Chinese Loanwords

When foreign words become part of the language

December 14, 2020

The other day while driving, my kids were asking me how to say different words in Chinese. They usually ask about things that they see out the windows, trees, homes, cars, etc… But one of them was the word “cheese”. I told them that in Chinese (Taiwan), cheese was pronounced qǐ sī (起司) or sometimes as qǐ shì (起士). I started telling them how this word was adopted from English and that the characters don’t actually have anything to do with cheese. But this got me thinking. How did they say cheese in Chinese before the transliteration of qǐsī (起司) was adopted? When I got home I looked it up (It’s nǎi lào (奶酪) which is still common in mainland China) and ended up doing some additional reading on what other words were adopted from English, and if any words were adopted into English from Chinese.

Loanwords

Many cultures experienced relative isolation up until the last few hundred years. As such, they had limited exposure to foreign ideas, products, and language. But over the years, as the world became more connected, and people began learning more and more about the rest of the world, many parts of the foreign cultures and languages ended up being adopted into their native language. The words and phrases that originated from other languages are referred to as loanwords.

These loanwords typically get their start from people who are bilingual using them in their native language. When they learn a word or phrase in their second language, that better describes or expresses a certain idea or meaning, they will begin to use it in their native language. As more and more people adopt this new word it eventually becomes ubiquitous. To the point where most people wouldn’t suspect that word had its origins from another language.

Loanwords in Chinese

Chinese is an interesting language in terms of loanwords. Because Chinese has no alphabet and all words are derived from characters with their own meaning and sounds, it can be difficult for a foreign word to become a loanword in Chinese. When a word or idea is adopted into the language, one of two methods is typically used.

  1. The word is transliterated, or characters with similar sounds, but unrelated meanings are combined to form the new word. Such as qǐ sī (起司) for cheese. The two characters don’t mean anything closely related to cheese, but they sound like the English pronunciation of Cheese.
  2. A word’s meaning is represented with characters that have a similar meaning to the foreign word but may or may not sound similar. One such example is the word mí sī (迷思) or myth. The two characters sound similar to the word myth, and they have a related meaning. Mí (迷) means lost and sī (思) can mean thought or idea. Thus a myth is a lost idea.

Brand Names

Another class of loanwords is the names of products, brands, and companies. When a company wants to do business in China, they will adopt a Chinese name, and for the most part, these names follow option 1 above. But because each character in Chinese has its own meaning, they will try to not only find characters that sound similar to the native name but will also try and find characters with related meaning to their brand or company.

This is probably best demonstrated with the name of one of the most popular sodas in the world, Coca-Cola. In Chinese, Coca-Cola is pronounced kě kǒu kě lè (可口可樂). So not only does that sound similar to Coca-Cola, but the characters can be read to mean, “let your mouth rejoice”.

Chinese words adopted from English

This is a non-exhaustive list but these are the words that I found that I thought were most interesting.

脫口秀 - tuō kǒu xiù Talkshow
迷思 - mí sī Myth
起司 - qǐ sī Cheese
博客 - bó kè Blog
阿門 - ā mén Amen
培根 - péi gēn Bacon
巴士 - bā shì Bus
巧克力 - qiǎo kè lì Chocolate

For a more exhaustive list see List of loanwords in Chinese.

English words adopted from Chinese

So there are words in Chinese that originated from English, but there are also some in the reverse as well. I’m not talking about the obvious ones, kung fu, Tao, or Qi. I’m talking about some that I’m sure you never even knew originated from another language.

Long time no see 好久不見 - hǎo jiǔ bù jiàn This one is slightly debated but it’s generally believed to have originated from the Chinese greeting.
Brainwash 洗腦 - xǐ nǎo This term began being used in English in the 1950s, during the Chinese - Korean war.
Ketchup 茄汁 - qié zhī While this one does not originate from Mandarin, the original ketchup was created in China and then adopted by the rest of the world.

© Matthew Sessions 2021