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01 July, 2007:
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Interaction with English and Western Languages

The sharing of words and linguistic elements such as grammar is an indication of interaction between languages. China has always been a dominant power in Asia, so it is natural that Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese adopted elements of Chinese. Chinese borrowings in Western languages indicate that China has historically been influential on a global scale as well.

English speakers are familiar with languages borrowing from one another. Commonly used vocabulary and even grammatical structures move from one language to another with relative ease. English borrows extensively from Romance languages, especially French. English speakers are even conscious of some of our borrowed vocabulary: words such as naïve, rendezvous, and ménage retain some of their foreign flavor even though they are frequently used in everyday speech (they are even written with the accent marks that prove their French origin). On the other hand, some words are so familiar that they do not seem foreign any longer. For example, the terms restaurant and politics are so ingrained in English that they do not betray their foreign roots.

Naturally there has been a great deal of sharing between European languages. Europe is relatively small on a global scale, and languages constantly interact with one another. China, on the other hand is half way around the world, and Chinese is completely different than any European language. Certainly there is not much exchange between such widely disparate languages.

Trading Language

In fact, there are many English vocabulary items that come from Chinese either directly or through the filter of other languages. Because the Western world interacted with China mainly for trade purposes, Chinese vocabulary was picked up by Western traders in China, and through middlemen who also used Chinese as the language of trade.

A good example of Chinese spread into English are the words Ketchup and Tea. English speakers enjoy these products everyday without giving a second thought to the origins of the words. Ketchup seems like such an American word that people probably believe the folk-etymology that indicates that ketchup is somehow derived from the action of getting closer to a distant object: catching up.

Actually, the word ketchup comes from Chinese (although the product itself does not). Ketchup was originally a Chinese word in Minnan Dialect, min2nan2hua4 闽南话. The Chinese word pronounced kê-tsiap, indicated a pickled fish sauce. The term was then adopted by Malaysian merchants as "kechap". Finally it reached Dutch traders who spelled the word "ketjap". Having entered the Western vocabulary, it was only a matter of time before ketchup came to describe a tomato sauce that is delicious on French Fries.

Similarly, Tea made its way into the European vocabulary by way of Dutch merchants who dealt with speakers of Minnan Dialect. Although the Mandarin pronunciation of tea is cha2  (茶), the Minnan pronunciation is te. The Dutch pronounced it thee, which looks like the old-fashioned English word for “you,” but actually is pronounced like “tay”—much like the original pronunciation.

Borrowing Through Translation

English borrowings from Chinese are not limited to food products. In fact, some supposedly English sayings are really translated Chinese-isms. For example, the popular greeting, “long time no see” comes from the Chinese proverb, cheng2yu3 成语, “hao3jiu4bu4jian4, 好久不见.” Literally translated, the four characters in this expression mean “good long-time no see.” Another English phrase that come from Chinese is the expression “look-y look-y,”  or  “look-look” which comes from the Chinese kan4 yi4 kan4 (看一看) and means “take a look.” A “look-see” is also a translation of the Chinese compound kan4jian4 (看见), which means “to see.”