Friday, February 24, 2012

Long Time No Figure This Out

Sorry, wacky news network, I think you're wrong.

I'm pretty sure I'm inadvertently becoming the world authority on the origin of "long time no see," so I just want to clarify some points I've come across in my absurd, ongoing searches through Google Books and library databases.

1. The two main theories generally seem to be that it comes from a pidgin English, either Native American or Chinese.

2. The earliest written usages are all native English speakers "reporting" the speech of non-native speakers, from about 1840-1915. This really needs to be taken into account. You can't say that because a British navy man or an American explorer says that a Chinese prostitute or a Native American chief said it, they really said it. The literature of that era is rife with stylized English attributed to non-native speakers -- can we trust it?

3. The earliest written Chinese English usage -- that is, written in English by a Chinese writer for a Chinese audience --  I can find is from 1921, in an magazine for Chinese students studying in the USA.

4. The fact that 好久不见 can be translated as long time no see does not seem that convincing a case for a strictly Chinese origin -- there are other ways to literally translate that, and I have to assume that the 100+ year history of long time no see as an American English expression has influenced that translation.

5. Knowing Americans like I do, I'm inclined to lean much more toward the idea that LTNS is mainly a way to mock people for not speaking standard American English, but it also seems too tangled up with legitimate possibilities of pidgin usage to be only that.

6. However, LTNS seems to have been taken up by Chinese learners of English (and the current generation of English-using young people) as a kind of symbolic victory for Chinglish. It's often lumped together with Chinglish phrases that are only known in China and only used as jokes to show "ha ha, Chinglish is funny"(like "horse horse tiger tiger" and "I'll give you some color to see see"), but -- and this is key -- it's held up as an example of Chinglish that "made it" -- successfully joining the one big happy family that is English in the World.

7. So really, this goes back to something I touched on in the "driving the pigs to market" example -- an expression that previously had a relatively fixed local meaning in one variety of English, reappropriated and ideologically repurposed.

PS: I'd love to do a Google N-Gram search on this, but to search for a 4-word phrase you have to download something like 250 gigabytes worth of .csv files. No thanks.

No comments: