Monday, February 05, 2007

"Show Mercy to the Slender Grass"

The Beijing Olympics are about a year and a half away, and the people who run China want the city to look good. One sort of pollution that has to be cleaned up, apparently, is linguistic. Like Japan and other countries in that part of the world, China is filled with signs with wacky translations into English of the perfectly sensible Chinese expressions above them. (The title of this post, which presumably means "Keep off the Grass," is an example; go here for some more compelling examples.)

Alas, the Wall Street Journal has an article (subscribers only; free preview here) indicating that the humorless authorities are not going to let it stand. The English in Beijing is going to be scrubbed clean. The reason is pride, a big motivating factor in much Chinese thinking these days. A “marketing manager for a major sportswear company” named Olivia Wang is quoted as sniffing that "We cannot leave [these signs] up just for the amusement of foreigners."

I think Ms Wang and her fellow citizens should lighten up. This effort raises several interesting questions. First, which spellings will they use, American or British? Second, I think the nonstandard English pouring out of countries all over the world where it is becoming, as it were, the global lingua franca is better understood as cultural experimentation rather than cultural error. English flourishes in part because there is no counterpart of the French cultural overlords trying to make the language conform (e.g., purging Anglicisms such as "le weekend") in a world of dynamism and cultural exchange. I confess to laughing at many of the signs I have seen in Asia, but I also confess to admiring the willingness of people to take such risks in a language not their own. Ultimately this kind of experimentation will on balance improve English from the point of view of its primary function, to communicate information. This is so in spite of the fact that it contributes to dissolution of standard English; it also allows us to access the ideas and motives of people in other countries without having to learn their language. Finally, the very nature of cultural experimentation – e.g., businesses keen to use English to advertise their sophistication or attract foreign customers – makes it impossible to police. Like graffiti, no sooner will one mistake be erased then ten more arise to replace it. Let 100 flowers of linguistic atrocity bloom.


Blogger AmandaLaine said...

"Linguistic atrocity"?!

As much as I enjoyed the post - which I truly did - that phrase may have been best part. I enjoyed the last sentence very much. Great post!

2:21 PM  

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