Language as expression of world view

Interesting article in today’s New York Times discussing how language expresses differing world views, using Chinese and Japanese as examples.

[quote]Of all languages in the world, Japanese is the only one that has an entirely different set of written characters to express foreign words and names. Just seeing these characters automatically tells the Japanese that they are dealing with something or someone non-Japanese.

So foreign names, from George Bush to Saddam Hussein, are depicted in these characters, called katakana. What’s more, the names of foreign citizens of Japanese ancestry are also written in this set of characters, indicating that while they may have Japanese names, they are not, well, really Japanese.

By contrast, in Chinese, no such distinction is made. There, non-Chinese names are depicted, sometimes with great difficulty, entirely in Chinese characters. Foreigners are, in effect, made Chinese.

At bottom, the differences reflect each country’s diverging worldview…

While today’s Japanese travel overseas with an ease and confidence that would have been unimaginable only two generations ago, they remain uneasy about foreign things and people coming here. Safer to label them clearly as foreign…

“China is a big continent and has an inclination to think that it is No. 1 and that others are uncivilized,” said Minoru Shibata, a researcher at NHK, Japan’s public broadcast network. “Therefore, they feel that giving Chinese names to foreigners is doing them a favor.”[/quote]

Letter From Asia: Japan and China: National Character Writ Large:
The complete article

Interesting yes, but maybe for all the wrong reason. It strikes me as short on logic, and more than a tad ethnocentric.

One need not have an entirely different script to sense something is “foreign.” Most Chinese speakers know when they’re hearing a foreign name rendered in Chinese in the news, etc. - the name can end up having eight or more syllables. As for words, how many native English speakers recognize that “ketchup” is Cantonese, “typhoon” is Mandarin, etc.? Then there’s the whole matter of how foreign words are pronounced - in any language.

When I first got here, I was thrown off at how English names were Sinicized. But then it struck me that I was being ethnocentric by expecting otherwise. English names may look the same in languages that use a Roman alphabet, but one could hardly expect the same in languages that use a different script (though they are sometimes used inside Chinese text). I have yet to see Chinese names written in Chinese characters in the text of a New York Times article - wouldn’t that mean that romanization makes Chinese into Westerners?

Isn’t it ironic that the article romanizes Saddam Hussein without printing his name in Arabic? This does raise an interesting point, though. I think it’s a matter of who makes the naming decisions. In some cases, celebrities, etc. who are given names are given those several-character names. In some cases, our Chinese names immediately show that we are foreigners - esp. those traditional borrowings like “fu lan ke” for Frank. In other cases, the name sounds completely local. Then there are two character names - locals who have them are invariably pegged as “waishengren” (as well as those with uncommon surnames). Speaking of which, how does one define “foreign”?

That’s not limited to Japan. Certainly, there are those who make a concerted effort to keep English out of their languages - I’m thinking of France in particular.

That’s certainly not limited to China. For one, it elides the role of English in the colonialist project to “civilize the natives.” Can’t help but think of that Macauley line quoted in Spivak: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population” (from “Minute on Indian Education,” 1835).

An NHK reporter’s view on the Chinese, eh? I’m not so sure that “doing them a favor” is an overt, conscious endeavor. Seems more like the interpretation of someone beyond the linguistic domain.

I think under the surface, what we’re really talking about is the relationship between cultural politics and identity. For example, just look at how many Taiwanese take on English names (we don’t see many Westerners back home taking on Chinese names). Are they doing themselves “a favor”? I was once told students do it because foreign teachers can’t pronounce their real names. But it’s also fashionable to use English names in many offices here. I’m meeting more and more Taiwanese returning from abroad, however, who have completely abandoned their former “English names.” Rightly so, seems to me.

Then there’s the whole issue of the cultural politics of one’s own use of the native language. The legacy of KMT rule is still visible in language use here, even among many avid DPP supporters. How common is it, for example, to say “da lu” instead of “zhongguo”? And doesn’t use of the latter immediately say something about one’s politics? Who’s doing whom a favor?