Monday, July 11, 2011

China English Ironies*

Reading through an article about China English norms. Many good points, but I think above all the way it is written suggests that CE is in the eye of the beholder. I can't tell you how many times I read an example comparing "Chinese English" to "Standard English" by a Chinese scholar in which I read the so-called Standard English sample as Chinglish.

Here's just one of many examples. This scholar gives the following example (cited from another paper) as an example of Chinese Englsh:

It was raining, the match was postponed.

This is given as an example of parataxis, which it is. But here is the author's "correct English" rewrite:

Because it was raining the match was postponed.

This is interesting to me for two reasons: first, because of the frequent mention of "forward-linking because" being a feature of Chinese (and CE), which suggests that any "Because...therefore..." construction is "Chinese," and second, the lack of a comma for this kind of construction, which looks weird to me. Wouldn't it be more "English" to say this?

The match was postponed because it was raining.

Here are some other examples that make very little sense to me. A is supposedly Chinglish, while B is supposedly "English."

A: You go first!
B: After you!

At most, there's a difference of register here.

A: He is very able!
B: He is an able man.

Both sound odd, but B sounds more Chinglishy to me.

A: I am going out for some minutes.
B: I will be back in some minutes.

A is slightly less than usual, but B expresses a different meaning.

A: He only said a few sentences. He made us very disappointed.
B: We were quite disappointed that he said only a few words.

Not sure why "quite" and "words" are more English than "very" and "sentences."

A: I think he shouldn’t go.
B: I don’t think he should go.

I assume a real grammarian could split hairs on this one, but I'd say that these sentences are barely different at all, and at most they are just ways of emphasizing different things.

A: Last night I worked for my dissertation and slept very late.
B: Last night I worked for my dissertation and went to bed very late.

I agree, the last part of the sentence matters here. But of course careful readers are noticing the preposition oddity in both sentences.

A: Do you want something to drink?
B: Would you like something to drink?

No meaningful difference whatsoever here, if you ask me.

A: Your English is very good. Thank you.
B: Your English is very good. No, no. It’s very poor.

I get where they're going with this. I think it's a mistake in that they have switched B & A. (B is the 'typical' Chinese response to a compliment, whereas A is the 'typical' "English person" response.) But isn't this more of an intercultural communication issue? Can we call this a linguistic or even a sociolinguistic issue? Maybe, but I wouldn't call it a 'feature' of CE unless otherwise persuaded.

This has been pedantic punditry about English with Joel. Thanks for tuning in.

* (The greatest irony, of course, as Xu Zhichang pointed out in a conversation I had with him, that the term "China English" itself smacks of Chinglish.)

POSTSCRIPT: Another interesting "irony" (maybe not ironic, really) is that theories produced in English-speaking countries which no longer hold much quarter there (at least among those who keep up with the trends) are often deployed by Chinese scholars as arguments in favor of CE. For example, Kaplan (1966) is used to show that CE must be as it is because of the "Chinese way of thinking." There is a lot of essentializing done by Chinese scholars on CE. One example: that a certain culturally biased British usage is "something that Chinese cannot bear."

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