Saturday, July 21, 2012

'Get off my lawn' in Mandarin

Here's an interesting take from overseas on the occasional cultural tussle over what it means to be "in the dictionary" or "in the stylebook." Aside from the annual silliness over the AP's hyphenation decisions and the like (OMG teh lulz are official!!1!!), these fights sometimes represent small-scale securitizing moves: attempts to show that the bad guys are seizing control of "our" ability to define who "we" are by grabbing the official reins of language. In this case, though, it's not what the dictionary does but what the dictionary doesn't do:

A newly-published edition of one of China's most authoritative dictionaries has already been criticised by rights campaigners.

They complain that it has excluded a definition widely used by homosexuals in China for "gay".

Oh, my. What could that word be?

The word is "tongzhi", whose primary meaning is "comrade", a form of address beloved of Communists for decades.


One of the compilers said they did not want to draw attention to its more colloquial meaning.

There's plenty of OMG-type stuff in the new edition: words for "awesome" and "microblog," as well as useful borrowings like "PM2.5" ("a pollution indicator for particulate matter"). New words in general -- several thousand of them, says the BBC -- seem to be doing fine.

But "tongzhi" -- in colloquial Chinese the equivalent of "gay" as in "homosexual" -- is not among them.

Linguist Jiang Lansheng, one of the compilers of the dictionary, said in a Chinese television interview: "We knew about the usage but we can't include it."

"You can use the word whichever way you like, but we won't put it into a standard dictionary because we don't want to promote these things. We don't want to draw attention to these things."

The BBC also provides a look at how the usage began:

For Ding Xueliang, a social sciences professor from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, this attitude is not surprising.

"The use of 'tongzhi' to describe homosexuality started in Hong Kong and Taiwan to make fun of the mainland's communist terminology because Chinese leaders address each other using 'tongzhi' meaning 'comrade' -- for instance, 'Hu Jintao tongzhi' or 'Wen Jiabao tongzhi'," he told BBC Chinese.

Just how far behind the times are the language police in China? Hard to say, but using AP style as a benchmark, maybe a few decades. The 1977 edition* didn't like "gay" ("do not use it as a noun meaning a homosexual") and had this to say under "Negro, Negroes":

Use black or Negro, as appropriate in the context, for both men and women. Do not use Negress.

"Gay" had become "acceptable as a popular synonym" by 1994, and "black" was "acceptable in all references for Negro" by 1980. The "illegal" vs. "undocumented" dispute, of course, is still going on.

So if the BBC revisits the topic in 2025 or so, we might well find old prescriptivists complaining that the dern tongzhis have ruint a perfectly good word. And that their music is just noise.

1977 is the first year the Stylebook appeared as a full-sized usage guide, so it's a good benchmark.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home