Language Matters March 2008: Chinglish and the Tibetan Language

Dear Language Friend,

The other day an interesting article caught my attention. The focus was on the use of English at the upcoming Olympic events in Beijing. In this issue of our Newsletter we will look into “Chinglish” signs that are being scrapped from buildings in Beijing. And, in the aftermath of the Tibetan events, we will give you some background information on the Tibetan language, its origins and future.

Lenka de Graafova, Managing Director and the LingoStar Team. Thank you for reading.

Chinglish and the Beijing Olympics

The summer Olympic Games in Beijing are approaching and those who are visiting the Chinese capital for this huge event are advised to learn some Chinese. Otherwise you might end up ordering “steamed crap” from a restaurant menu which has exclusively been translated for YOU!

There are numerous faulty translations displayed on signs, shop names and restaurant menus all around the city. Some might make you laugh but most of them will make you want to learn some Chinese.

Here are some examples of “Chinglish” translations of signs that tell you what to do and what not to do:

– Please keep your personal information out of other people when shopping in our store.
– Your careful step keeps tiny grass invariably green.
– Please don’t cross any railings lest suddenness happens!
– There are dangerous animals please don’t near.
– No Photoing. No Smiking!

Tibetan versus Chinese in Tibet

Chinglish signs are being removed from important locations in Beijing but Chinese signs are waiting to be put up in Tibetan Lhasa. Tibetan protests earlier this month have to do with the overwhelming presence of the Chinese – authority, culture and language.

In the last few years the population in the Tibetan capital Lhasa exploded from 250,000 to 500,000 and despite official figures that insist otherwise, few of the newcomers are Tibetan. Educated middle-class Tibetans complain that it is difficult to succeed in business among the overwhelming presence of Chinese commercial enterprises. A Tibetan man complained that he had lost his guiding licence after police began to enforce rules requiring annual exams – in Mandarin.

Signs for Tibetan businesses had universally been translated into Chinese, with small Tibetan subscript. Tibetan identity has been suppressed, replaced by the influx of new businesses, new initiatives and new laws to support them. How can distinct Tibetan cultural identity and language survive in this overpowering Chinese arrival?

The majority of the people living in Lhasa today are no longer Tibetan. Most people in rural areas are, but their way of life is not likely to survive Chinese modernization. Chinese is the language of instruction at Tibetan schools and universities and even Tibetan intellectuals who want to study their own classical literature have to do so in Chinese translation.

Tibetan Language

So what are the origins of Tibetan and what does the future hold?

Tibetan script is based on the writing system of Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. It was developed as a means of translating sacred Buddhist texts that were being brought into Tibet from India. The writing system, as used today, derived from the pronunciation of the language and has been used since the 9th century.

Tibetan is spoken in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and in parts of northern India. It is classified by linguists as a member of the Tibeto-Burma subgroup of Sino-Tibetan languages. It is also spoken by Tibetan communities all over the world. Classical Tibetan is a literary language particularly used in Buddhist literature. Many meditation masters and scholars who escaped to the West brought along dharma texts and sacred art works that are well-guarded at many Tibetan Buddhist centers in the world. Of the thousands of volumes of these texts, it is said that less than one percent have been translated into Western languages.

The language as it is actually spoken in Tibet today is called Colloquial Tibetan. There are four major dialects and people from widely separated regions may have trouble understanding each other. The “standard” dialect is that of the region around the capital, Lhasa. Another form of the language, found in current writing, is called Modern Literary Tibetan.

Tibetan is most likely to be nurtured and preserved in exile. Religious ceremonies and traditions will be protected and cultivated to conform to the melancholy and mourning for a far-away land. Hopefully, the everyday Tibetan of Tibet will survive the Chinese power game and thrive beyond its use in religious texts.

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