Why there are so few Chinese Loan Words in the English Language

Why there are so few Chinese Loan Words in the English Language

Recently, someone asked on Twitter: “Twenty years from now, how many Chinese words will be common parlance in English?” An editor of The Economist answered that “we’ve already had 35 years since Deng Xiaoping began opening China’s economy, resulting in its stratospheric rise – but almost no recent Chinese borrowings in English.”

As mentioned in the previous article Loan Words in the English Language, throughout the history of English, the language has been adding thousands of words to its lexicon by acquiring new words from other, often unrelated, languages.

However, it is peculiar how few words of Chinese origin can be found in English. Especially the recent, intense cultural contact between Chinese and English speakers surely should have let to many Chinese loanwords. Every Westerner is familiar with concepts and practices from China like kung fu, tai chi and feng shui or even tea and ketchup. Nevertheless, there are almost no recent items.

One explanation might be the various phonological differences of the two languages. English people might find it very hard to differentiate phonemes such as ‘zh’ & ‘j’ and ‘ch’ & ‘q’. Furthermore, many Chinese monosyllables tend to sound similar to a non-speaker.

Borrowing words usually comes from an interest in the target culture and people borrowing things (including abstract things) implies that they will start borrowing words for the related concepts, too. (Note: Borrowing means that words which originated in one language are now used in another, even by people who don’t speak the ‘lending’ language). Only if the trade, cultural and personal connections between China and the western world grow, more Chinese linguistic exports will be found in the English language.

A third reason could be the status of the English language as a global language. Undoubtedly, English is the language of international business, science, media, education and communication. Although nowadays there is an immense exchange and contact between Chinese-speaking people and English speakers, there is no need to borrow words intensively anymore, because the English language is seen as a lingua franca.

English was not necessarily considered to be the dominant world language, and there were no nostalgic attitudes towards the originally English-speaking people or the language itself. However, the combination of political power, economic strength and commercial attributes have promoted the English language to become a lingua franca.

The following provides a list of older (Mandarin) Chinese loan words in the English language:

  • Beijing ‘northern capital’
  • Bonsai ‘basin plant’
  • Chai ‘tea’
  • Chop chop ‘fast’
  • Chop suey ‘mixed pieces’
  • Chopsticks ‘fast ones’
  • Chow mein ‘stir-fried noodles’
  • Feng shui ‘wind-water’
  • Futon ‘body, mass’
  • Geisha ‘art + person’
  • Ginkgo ‘silver apricot’
  • Ginseng ‘man’
  • Hong Kong ‘fragrant port’
  • Japan ‘sun-origin’
  • Judo ‘gentle way’
  • Ketchup ‘vinegary sauce’
  • Kung Fu ‘service + man’
  • Manga ‘unrestricted picture’
  • Shanghai ‘upper sea’
  • Soy ‘paste + oil’
  • Tofu ‘beans-rotten’
Written by Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf is Head of Digital at TranslateMedia. He has an interest in how technology can help businesses achieve their marketing objectives. He's been working in digital marketing and web development since 2001 across a wide range of industries and clients.

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