Thursday, December 09, 2010

Casual insolence (War on Chinglish - 18)

Are you going to send that postcard to Mr Robert?

No, I'm not.  Unless he's French, in which case I should more properly refer to him as M. Robert.  In all probability, though, I'm sending a postcard to my good friend Robert.  Or to someone I know less well called Mr Roberts.

This came up in one of my recording scripts the other day.  I've commented before on how a large part of the Chinese ineptitude with foreign names is down to how rarely they use them (outside of English lessons, that is; in history or science lessons, and in their domestic media, foreign names are invariably transliterated into Chinese characters, a process that usually transforms them so horrendously as to render them completely unrecognisable to non-Chinese).  I've also lamented - in talking about my frequent academic editing work - that the Chinese seldom or never seem to have any appreciation of consistent orthography when using the Roman alphabet: spelling, punctuation, and use of capital letters can vary wildly from one sentence to the next (I once had to deal with an author who contrived 9 different ways of referring to the United States in one article!).

But even so, their propensity to mangle people's names in English is quite staggering.

They can almost never recognise which language a name comes from (it's just not the kind of thing they pay attention to).  So, they'd completely miss my opening point about Robert being a common surname in French, but generally only a personal name in English.

They can almost never distinguish between personal names and family names.
[In English, a few names can serve as both personal names and family names (Robert or Robin or Richard as a surname, for example, are just about possible, but rare and unlikely), but most are one or the other.  Personal names are often converted into family names* by adding a final s: hence, Robert is (almost invariably) a first name, but Roberts is a surname.]

They always seem to forget that the English naming convention is to use the personal name (Christian name) first and the family name (surname) second.

They also forget (or never learn?) the simple rule that titles - like Mr, Dr, Prof. - may be used with full names OR with surnames only, but NOT with first names only (although you'd think that this would be just about Lesson One - or certainly Book One - of any English course they follow in schools).

And no-one ever seems to tell them that it is RUDE to refer to people by their surname only; that in formal writing, you should always use title + surname or full name (this is a particular bugbear in my editing work!!).

I caught a great example of this latter ineptitude on the local English-language TV channel, the squirm-inducingly bad CCTV9, yesterday.  Yang Rui, the grammar-mangling goon who fronts the daily current affairs 'discussion programme' Dialogue had the great English golfer Tony Jacklin on to talk about China's golf boom.  And he brought him into the conversation - after the inevitable painfully long and rambling introduction - by saying, "So, Jacklin, what do you think?"

It wasn't just a one-off slip, either.  He continued to refer to his distinguished guest in this way throughout the rest of the show.  I think I would have punched him; but our Tony bore the  recurring insult with saintly restraint.

*  The final s in so many English surnames probably derives from a patronymic, i.e. a father-name form.  In the distant past, when people still lived mostly in very small communities, a single personal name was usually enough to distinguish people from each other.  If there happened to be two Johns in a village, they might be differentiated according to the names of their fathers: John, Richard's son and John, Robert's son.  These patronymics evolved into the surnames Richards or Richardson and Roberts or Robertson - which could be used for entire families down the generations.  Other common surnames developed from the names of people's professions (Butcher, Baker, Fletcher, Smith, Wainwright), from the colour of clothes they commonly liked to wear (Black, White, Green, Brown) or from the locale where they lived (Greenwood, Lake, Bridge).  If Chinese students of English took an interest in this sort of thing, they wouldn't find it nearly so difficult to differentiate between first names and surnames, and they wouldn't make so many embarrassing faux pas when addressing foreign friends and colleagues.  But, alas, the Chinese seem to be a depressingly incurious people in many respects.

1 comment:

Froog said...

Oh god, this just happened to me again.

A long-time colleague of mine, a woman who really ought to know better (her English is pretty fluent, she has a job as an editor of English-language books for one of the university publishing houses here, and she recently spent a year in England doing an MA), just sent me a belated 'Happy New Year!' e-mail addressing me by my surname alone.

I reproved her gently.

It baffles me how people with that much exposure to Western culture can continue to make this mistake.