If the legislators and educators of Panama expect all of that country’s students to achieve literacy in Mandarin through Chinese characters, they are not only living in a fantasy world but also setting up what will certainly be a monumental and expensive failure. If this means, as it probably does, literacy in Chinese characters, the students of Panama have a whole world of frustration waiting for them.

Certainly some students will succeed. But the percent who do will never make it into double digits. Moreover, requiring Mandarin for everyone is not practical but a massive overestimation of the need for Panamanians to be able to communicate in Mandarin. I do not say that is how things ought to be, just that that is how they are … and how they will remain for many years to come. From a practical point of view, which is what legislators ought to be taking when imposing universal requirements, having a high level of English matters much, much more than having a high level of Mandarin, though certainly programs need to be widely available to provide students with the choice to learn Mandarin.

For another approach to the question of achieving literacy in Mandarin, let’s look at the case of Singapore. The majority of those in the city-state are ethnic Chinese, many of whom are native speakers of various Sinitic languages. There’s no shortage of money for education; and there’s no shortage of Mandarin classes or teachers. Official statistics there state that in the year 2000:

  • 82.2 percent of the literate ethnic Chinese population was literate in at least Mandarin
  • 0.7 percent of the literate ethnic Indian population was literate in at least Mandarin
  • 0.3 percent of the literate ethnic Malay population was literate in at least Mandarin

If nearly 20 percent of Singapore’s literate ethnic Chinese population is not literate in Mandarin, and less than 1 percent of the literate ethnic Malay and Indian populations is literate in Mandarin, what chance does Panama think it has of having this succeed with its own decidedly non-Chinese population?

Note: It’s going to be a little tricky to figure out the details of some of Panama’s plan because references to “China” may well be to Taiwan, which Panama recognizes as the Republic of China. So sometimes “China” will mean China (PRC), and sometimes “China” will mean Taiwan (ROC). Expect confusion in news stories about this.

additional sources:

Malaysia exams not to be restricted to English yet

Plans to have primary and secondary students in Malaysia use only English in their exams for science and mathmatics have been put on hold. Instead, the government’s current policy of allowing students to answer in English, Bahasa Malaysia, or the language of their school (such as “Chinese” or Tamil) will remain in force for at least a few more years, Malaysian Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein announced earlier this week.

The teaching of science and math in English has been phased in over several years.

Hishammuddin said secondary students would also continue to have the dual-language option although many of them have a “decent command” of English.

He said the weak students were mostly from the rural areas.

“I will not do things on an ad hoc and piecemeal basis. I want to do it (using English) as a whole.

“I want the foundation to be solid (at the primary level) before we look at the secondary schools,” he said.

He added, however, that many secondary students chose to do the papers in English.

Citing matriculation students, he said 95% of them did their papers in English.


see also teaching in English in Malaysia, Pinyin News, February 3, 2006