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Long Pan

English invasion in Chinese grammar

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Long Pan

Interesting column in today's China daily about the so-called invasion of English grammar patterns in modern Chinese which “can be seen in, for example, the use of the passive voice, plurals and long sentences” Read more about it here.

This leads me to ask 2 questions (with more or less relation with the previous article) some people here might give some insights:

  1. the common grammar concepts of “verb”, “name”, “adjective”, “adverb” (…) used in nowadays Chinese grammar, was it imported from Western linguistic ? if so, when was it, under which influence ? (I ask this question because many words in Chinese seem to be all together “name”, “adjective”, “verb”, with dictionaries often missing some of the use)
  2. with the implementation of pinyin (in the 1950 isn’t it?) comes the formalisation of the 4 tones (+the neutral one). Does anybody knows how these tones were formalised before the use of pinyin – more precisely, would this sentence “我 is a third tone” have had any meaning in let’s say 1900 ?

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Jive Turkey

People were conscious of the four tones and the neutral tone long before Hanyu Pinyin was adopted by the PRC. They were already represented in Zhuyin Fuhao, which was the system of phonetic symbols used by the ROC from the 20s and is still used in Taiwan. Before Zhuyin Fuhao, the most common way of representing the sounds of words in dictionaries was through fan3qie4yin1, which used an index of common characters to represent the initials and finals. I think some of the fanqieyin dictionaries included some system for indicating what tone the characters had.

I find the writer of that article pedantic and ignorant of how languages work. When languages are in contact, there will be infuence. And I hardly think that "long sentences" come from English. Plenty of monolingual Chinese writers I know are plenty long-winded without being directly influenced by English. Most Chinese users of English I've taught have had difficulty writing short simple sentences in English. I've always attributed this to the piss poor state of Chinese writing teaching in most Chinese schools. Nothing particular about China in that respect. Most people in the west don't learn to write for shit, either.

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Tone numbers in Pinyin system is a renaming more than a new invention. Before the adoption of modern lingustic system, Chinese named their tones "平上去入" (no 入 sound in mandarin) . High and low tones was called 陰 (yin) and 陽(yang) respectively.

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i think the writer of the article would go on a murdering spree if he went to Malaysia and heard the ethnic Chinese speak. Its a combination of English malay, canto and mandarin all nicely rolled into one. sounds awful in my opinion but interesting nevertheless.

maybe he could console himself by saying their malaysians afterall. (but they look chinese, so how can that be?).

i think its pretty interesting what he's saying though...

but in regards to the long sentences ... i have seen some pretty crazy long ones in some texts ive been reading... so apparently thats due to the English influence then? I hate those sentences. I hope China wards off this English invasion!

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I think that what the article talks about- bad Chinese prose- is a fact.

Perhaps, instead of blaming it on European influences, I think it might be better to blame it on political censorship. (Of course, the following is my own subjective opinion).

From the little time that I spent in Chinese academia, it seemed that bad prose was even more common than bad prose in English.

On the other hand, I've read quite a few Chinese books published in Hong Kong that have very clear, excellent writing. They use chengyu when it helps. They vary the size of their sentences. They produce great images in the mind of the reader. They write directly and succinctly.

Most Mainland academic writing, at least to me, seemed to be sub-standard unless it has about 15 abstract clauses, with tons of commas, to describe something. Of course, this may be due to piss-poor writing in the English-speaking world, that the Chinese just copy. I don't know.

My guess is, however, that it is much more due to not writing in a direct manner. I've said to my wife many times that the goal of many Mainland writers is to write so that they exacerbate the divide between the so-called scholars and the 素质比较低的 hicks. Really, the political system can't survive without a healthy dose of elitism. So, it is in the best interest in the powers of be to write in a euphemistic, “inside the beltway”-style that only other academics will understand.

My personal bias is that writers like Orwell, who provided the light to the Economist, Maureen Dowd, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis...etc, just haven't had any impact on writing style guides in the Mainland.

Sorry for the long quote:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

"While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement."


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English was around in the baihua movement in the 30s, but dropped out of favor in the late 40s. I believe I've read in several places that contemporary use of the passive voice was heavily influenced by political texts translated slavishly from the Russian.

The article is talking about popular writing; it's not a bad thing to urge clarity in writing, but making English out to be the bogeyman is clouding the issue, since many of the symptoms he cites have been present for quite some time.

Academic writing is a whole different kettle of fish. Some of it is quite good. Much of it is impenetrable.

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