June 26, 2012

Linguistic authority

A recent update on "Ni Hao Ma" (你好吗) is not a native Chinese greeting prompted me to blog about what I have thought of for some time, let me call it, linguistic authority. It is the established convention for a language by its native speakers in a certain geographic region where a significant proportion of the population speaks that language. For example, there's a linguistic authority for the Chinese language in China but no such one in the US in spite of a Chinese diaspora. The effect of this authority is such that the Chinese speakers in China have the right to invent new Chinese words which will be accepted, although not necessarily used, by whoever learns Chinese. Similarly, Americans can invent new English words which will be accepted by people learning English. If an English word were invented by Chinese, it would be laughed at and rejected (at least initially; some of these words may be proved to be good ones later, such as shero I suppose); such words are called Chinese Pidgin English (洋泾浜英语).

A linguistic authority exists where the majority of the regional population speaks that language. Therefore, mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, and to some extent Hong Kong, each have their own linguistic authority. The word "共识" (consensus) was initially used in Taiwan and readily accepted by the mainland China. Just because Chinese mainlanders don't say "镭射" (laser) and Taiwanese don't say "激光" doesn't mean they can call the other side wrong. But the improper use of "chocolate" as a verb in an advertisement I saw a few years ago at the Shanghai subway stations, "I chocolate you!", is unpleasantly Chinglish, because the inventor of this phrase, probably a Chinese, does not own the authority in creative usage of the English language. But imagine someday English native speakers start to use "chocolate" as a verb. This usage in non-English-language areas of the world will be accepted, like it or not. (Whether its usage among the native speakers will survive is a different matter.)

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