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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chinese Language

I saw this essay written on Facebook. It says that China will not be able to rule the world until China becomes the (so to speak) Lingua Franca of the world. There are some issues that I have with that statement. First, I have to talk about how and why Chinese will not become the Lingua Franca of the world.

1. There is already another Lingua Franca of the world, and that is English.
Now, let’s not pretend that the English were angels. They could be as brutal as any other colonial power. And when we say that they weren’t as cruel as the Spanish, or the Dutch, or the French, that’s only relative. There were actually 2 main periods of British colonialism. First was North America, which ended abruptly in 1776. Then later, after 1850, the second stage of imperialism began in earnest, and ended around 1956, during the Suez crisis, the outcome of which was the realisation that the UK could not sustain itself as an imperial power.

Anyway, the point here is that the last 2 great powers of the world were English speaking. The English spread their language to all the countries they colonised. This is because they tried to set up some form of government in those colonies. There are good reasons why English is spoken in the former colonies, whereas French is not spoken in Indochina, Spanish is not spoken in the Philippines, Dutch is not spoken in Indonesia, and Flemish is not spoken in the Congo.

Anyway, if Chinese is going to be spoken widely, it will have to supplant English. That’s not going to be easy at all. How’s that going to happen? Chinese are going to colonise the world?

2. The spread of the Chinese language has been traumatic.
When you think about how China was ”unified”, it involved Qin Shihuang bringing the entire empire under his “thumb” and calling it a “country”. This is fairly anomalous. In the process, he also wiped out the written languages of the other non-Chinese speaking parts of the empire, and grafted the Chinese written word onto those languages, calling them “dialects”. So there are roughly a few groups of dialects, which probably correspond to the vanquished nations. There are the Wu dialects (Shanghainese is one of them), the Min dialects (consists of Teochew, Hokkien, etc), the Hakka dialects, the Yue dialects (Cantonese, etc).

Nowadays, when we talk about burning books, we think about atrocities like the burning of the Library of Alexandria, the Nazi purges, and Qin Shihuang.
Admittedly, the spread of English has also been traumatic. But you have to see how easy it is to adopt the language, and how willing others are to learn the language.

3. Chinese is hard
The most important argument here is that Chinese wasn’t really designed for the internet. It’s a miracle that this language is in existence. It is the only major language where we use thousands characters, instead of a relatively small alphabet. Chinese characters have been simplified 50 years ago, and when I was learning Chinese, I was the grateful beneficiary of that. My name is much easier to write in simple Chinese than traditional Chinese.

Now, I’m biased, because I’m an English speaker. I will never have the attitude of some of my classmates who thought that Chinese is a low class language. I put in effort to learn it, but admittedly, not that much. OK, admittedly, I’m not that fantastic in English either, even though my GRE scores state otherwise.

Chinese wasn’t really meant to be easy to learn. You have to be really smart to learn it well. I suppose you can observe that Chinese speakers have fewer problems with English than English speakers have problems with Chinese. That tells you something. Like most languages, it used to be the exclusive domain of the elites. The barrier to entry is high. You have to memorise thousands of little pictures, and remember how each of them is pronounced, because there is no relationship between the way it is pronounced and how it is written. Languages have to go through certain processes before it becomes “modernised”/ “promulgated”/ “standardised”. The writings of the characters have to be standardised, the pronunciations, the spellings, the meanings of the words, etc etc. OK, Chinese has gone through all that. And one of the effects of the modernisation is that it is supposed to be easier for people to pick it up. One modernisation they came up with was the simplified Chinese. Now a lot of cultural meaning is lost in the process but overall I think it’s a good thing. But it will not be enough to make Chinese an easy language for people to pick up.

And think about what a pain in the ass it is to type in Chinese. Admittedly less of a pain than writing. But I think even bilingual ppl would want to type in English, everything else being equal.

4. Chinese is incompatible with other languages
Have you seen Chinese rendering English names? It's awful, because English has a lot of consonant combinations that Chinese doesn't have. Consider Smith. It gets rendered as si3mi4si1. 3 syllables. A lot of other stuff gets garbled as well. In contrast, Chinese is easier to render in English. Hanyu Pinyin is practically rendering Chinese in romanised form so that it becomes slightly easier to learn.

To be fair, English speakers have a really hard time mastering the Zs, the zhs and the qs. And the 4 intonations of mandarin seem to take forever to master. But it's not that hard to write somebody's name in hanyu pinyin, and you know exactly how it is to be pronounced. The other way around, it's impossible.

Do you want to learn a foreign language which mangles your own language? I dun think so. When I see how Japanese mangles the English language, I also see why this didn't catch on.

5. Chinese has never caught on anyway
I suspect that if it wasn’t the main language of one of the most powerful countries in the world, it would have died out long ago.

Think about the Vietnamese, who used a language whose written form was similar to Chinese. They wiped it out and replaced it with a Romanised form. Think about the Koreans who also had a language which was similar to classical Chinese. Same fate. Only Japanese today uses the Chinese characters. 1 out of 3 is not a very good record.

The other aspect of this argument is that China will rule the world. Now that is a fairly troubling thought. Arguably, China is the world’s first totalitarian state. It’s not comfortable with democracy. For me, it is a troubling thought because I suck at Chinese. But China, in its quest for empire will have to understand a few things that the British have learnt. First, you can’t really sustain an empire without the acquiescence of the people who are being ruled. Second, you’re going to have to deal with the phenomenon of democracy. As Zhou Enlai so astutely pointed out in a conversation with Kissinger, we still don’t know the full implications of the French Revolution. That was the birth of modern democracy. Then the scope of democracy expanded. Women got to vote. Black people got to vote. Now, even gay ppl get to marry.

The western powers colonialising the world was undoubtedly a traumatic experience for the colonised. But it was also eventually an equally traumatic experience for the coloniser, because the weapons that you develop to put down the slaves will eventually be deployed when the masters fight among themselves. The American Civil war was what happened when the slave owning states turned those weapons on the free states. World War I was what happened when the military technology developed to keep the colonies under control was turned into a bloodfest between France and Germany.

And throughout the experience, the western world eventually learnt that there were a lot of limits to colonialism, or what you could do to your colonies. The trouble makers in the last major wars are usually those newly industrialised countries who have no experience in being imperial powers, and go on to imagine that it is very easy to rule the world. Like Germany and Italy making belated entrances into the league of colonial powers, and Japan. Now imagine if China were to start stirring up the same amount of shit.

Now the British have always operated on a democratic system. It's just as well that one of the greatest empires of the world was founded on these principles. Maybe that's why they didn't meet with so much resistance. There is a lot of hypocrisy on the part of these two governments, because we know that when they wield their power overseas, there's not much in the way of freedom and democracy. But the rhetoric is there, and there's always people who will hold them to their actions. Suppose your standpoint is that you're only in it for yourself, as China's is, wouldn't the reality be even worse?

There's no way of telling what kind of an empire China is going to form. It could well be something even more benign than the Americans. It could be the old Ming dynasty style of "OK guys, pay your tributes and we'll leave you alone". But it could be something much nastier than that.


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