The official Chinese language, whose proper name is Putonghua (‘common tongue’), is known in the English speaking world as Mandarin—an old-fashioned term.

The mandarins were the senior civil servants in the days of Imperial China, chosen by a written examination system that began to be imitated in Europe during the 19th century (see earlier post:

The establishment of Putonghua was a 20thcentury achievement, designed to remedy the disunity of dozens of Sino-Tibetan languages which have a common origin but are mutually incomprehensible.

To learn Putonghua or any other of the languages is painful toil even for Chinese children, who in order to read and write them have to learn at the very minimum 3000 symbols: for the language is monosyllabic, tonal and logographic, with no syntax as we understand it. And even when an adult becomes quite advanced in the endless task, he or she is still disconnected from the main stream of academic study and scientific research that is conducted in the European tongues.

This may be why, in a report in The Economist on 12 April 2006, the forecast was made that by 2026 China’s English speakers would outnumber native English speakers in the rest of the world. English has taken off in China. In 2006 Macmillan had sold 100 million English textbooks there; and English is now obligatory for any young person entering a university.

One of our best Chinese students tried to explain all this to me. He had just received the prize for the best performance in Latin GCSE—which surprised colleagues, but was no surprise in our department. His conclusion was that learning English and Latin, apart from being a formative academic exercise, had opened routes of enquiry he had never imagined—and given him the mental equipment to pursue them.

Of interest: Michael Dillon: Contemporary China – An Introduction, Routledge, 2009

Next post: Druids and language.