What do top English words tell?

By Xiao Xiaoyan (China Daily)

Ten years ago, no one had heard of “H1N1″, “Web 2.0″, “n00b”, or talked about “de-friending” someone on “Twitter” or “Facebook”. Now these are part of people’s everyday vocabulary.

The world is changing. Inevitably, so are our words.

The English language is going through an explosion of word creation. New words are coined – some, like “n00b”, may not even look like words; old words take on new meanings – “twitter” today bears little relation to the Middle English twiteren. According to the Global Language Monitor (GLM), in 2009 the English language tipped the scales with a vocabulary of one million words. Not good news for the 250 million people acquiring English in China.

GLM, the San Diego-based language watcher, publishes annual lists of top words and phrases by tracking words in the global print and electronic media, the Internet, blogs, and social media such as Twitter and YouTube.

Each year’s list reflects major concerns and changes taking place that year. For instance, from the 2009 list, we have to acknowledge the fact that technology is reshaping our ways of living (twitter, web 2.0).

We need to face up to the after-effects of a “financial tsunami” (stimulus, foreclosure), a pandemic (H1N1), the death of revered pop icon (MJ, King of Pop) and the debates over “healthcare reform” and “climate change” that mark the year.

A quick rundown of GLM’s top words/phrases of the decade is precisely like watching clips of a documentary of the decade. From the lists we are reminded of the series of world-shaping events from 9/11(2001), tsunami (2004) to H1N1 (2009), and we see the huge impact the Internet and new technologies have made on our lives, from the burst of the “dot.com bubble” (2000) to blog (2003), Google (2007) and Twitter (2009), which represent a new trend in social interaction.

The lists are also witnesses of the influences of entertainment sector such as the film “Brokeback” (2004) a new term for gay to “Vampire” (2009), now a symbol of unrequited love. Michael Phelps’s 8-gold-medal accomplishments at the Beijing Olympics had created a Phelpsian (2008) pheat.

The Chinese equivalence of top words came in a more complex fashion. First there are lists of expressions only, not single words. Second, there exist two completely separate lists. One is the list of top expressions from mainstream print media, while the other popular Internet expressions is selected annually from netizen votes.

The mainstream list first appeared in 2002; the Internet version came out in 1999. What is most interesting is that the top expressions on the two sets of lists rarely overlap: The one being mostly concerned with what is public, official, involving macro concerns and interests; the other being private and personal, reflecting attitudes and feelings of the younger generation.

Just like the English top words lists, the Chinese mainstream lists also reflect major events, albeit with a different angle, for instance, anti-terror (2002), Saddam Hussein (2003), bird flu (2004), prisoner abuse (2004) and G20 Summit (2009). The Chinese press also seem much more concerned with the two Olympics and the two World Cups taking place during the decade.

Internet-spawned new words are also creeping into the Chinese language: texting, blog, Baidu (Google’s main competitor in China) and QQ (the Chinese social-networking site) became buzz-words in China, though somewhat later than their English counterparts.

The Chinese entertainment sector is leaving a much bigger impact on the language. Famous lines from Chinese movies or popular shows pass on to become everyday expressions. For instance, “Integrity makes the man” from Cell Phone; “You will pay for what you have done sooner or later” from the Hong Kong movie “Infernal Affairs,” which most Chinese people believe was copied by Hollywood in “The Departed.” ” Money is not a problem” a theme line from a popular skit has become the standard version to satirize certain Chinese people’s pompous attitude to money and concern over face rather than over efficiency.

Green living as a concept is becoming a focus of concern in China too, though on a delayed time schedule. Compared with the fact that “climate change” has dominated the English lists since 2000, the Chinese version didn’t become a top expression till 2009, though expressions like “energy-conservation society” and “energy conservation and emissions reduction” did make their way to the 2005 and 2008 lists.

Although Chinese top expressions demonstrate similar trends to those in English, there are a few most distinctive features. A strong political flavor is found in the Chinese list as reflected in top expressions like the Three Represents (2002), Scientific Approach to Development (2004), and Peaceful Development (2005).

Another most outstanding feature of the Chinese lists is the contrast between the mainstream print media and the Internet: The English lists represent the spread of words in both print and digital media, the Internet, blogs and social media. The Chinese Internet buzzwords are mostly used on the Internet; although many have passed on into everyday life, only a small number have crept into the mainstream media.

Unlike the mainstream media, popular Internet expressions represent what the ordinary Chinese people are actually talking about in non-official contexts. Most of the expressions are highly colloquial, living, creative, and can be cynical. Some of the expressions reveal the new values and attitudes towards current affairs. For instance, da jiang you, which literally means “on the way to get soy sauce”, speaks of a “not concerned” or “staying out of it” attitude. This attitude is also reflected in the expression: zuo fu wo cheng, which literally means “doing push-ups”, in other words not paying any attention to what’s happening.

Some Internet words have gained acceptance in the mainstream media. For instance shan zhai, which literally means “mountain village”. It has now been adapted to mean “counterfeit”, or things done in parody, as in “shanzhai mobile phones”, “shanzhai New Year’s Eve Gala”, and even “shanzhai celebrities”.

From a linguistic point of view, language is simply a tool for communication. When new ideas and concepts pop up, language needs to adapt itself to allow the communication of these ideas and concepts. If the Internet is reshaping our lives, the net-language is only reflecting such changes.

The author is associate professor at the English Department of Xiamen University.

(China Daily 04/16/2010 page9)

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