English loanwords in Mandarin

Making sense of words borrowed into Chinese

The English and Mandarin languages are far apart, yet they still exert a considerably influence on each other, mostly in the form of loanwords. English has a number of words borrowed from Mandarin and other dialects of Chinese, but the opposite is also true and probably much more common. Loanwords from English can be seen or heard in different forms in Mandarin and in this article we're going to look at a few of them.

My hope is that by being aware of loanwords, learning becomes somewhat easier. In some cases, it might be very obvious that we're dealing with a loan word, such as the Mandarin word for “sofa” which is 沙发 (沙發) shāfā. Even though the sound is a bit off (the best Pinyin transcription might be something like "soufa"), it's still close enough and the meaning of the individual characters aren't at all related to the kind of furniture you have in your living room.

In other cases, the borrowing might be less direct and much more confusing. For instance, the Mandarin word for Sweden is 瑞典 ruìdiǎn, which looks pretty far from “Sweden”. The explanation is that the word entered Mandarin via Cantonese, and in Cantonese, the two syllables are pronounced “seoi6” and “din2”, which together come a lot closer to Sweden than the Mandarin pronunciation.

Let's look at a few more really common loanwords from English:



*Don't confuse with 排隊, páiduì, which is not as fun!

Note that all the above words are written with Chinese characters. They are established words in the Chinese language, so even if they once were just transliterations of English sounds, they have long since settled and are now used in everyday language.

Using English words when speaking Chinese

However, there are a lot of words for which this hasn't happened (yet). Chinese people sometimes use English words when they speak, just like people speaking many other languages do. Even though you typically can't find these in Chinese dictionaries, they are still widely used. Perhaps they will turn into officially recognised words one day, who knows?

Even though it might look like these are randomly chosen English words inserted into a Chinese sentence, that's not really what's going on, they are much more well-established than that, so just because you hear Chinese people use occasional words in English, you shouldn't take that as a sign that you can add any English word into your Chinese sentences and hope that people will understand and find it perfectly normal.

Another common example where English words are very common is technical, scientific or other international contexts. Airports are good examples.

Even if there are words for everything in Chinese, it's actually more common to hear someone say 我要check-in rather than the Chinese equivalent.

She's so fashion!

It's also interesting to note that the grammar is often incorrect according to English inflection rules. For instance, it's common in China to use “fashion” as an adjective, even though it's obviously a noun in English. We would never say “he's very fashion” (it should be "fashionable", of course), but that's actually quite common in Chinese: 她很fashion, "tā hěn fashion". Some other words, perhaps especially those common in online language, have sometimes mutated beyond immediate recognition. For instance, the spelling “fu” (pronounced close to English "few") usually stands for “feel” or “feeling”, even if that's not really what most English native speakers think of when they see those two letters together.

The best approach is to think of these as Chinese words rather than English words. You can of course feel upset because “fashion” really isn't an adjective and “fu” should't be used like that, but you'd just be shooting yourself in the foot. You're learning Chinese, not English. The Chinese have taken these words and made them their own. You can use them too, if you want, but do it on their terms!