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Give me a word, any word

People always take pride at the fact that their culture and language have reached other places.

In the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Gus Portokalos is so proud of his Greek heritage and he believes that all English words can be traced to Greek. He loves to challenge the person who is speaking with him, “Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek.” 

As a Chinese, I am also proud of Chinese culture and language. I believe that Marco Polo brought noodles and pizzas to Italy, and the word “tea” is originated from a Chinese dialect — Hokkien. Apart from the word “tea”, there are many other words that have a Chinese origin, such as “yin yang”, “feng shui”, “ketchup”,“dim sum”, and “kung fu”. Whenever I encounter a word like these, I’d say to myself, “I knew this word!”

Chinese exported many words to other languages. At the same time, Chinese also absorbed many words from other languages. For non-Chinese speakers who are learning Chinese, it is equally awesome to meet some of their old acquaintances. 

In this article, I’ll introduce a few ways for a foreign word to enter Chinese language.

Phonetic translation

The first way of absorbing a new word is through phonetic translation. The sound of Chinese words resemble the original words. 

For example the following words:

坦克 (tǎn kè): tank

逻辑 (luó jí): logic

基因 (jī yīn): gene

三明治 (sān míng zhì): sandwich

马拉松 (mǎ lā sōng): marathon

雷达 (léi dá): radar

咖啡 (kā fēi): coffee

Of all the words above, I particularly like the word 雷达. Literally, it means “thunder reach”, which conjures a nice image. For the word 咖啡, it sounds really close to the French word “café”. 

Many names which were translated phonetically have been accepted and widely used in Chinese. 

Such as the following names:

道琼斯 (dào qióng sī): Dow Jones

波音 (bō yīn): Boeing

大卫 (dà wèi): David

It is a lot of fun for students to decipher these words!

Phonetic translation plus meaning translation

Another way for Chinese to absorb foreign words is through a mixed translation. Part of the word is a phonetic translation and the rest is translated by meaning. 

Such as the following words:

啤酒 (pí jiǔ): beer

吉普车 (jí pǔ chē): jeep

迷你裙 (mí nǐ qún): miniskirt

华尔街 (huá'ěr jiē): Wall Street

In these words, the first one or two characters are phonetic translations of the original words, and the last character gives us the meaning. 

迷你裙 is particularly good. It literally means “charm you skirt”. Not only does it capture the sound of the original word “mini”, but also gives the effect, “charm you”. It is like turning a bicycle into a motorcycle. 

Sometimes a word was first brought into Chinese phonetically, but later transformed into a different Chinese word which is clearer in meaning and easier to use. For example the word “democracy”. It was first translated into 德谟克拉西 (dé mó kè lā xī), and now it is 民主 (mín zhǔ). “Romantic” was first translated into 罗曼蒂克 (luó màn dì kè), and now it is 浪漫 (làng màn). 

Meaning translation

There are also many words translated into Chinese based on their meanings. 

Look at these words:

黑板 (hēi bǎn): blackboard

代沟 (dài gōu): generation gap

星球大战 (xīng qiú dà zhàn): Star Wars

蜜月 (mì yuè): honeymoon

相对论 (xiāng duì lùn): theory of relativity

These words are so easy to understand and are so widely used.

Roman letters in Chinese

One thing in common with all the previous examples is that all translated words are made up with Chinese characters. 

Different from them, there are some Chinese words which have incorporated with a Roman letter. Such as these words:

T (T xù): T-shirt

X (X guāng): X ray

A型血 (A xíng xuè): Blood Type A

维生素C (wéi shēng sù C): Vitamin C

O型腿 (O xíng tuǐ): O-leg

Sometimes, one Roman letter is not enough, the whole English acronyms came in and stayed as they are. For example, OK, DNA, CPU, MP3, WiFi, CEO, VIP, PM2.5, WiFi. It is common to hear someone asks: “WiFi?” 

These words are very popular nowadays, and also have sparked some debates on whether or not they are corrupting the purity of Chinese language.

Sandwich language

Sometimes, an entire English word is adopted into Chinese. The effect is a kind of sandwich language. It is quite common in Hong Kong. I hear it a lot in both daily lives and Hong Kong made movies.

Take a look at the following sentences:

那个晚会上,大家都很 high

你要注意 keep fit

昨天老板出了 memo


Chinese made English words

It is good to know that Chinese language has welcomed and transformed many words from other languages. However, the real genius of Chinese people goes beyond that. 

There are foreign looking words which are home grown. 

For example the following words:

Q (ā Q): The name of a famous fictional character created by Lu Xun. 

QQ: An instant messaging software service, developed by the Chinese tech company Tencent.

AA (AA zhì): To split the bill evenly. The origin of this word is not known for sure. It was probably coined in Hong Kong or Guangzhou. Neither are we certain what the “AA” stands for. Nonetheless, it is being used widely.