Borrowed Words that Change in a Colloquial Context

How Were Words of Foreign Origin Introduced to the Chinese Language?

While mainland China’s presence becomes increasingly larger in the world, it feels like Hong Kong’s has been decreasing ever since it was returned to China in 1997. Before then, with Hong Kong's dynamism, foreign cultures would be introduced to Hong Kong (and Cantonese), from where it would later spread to mainland China. There are many words of foreign origin that are thought to have become assimilated into Chinese (Mandarin) through this route.

There is a way to get a general idea of which words of foreign origin entered Chinese through Hong Kong. You can do it by looking at the phonetic transcription of foreign words in Chinese characters, then checking to see whether it sounds closer to the Chinese original when pronounced in Mandarin or in Cantonese. Let’s start by taking a look at words of foreign origin that were introduced into Chinese through Cantonese.

  • Canada (加拿大) → ga na dai (Cantonese) → jiā ná dà (Mandarin)
  • Taxi (的士) → dek si (Cantonese) → dì shi (Mandarin)

Next, here are two examples of foreign words that obviously came into the Chinese vernacular through the Mandarin route:

  • Clinton (克林顿) → kè lín dùn (Mandarin) → hak lam dun (Cantonese)
  • Putin (普京) → pǔjīng (Mandarin) → pou ging (Cantonese)

Regarding the pronunciation of “Clinton”, it is virtually impossible to recognize the original name through its Cantonese pronunciation or Romanization. Although it is often said that “There is only one Chinese language because all words are written in Chinese characters (irrespective of dialect)”, the truth is that the Chinese language differs greatly in the vernacular.

Words that Came in through Multiple Routes

The following words are thought to have made their way into Chinese independently through Mandarin and Cantonese.

  • Chocolate: 朱古力 jiu gu lek (Cantonese) / 巧克力 qiǎo kè lì (Mandarin)
  • Card: 咭 kat (Cantonese) / 卡 kǎ (Mandarin)

Despite the fact that the Chinese characters used to represent these nouns are different, they both sound like the original word when pronounced by the native speaker of either Mandarin or Cantonese.

Incidentally, there was a time when Cantonese was so widely used that there was a 50-50 split between the use of Cantonese and its northern cousin. However, the current Mandarin became standard Chinese when it won by a narrow margin when a vote was taken during Sun Yat-Sen’s reign as president (1919-1925).

Over the past two issues, we have presented quite a few facts on words of foreign origin as used in the Chinese language. I hope that you found them interesting. If you would like to look deeper into the subject, you can check out the many websites and books that provide thorough explanations.

Written by Masanori Itoh, Translation/Localization Department

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