What language will you curse in when China rules the world?

(This column was published in DNA edition dated September 10, 2010.)

Venky Vembu

A new dictionary, out from Oxford University Press, incorporates some very earthy Chinese slang expressions and new words, including some that you can’t invoke without having to rinse your mouth out with soap. (Now, you’re dying to know what they are, aren’t you?)

Although these street-talk words (among other more socially acceptable words) only made it to the parallel universe of the Oxford English-Chinese, Chinese-English dictionary – not the more definitive Oxford English Dictionary – it has set off a frisson of etymological excitement among folks in China. Some see it as the beginning of a lexicographic lead-in to a world that will, progressively, speak Chinese – and in countless other ways be ‘Sinified’ by Chinese soft-power influences.

It’s hard, of course, to make a linear connection between a few cuss words making it to a Chinese-English dictionary, and definitive prophesies that ‘China will rule the world’. After all, mainstream English language (and even the OED) has incorporated many words with roots in Indian languages – juggernaut, catamaran, mulligatawny and jugaad (among others) – but we Indians don’t exactly have the world in our pockets. And although the British have also hungrily appropriated our curry as their ‘national dish’, we don’t really have the world eating out of our hands.

Nevertheless, the incorporation of a few Chinese slang words – and the widespread expectation that this will somehow facilitate a Sinification of global culture – provides an interesting platform to explore the likely consequences that might arise therefrom. In any case, Sinomaniacal theories that China will “rule the world” have been propounded for many years now, even without the linguistic licence afforded by OUP’s latest word play.

For instance, just last year, a book authored by Martin Jacques, former editor of Marxism Today and a columnist at The Guardian, made bold to give an account of how a world ruled by China would look like. (Hint: it involves the payment of ‘tribute’ by vassal states to their Chinese overlord.) But even as far back as in the 1990s, a series of futuristic science fiction novels by David Wingrove gave a peep into how ‘Chung Kuo’ (to refer to China) might rule over the universe. (Hint: there is much kowtowing involved!)

Evidently to project its soft power influence around the world, the Chinese government has in recent years been facilitating the opening of Confucius institutes in many countries, where foreigners can learn Chinese and other markers of Chinese culture. The initiative has been rather slow to take off in India, but private language schools teaching Chinese in Indian cities have recorded encouraging enrolment numbers from businessmen who travel to small-town Chinese cities where English-language proficiency still runs low.

Spoken Chinese isn’t an easy language to learn, given the profusion of tones that are calculated to trip up the non-native speaker. But written Chinese is a lot more engaging, even if mastery of it is hard won. Since Chinese characters – the building blocks of language proficiency – are ideograms representing specific ideas, they make for great economy when it comes to the written language. This has a number of practical applications: for instance, a 140-character Twitter post in Chinese language can pack in more “words” than in English!

So, what else might a Sinified world look like? A year ago, the satirical news website Onion offered a hilarious sneak-peak into the kind of cultural and propaganda indoctrination that China might inflict on the people of the world when it becomes the master of the universe – and takes over their newspapers (and their minds).  Even though it was intended as over-the-top satire, it offered a true-enough glimpse into the world of the media in China, where propaganda rules the airwaves, and of Chinese civil society where (in intent if not in effectiveness) Confucian values of social harmony are emphasised.

Then, of course, there’s also been some plausible-sounding speculation that Hollywood studios, who have an eye on the huge audience market in China, will churn out films where – as in the disaster flick 2012 – China will be portrayed as the saviour of the world. That prospect might actually happen sooner than one might imagine, particularly if Chinese outbound investments begins to acquire cash-strapped studio banners for their soft propaganda value.

All these considerations of how Chinese soft-power influence might touch the lives of people in other parts of the world pale in comparison with the really big question, engendered by Oxford’s etymological adventurism in slipping in a few profane words into their dictionaries: when China rules the world, what language will you instinctively curse in?

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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