Lexicography for loanwords and words with special orthography

Loanwords in Modern Standard Chinese


Loanwords in Modern Standard Chinese have attracted increasing attention in recent years. We try to unravel the complexity that stems from the properties of the Chinese writing system itself, its variant systems (Japanese Kanji), the rich history of the Chinese lexicon, and its interactions with neighboring languages. We argue that the status of a loanword is not binary, but rather dynamic on a developmental continuum, due to the various intentional choices and cumulative efforts involved in loanword integration. We provide a metalanguage for loanword notation to make explicit throughout the study all relevant kinds of relationships between source and target languages during the borrowing process from any language into Chinese. Finally, we show examples for all major loanword categories, including a modified and notated categorization of loanwords in Chinese, based on Shi ([Chinese loanwords] Hanyu wailaici. Commercial Press, Beijing, 2013).

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    In our case, these differences between source and target word are mostly linguistic, but there are obviously also differences due to the wide societal and historical implications of loanwords. Liu (2008) has argued, for example, that translation is not simply a transliteration between languages, but that we also need to consider the historical context. She argues that language is a historical product. If a word is being extracted from its original context and used in its non-endemic context, its meaning extensions might change drastically, turning the loanword into an entire new word.

  2. 2.

    We use form, character and graph interchangeably if not noted otherwise.

  3. 3.

    A Chinese character can express (a) a character-bound meaning due to its form, which is often the older original meaning; (b) a modern meaning due to its association with a sound; (c) and then the sound itself. Different graphs can have the same meaning. A single graph can have different meanings. This is true at the character level. The sub-components of a Chinese character work in a slightly different way. See footnote 36.

  4. 4.

    We assume that the underlying principle of associating a thought to a symbol are inherently identical of a word and a numeral, or any symbol for that matter.

  5. 5.

    One ping (or ‘tsubo’ in Japanese) = \(3.3058 m^2\). This is not related to one tatami, which is \(85cm \times 180cm\) or \(1.53m^2\). Introduced in Taiwan in 1895 and kept ever since then.

  6. 6.

    Whether they have been invented in Japan is unclear yet. If so, they would count as Japanese loangraphs.

  7. 7.

    In China, these characters have been forced to retire in 1977 and substituted with their long version, e.g. . They are still in use in Taiwan today.

  8. 8.

    It is an often repeated story that Empress Wu Zetian decided the character to be pronounced wan and officially accepted it into the Chinese lexicon. Others argue, the character was already used on Chinese pottery during the Warring states (Shi et al. 1989). The matter is undecided.

  9. 9.

    For example: Japanese \(\rightarrow \) Chinese , whereas \(m_{2}\) is set-equivalent to \(\mu _{2}\). If we just look at Japanese loanwords in Chinese, according to our Japanese Loanword List—comprising currently 1468 at least double confirmed Japanese loanwords—roughly 146 types (characters) or 16% of total 911 character types are different. The most common ones are: Kanji (pinyin TC/SC): frequency. (xue ): 70; (dong ): 39; (ti ): 26; (quan ): 25; (hui ): 23; (guo ): 18; (guan ): 16; (jing ): 13; (dui ): 12; (zheng ): 10; (dian ): 10.

  10. 10.

    To verify the entrance of a Japanese loanword into the Japanese and Chinese lexicon, we rely on verification by dictionary, a process in two parts: (a) accessing two large digital databases, one specifically designed for early modern dictionaries, (i) the database for English Chinese dictionaries (Academia Sinica, Modern Historical Database), and (ii) the Chunagon ( , Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese); and (b) checking all suggested Japanese loanwords against our own database.

  11. 11.

    According to Qu (1973, p. 133) the first mission of thirteen self-paying Chinese exchange students to Japan was in March 1897, six followed in 1898, 18 students in 1899. From 1903 on, the then Qing government issued grants, consequently the number of students increased sharply into the thousands. On the other hand, the Ministry of Education in Japan ( ) sent out 178 students to Western countries before 1899, but not a single one to China (Tan 2018).

  12. 12.

    In general terms, it is debatable at what point in time the Chinese vocabulary can be considered modern since the written language was hardly reflective of the actual spoken vocabulary. However, in terms of modern loanwords, most scholars would draw a line at the beginning of the Opium wars (Feng 2004, pp. 15–23, Yang 2007, pp. 2–6, Fu 2011, p. 228). Robert Morrison published the first ever complete translation of the New Testament in 1814. Together with William Milne, he finished the translation of the Bible in 1823. His Dictionary of the Chinese language was published in 1822 (Foley 2009, pp. 18–19). So the consensus is to set the beginning of modern loanwords at around 1800. Yet, it is undoubtly the fact that a second, much stronger wave of modernization happened after the turn of the 19th century due to the influx of Japanese loanwords. We are referring here to this ‘second wave’ of modernization.

  13. 13.

    A syllable without p would be a target syllable phonetically unrelated to the source word. We could also add a p to a morpheme (\(\mu ^{p}\)), which designates that the target morpheme is supposed to sound similar to the respective source subpart.

  14. 14.

    In rare cases, phonetic loanwords are treated as stems combined with Chinese prefixes, such as lao- ( ), or a- ( ); a rare example would be lao K ( K ‘King in a card game’), laodou ( respectful son), and laodike ( honest person, gentleman).

  15. 15.

    As a general rule, (a) loanwords almost never end in suffixes typical only for bound morphemes, such as -er ( ), -tou ( ), -zi ( ). An exception could probably be yuanzi ( - atom); and (b) loanwords only very seldom use reduplication of syllables, such as momo ( ), transliteration of Manchu meme eniye, or niuniu ( ) which comes from Manchu nionio ’little girl’, allowed probably only because those terms are basically phonetic loans of kinship terms.

  16. 16.

    However, a few monosyllabic phonetic loanwords do exist in Chinese, e.g. ta ( tower), fo ( Buddha), beng ( pump), an ( ammonia), dian ( iodine), ka ( card), even alphabetic words, such as ‘A’ (to steal) as in ‘A ’, see (Cook 2018, p.14). However, the origin of ‘A’ is debatable. These all operate as free morphemes. Furthermore, even disyllabic but monomorphic phonetic loanwords can be found already in much older strata of the Chinese vocabulary ( Xu (2013)), such as furong ( hibiscus, lotus flower), huangtang ( absurd, ridiculous), hupo ( amber), kafei ( coffee), lese/laji ( trash), manao ( agates, cornelian), moli ( jasmine), pipa ( loquat), pili ( thunderbolt), popo ( mother-in-law), putao ( grape), shanhu ( coral), suanni ( lion, older word for shizi ‘lion’, tuoluo ( spinning top toy), etc. (For reduplication of morphemes see Booij and Van Marle (2001, p. 290–292), whether disyllabic words are stems, see Baxter and Sagart (2014, p. 391).)

  17. 17.

    During audible perception, the syllable combination cannot be resolved into a cluster of morphemes.

  18. 18.

    We do not write \(\langle \sigma _{b}^{p}\rangle _{\textsc {G}}^{c}\) in order to stress the lack of a conceptual relationship between the characters, although every character obviously has a meaning, too.

  19. 19.


  20. 20.

    Compare this to the impact French had upon the English vocabulary during a comparable 300 years of occupation of England by the Normans.

  21. 21.

    bashi ( ) is itself back imported from Chinese boshi ( knowledgeable man).

  22. 22.

    ‘Revolution’ geming ( ) originally meant ‘change ( ) of heavenly mandate ( )’, referring to a change from one dynasty to another, and was not listed in English-Chinese dictionaries as a translation for the word ‘revolution’ until around the turn of the 20th century. The English-Chinese Lexicon by Guang Qizhao ( ) translates revolution as ‘period’ (yizhou ) in 1868 and as ‘rotation’ (xuanzhuan yihui ) in 1875; Shi (2019) says geming ( ) appeared with its modern sense of ‘violent overthrow of the government’ first in Chinese in 1896 in Shiwubao ( , 1896-12-05).

  23. 23.

    In phonetic transliterations the sense of Chinese characters play a far lesser role, however, in reality the inherent sense of a character cannot be completely suppressed even in phonetic readings, which might cause distraction. Note that the very first transliteration of ‘Plato’ was baladu , which literally meant: bully \(_{a}\) spicy \(_{b}\) earnest \(_{c}\), and was later re-transliterated into bolatu , which less dramatically reads now as: Cypress \(_{a}\) draw \(_{b}\) picture \(_{c}\).

  24. 24.

    Early variants are jiālǐ, jiālí, gālì/kālì.

  25. 25.

    Also phonetically romanized as tempura.

  26. 26.

    Graphic loaning is considered silent borrowing, borrowing the sense via the graph, but not their pronunciation.

  27. 27.

    Preserving order is not a necessary condition, important is,however, that all morphemes are projected in total, or nothing else is added.

  28. 28.

    There would have been other options available for ‘day’ in the Chinese lexicon, for example: tian , ri , or baitian .

  29. 29.

    In Taiwan: aizibing ( ). In the Taiwanese version of the loanword, the first syllable is represented by a semantically relevant graph ai ( ‘love’), which allows for some kind of double reading, effectively changing the borrowing processes from functionally seperated morphemes to functionally fused morphemes.

  30. 30.

    Strictly speaking the semantic relationship is established on grounds of AIDS bing a disease, and not specifically to the meaning of the acronym ‘Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome’.

  31. 31.

    For example,  lun ( ) originally meant ‘convict, accuse, say, according’ in Middle Chinese, and developed towards ‘argue, debate, conclude’. Lilun ( ) was mentioned by Medhurst in 1848 as ‘argue, debate’ not ‘theory’, and then by Lobscheid in 1869 as ‘discuss, discourse, reason, logic’, but not ‘theory’. In 1900, Liu 1900 (2018) mentions lun in his schoolbook as ‘conclude, final evaluation’; Shi (2019) dates the earliest attest in Chinese as ‘theory’ to 1894.

  32. 32.

    A shadow morpheme is a subpart of a word with fused phonetic and semantic functions from two different levels of analaysis. On the first level, the syllable is used for its phonetic relation to a source syllable. However, on the level of writing, the semantic function of its graph provides a second layer of semantic content. Shadow morphemes are interpreted as if they were morphemes by virtue of their respective graph senses. This is represented as \([\langle \sigma _{a_1}^{p}\rangle ^{c'}_{\textsc {G}}\langle \sigma _{a_2}^{p}\rangle ^{c'}_{\textsc {G}}]^{c'}\), whereas the indicator of the conceptual function, superscript c, is primed (\(c'\)) to show that the meaning construed by the reading of the shadow morphemes \(\langle \sigma _{a_1}\rangle \langle \sigma _{a_2}\rangle \) is a conceptual remake compared to the entire word \([\mu _a]\). Furthermore, please note that c is placed on top of G to show that the sense is related to the graph, not the morpheme.

  33. 33.

    This happens of course on top of the standard word-to-word linkage, in simplified form \([m_{a}]^{c} = [\mu _{a}]^{c}\), whereas the word-sense of m is linked to the entire target word form \(\mu \).

  34. 34.

    Of course, the morpheme bàng\(_{a}\) has the nice feature of not only being conceptually related to the game, but also additionally having a pronunciation somehow close to the sound when the ball hits the bat.

  35. 35.

    Many Japanese loanwords in Chinese are themselves loanwords from other languages; they are in many cases better understood as mediated loanwords from a third party donor language (Chen 2011; Feng 2016; Pan 2019). For example, Chen (2017) has argued, the term Enlightenment ( ) gained much of its socio-political content in Japan. As such, ‘enlightenment’ reflects Japan’s drive for modernity, openness and Western knowledge. When borrowed into Chinese, it there inherited the traditional connotations of the Chinese expression ‘opening up and dispelling ignorance’. It finally merged with the Japanese-mediated term ‘movement’. As Enlightenment Movement, it turned into a modern political terminology, a term that showed how to open up the lower echelons of society to the intellectual society of the traditional upper classes, then became a motto for a radical political agenda, quasi an ‘Enlightenment by the use of force’, and a concept for distinguishing tradition from modernity, and not ignorance from reason.

  36. 36.

    Pianpang is a component within a Chinese character that has one of four specific functions: (i) indicating meaning by graph form, as da ( a picture of a person) in mei ( ), wearing a headdress yang ( variant graph of a headdress, resembling the form of a sheep antler), together they form here the composite meaning ‘person with headdress’, which refers to ‘beautiful’; (ii) indicating meaning by word sense, as da ( here bringing into plays its modern word sense ‘large’) in jian ( pointy) under xiao ( small), together they form here the composite meaning ‘small over large’, which refers to ‘pointy, sharp’; (iii) indicating pronunciation, as ji ( ) in ji ( ), or shang ( ) in tang ( ; (iv) substituting for more complex forms, as bei ( ) in zei ( thief), whereas bei ( ) here substitutes for the phonetic ze ( ), now often falsely reinterpreted as semantic component bei ( valueable).

  37. 37.

    We combined similar categories, e.g. #5 ‘funny phonetic translations’ with #3 ‘Alliterated Homophones with semantic transliteration’ and deleted a few that are not directly concerned with Chinese characters, such as #15 for Chū Nôm characters, and #28, #29 for English, as well as all categories that capture fake loanwords, i.e. Chinese words modeled after loanwords.

  38. 38.

    We also harmonized table and text, so that the reader may use the provided page links to find more explanations within the main text.

  39. 39.

    Although we try a numerical approach, the calculation is supposed to be understood as a vehicle for comparing categories, in lack of a better approach.

  40. 40.

    The values are in and by itself not reflective of certain linguistic properties, but are designed to facilitate a meaningful numerical comparison.

  41. 41.

    Here, m stands for morpheme, K stands for combining phonetic and semantic function, p stands for sound and c for meaning, the breakets \(\texttt {<>}\) indicate morpheme boundaries, L stands for orthographic representation in the Latin character set.

  42. 42.

    The source word ‘car’ is expressed in the loanword as one syllable s and one morpheme m; the division of labour is as follows: the syllable s has no meaning inside the word, hence works only as a phonetic P, related to the source word by representing its sound i but not its meaning b, written in G; m actuates its phonetic and semantic function K, but is related to its source in terms of semantics t, but not phonetics b, expressed in a graph G. Our actual formulas capture slightly more detail.

  43. 43.

    Since not all categories have an equal amount of members, we think that the computed values are better understood as a rough conceptual estimate and not as an accurate quantitative assessment.


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This research is based on a database for Japanese loanwords in Chinese, originally part of a PhD research project at National Taiwan University. This database is currently under further development in cooperation with Dr. Chen Jien-shou (second author) at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taiwan and sponsored under a research grant of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan. We thank Kuo Hsienyin from Huaiyin Normal University for assistance in Japanese, and Iju and Sam from National Taiwan University, who provided insight and expertise that greatly assisted the research, as well as CJ Young from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Andrew HC Chuang from National Taiwan University for their constructive criticism of the manuscript.

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Schmidt, C., Jien-shou, C. Lexicography for loanwords and words with special orthography. Lexicography ASIALEX 7, 25–58 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40607-020-00071-0

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  • Modern Standard Chinese
  • Loanwords
  • Lexicography
  • Linguistics