Language Contact


As the term suggests, language contact refers to contact between languages due to geographical or social proximity.  Contact between languages may leave some marks on the languages involved.  The most obvious effect of language contact is the existence of loan words in languages. 


Chinese words in other languages


Words may be borrowed from Chinese in several ways.   A word may be borrowed in all its aspects, i.e., sounds, meaning and even the way it is written; it can also be borrowed partially, namely, without the writing or the sound. 

Some examples of Chinese words in English are: silk, china, tea, tofu, chopsuey, ketchup, typhoon and dimsum.  These are all borrowed for the sound and meaning only.

The same word may be borrowed along different routes from different dialects in China.  The word for tea ‘chá’ is a good example.  There are basically two different pronunciations for the word for tea in the languages that have borrowed the word from China.  One is the pronunciation found in English and similar pronunciations in French (thé) and German (tee).  The other is chay as found in Russian Turkish, and Greek.  Why this discrepancy?   It turns out that tea/the/tee is based on the Min pronunciation, whereas chay is based on the northern pronunciation of the word.  Ketchup (<茄汁)is definitely Cantonese in origin.  So is dimsum.

The most massive borrowing of Chinese words can be found in Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.  The borrowing has been so extensive that the three languages are sometimes referred to as foreign ‘dialects’.  The load words from Chinese in Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese are called Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean and Sino-Vietnamese words respectively.  In these three languages, the words are borrowed together with the characters, sometimes with the sounds, sometimes without the sounds.  We will look at the case of Japanese in some detail.

In Japanese, there are two major ways in which Chinese words are borrowed, i. e., with or without Chinese pronunciations.  Words that were borrowed with Chinese pronunciations belong to the 音读On yomi category.  Some examples are the numbers from 1-10,  新闻 as in 每日新闻 (mainichishinbun vs. Mandarin měirì xīnwén) There are three further subtypes for the on yomi category, 吴音、汉音、and 唐音,depending on when and where the words were borrowed.  吴音 (go-on) is based on the pre-Tang pronunciation of southern dialects; 汉音 (han-on) is based on the Tang pronunciation of the central plain area; 唐音(to-on) reflects the pronunciation of more recent times such as Song, Ming and Qing dynasties.   Words that were borrowed without the Chinese pronunciation belong to the category of 训读Kun yomi.  These words were then pronounced with native Japanese pronunciations.  Often the same word can be read either with Chinese pronunciation or native Japanese pronunciation.  For example, can be read either as kyo as in Tokyo and Kyoto or as miyako, the former based on Chinese pronunciation and the latter native pronunciation.  A more drastic example is the pronunciation for the word , which has three onyomi readings and six kunyomi readings, resulting in nine possible ways to pronounce it.


Examples of foreign loan words in Chinese


The influence between Chinese and other languages has been mutual.  Chinese has borrowed words from other languages as well. 

Some loanwords are obvious, such as the words for bus 巴士 ‘bāshì’ and motor 马达‘mǎdá’; but others may not be so obvious, since they have been in the language for so long, such as the word for grape 葡萄 ‘pútao’, lion狮子 ‘shīzi’, alfalfa 苜蓿‘mùxu’ , jasmine 茉莉 ‘mòlì’ and spinach 菠菜 ‘bōcài’.  While 萨其马 sàqímǎ, a kind of pastry, sounds somewhat un-Chinese like, the ubiquitos 胡同hútong ‘small lane’ in Beijing turns out to be a borrowed word as well. 

As it is the case with Chinese words in other languages, there are also two ways of borrowing foreign words, namely, sounds as well as meaning or just meanings alone.  For example, 蜜月mìyuè ‘honey moon’ is borrowed from English without the sound.  冰激凌Bīngjīlíng ‘ice cream’ is borrowed with a mixture of translation of meaning and transliteration of the sounds: the first syllable is translation of meaning and the second and the third syllables are transliterations of sounds .  

Historically, there have been several major periods of extensive contact between Chinese and other languages.  At the time of the ‘silk route’ started at Han and Tang dynasties, China came into extensive commercial contact with many central Asian cultures.   The words 葡萄 ‘pútao’, 狮子 ‘shīzi’and 苜蓿‘mùxu’ all from Persian, are no doubt a byproduct of the contact.   It is therefore quite interesting to note that what looks to be a quintessentially Chinese cultural artifact, that is, lion dance狮子舞actually has a foreign origin.   When Buddism was introduced into China at the time of Han and Tang dynasty, many words came into Chinese from Sanskrit, the ancient language of India.   Some of the examples are: the very word for ‘Buddha’(佛陀, 浮屠,佛图 or ‘fó’ for short), Buddhist terms like 袈裟 jiāshā ‘monk’s robe’,刹那 shànà ‘a short time’ and even tǎ ‘pagoda’.  Then in 19th century, with the establishment of colonies by western powers in the coastal cities such as Shanghai and Canton (Guangzhou), words began to come into Chinese from western languages, especially English.   鸦片’yāpiàn’ (<opium) probably came at that time.  The most recent opening up of China since the late 1970s of course also has had linguistic consequences.  Blogger 博客bóke, hacker 骇客hàikè, online 在线 zàixiànupload 上载shàngzài, download下载xiàzài, and internet itself 因特网yīntèwǎng are examples from the computer/internet domain alone.

There are also loan words that are borrowed only into some dialects.  In Northeast China, which is geographically adjacent to the Russian Far East, load words from Russian are natural.  For example, 咧吧‘lièba’ from xleb ‘bread’, the huge loaf of baked bread that is not a Chinese food.   雪文 ‘xuěwén’ (<sabon Indonesian/Malay) is found in the Min speaking area of Xiamen.  In Hong Kong, a former British colony, there are many loan words in Cantonese from English that are otherwise not found in other dialects.   For example, 士担seedan from stamp, 烟疏insoo from insurance. 

Words can also be borrowed back, as is the case with many loanwords from Japanese.  Chinese borrowed many words from Japanese in the 19th century.  Many of these words look Chinese; some actually were Chinese in origin, but had been given new meanings in Japanese before they were borrowed back into Chinese.  Examples are 文化  wénhuà  ‘culture’, 革命 gémìng ‘revolution’,自由 zìyóu ‘freedom’,政治 zhèngzhì ‘politics’,社会 shèhuì ‘society’,思想 sīxiǎng ‘thought’,希望 xīwàng ‘hope’,玩具 wánjù ‘toy’,宗教 zōngjiào ‘religion’ .  Of course, in these cases what is borrowed back is only the new meaning and not the sound and writing.  Indeed, it is sometimes hard to decide which Chinese sounding word is a case of back loan or a case of borrowing from Chinese.  Are the words for miso 味噌 wèicéng and manga 漫画 mànhuà back loans?


Dialect differences

Many loan words were borrowed through dialects.   Sometimes, a loanword that does not sound like the original word when read in Mandarin may turn out to be a pretty good copy of a dialect pronunciation.  In such cases, the words may have been borrowed through the dialect.  沙发 shāfā ‘sofa’ , and jiānáda ‘Canada’ probably came into Chinese through Shanghai while 荷里活hélǐhuó ‘Hollywood’ must have come through Cantonese (the other version 好莱坞is not closed to the Mandarin pronunciation either and is probably Shanghai in origin).  Similarly, although the Mandarin pronunciation of the word fó does not sound much like Budda, the Min pronunciation but does reflect the pronunciation of the original word to a remarkable degree.  



The naturalization process


                When pronunciations for foreign words are borrowed, they have to fit into the sound patterns of the native language.  Therefore, adaptations have to be made.  When Chinese borrowed from languages with consonant clusters or final consonants, Chinese has to insert extra vowels to make the foreign words sayable in Chinese.  The same thing is true when Chinese words are borrowed into other languages.  In Japanese, for example, many distinctions that are found in Chinese pronunciation were neutralized when borrowed into Japanese, due to the simpler syllable structure of Japanese.

Once borrowed, some loanwords came to have a life of its own, as it is seen in a humorous creation in Shanghai when it was the site for quite a few foreign concessions.  拉四卡 lāsìkǎ (literal: pull-four-ka) was supposed to be the ‘last (street) car’.  And then the next to last car came to be called 拉三卡, with the middle syllable meaning four with the syllable meaning three!