January 26, 2006

Chinian, not Chinese?

In an interesting twist on the "Shanghainese" issue, Kevin Keqing Liu at China Daily argues that it's time to retire "Chinese" in favor of "Chinian". His reasoning starts this way:

Group I: American, Australian, Austrian, Canadian, German, Italian, Norwegian, Russian...

Group II: Chinese, Congolese, Japanese, Nepalese, Portuguese, Sudanese, Vietnamese...

In the State of Ohio in the United States, what do local residents call themselves? Ohioese? Wrong. Ohioan. In Toronto, Canada, the people there call themselves yes, you guessed it Torontonian. Never Torontonese.

Not enough to make you feel superior should you fall into Group I, or inferior if you unfortunately happen to be in Group II? Let's look at the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 1978, for the definition of "-ese": suffix, 1. (the people or language) belonging to (a country); 2. (usually derogatory) literature written in the (stated) style. Examples: Johnsonese; journalese.

Or MSN Encarta Dictionary online: ... 3. The style of language of a particular group (disapproving). Example: officialese. [Via Old French -eis; Italian -ese]

He continues the argument:

The English-speaking founding fathers of Singapore were well aware of the subtle significance behind the "-ese" and "-an" distinction, and opted for Singaporean when the nation became independent in 1965.

India has a different story. The Indians stemmed from Europe. Europeans saw Indians as relatives. You wouldn't want to use harsh descriptions for your relatives, would you?

The same is true of Central and South Americans, who are cousins of North Americans and Mexicans.

You may ask: What about the Portuguese, also Europeans? Well, a few hundred years back, Portugal was a powerful nation warring fiercely with other major European countries for resources in overseas colonies, and was victimized by being hated and looked down upon by their European rivals.

and concludes:

In the 21st century, the world has evolved into an era when racial discrimination is not tolerated. It is time the names in Group II were abolished.

I don't know the history in detail, but I believe that the development of the derogatory suffix for writing or speaking styles followed, rather than preceded, the use of -ese for adjectival forms of toponyms. That's what the OED says:

A frequent mod. application of the suffix is to form words designating the diction of certain authors who are accused of writing in a dialect of their own invention; e.g. Johnsonese, Carlylese. On the model of derivatives from authors' names were formed Americanese, cablese, headlinese, journalese, newspaperese, novelese, officialese, etc.

The earliest citation for this development is from 1898:

1898 F. HARRISON in 19th Cent. June 941 As Mat Arnold said to me..‘Flee Carlylese as the very devil!’ Yes! flee Carlylese, Ruskinese, Meredithese, and every other ese.
1899 Golf Illustr. 14 July 134 American ‘golfese’.
1906 Daily Chron. 2 Aug. 3/2 Deplorable guide-bookese.

As for the story of the affix itself, the OED gives it this way:

forming adjs., is ad. OF. -eis (mod.F. -ois, -ais): -- Com. Romanic -ese (It. -ese, Pr., Sp. -es, Pg. -ez):-- L. ēnsem. The L. suffix had the sense ‘belonging to, originating in (a place)’, as in hortēnsis, prātēnsis, f. hortus garden, prātum meadow, and in many adjs. f. local names, as Carthāginiēnsis Carthaginian, Athēniēnsis Athenian. Its representatives in the Romanic langs. are still the ordinary means of forming adjs. upon names of countries or places. In Eng. -ese forms derivatives from names of countries (chiefly after Romanic prototypes), as Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, and from some names of foreign (never English) towns, as Milanese, Viennese, Pekinese, Cantonese. These adjs. may usually be employed as ns., either as names of languages, or as designations of persons; in the latter use they formerly had plurals in -s, but the pl. has now the same form as the sing., the words being taken rather as adjs. used absol. than as proper ns. (From words in -ese used as pl. have arisen in illiterate speech such sing. forms as Chinee, Maltee, Portugee.)

There's clearly a story to be told about the concentration of -ese derivatives in East Asia, but I don't think that the story Liu tells is the right one, at least historically.

In sorting -ese and -ian, we need to note that English has other processes for forming adjectives from place names, including -ish (Irish, British, Flemish, Polish, Scottish, Spanish, Swedish), -i (Afghani, Iraqi, Israeli, Kuwaiti, Pakistani) and the motley collection of processes involved in cases like French and Greek.

In this context, we should note that -ish also has a disparaging or belittling tinge in nonce formations, as the OED observes:

In recent colloquial and journalistic use, -ish has become the favourite ending for forming adjs. for the nonce (esp. of a slighting or depreciatory nature) on proper names of persons, places, or things, and even on phrases, e.g. Disraelitish, Heine-ish, Mark Twainish, Micawberish, Miss Martineauish, Queen Annish, Spectator-ish, Tupperish, West Endish; all-over-ish, at-homeish, devil-may-care-ish, how-d'ye-doish, jolly-good-fellowish, merry-go-roundish, out-of-townish, and the like.

This can hardly be because the adjectival forms of toponyms with -ish are themselves generally deprecated.

Reforming English to regularize all adjectival forms of toponyms using -an or -ian would, ironically, align everyone with the usage attributed to George W. Bush in what were (among) the earliest reported "Bushisms": Grecians, East Timorians, Kosovians. On this line, I guess, you could pitch it as an educational reform to make it easier for schoolchildren to learn standard English, rather than as an exercise in political correctness designed to avoid negative connotations attached to anyone's morphemes.

But perhaps we'll see an alternative movement to rescue these morphemes from their historical degradation at the hands of elitist irony: "Say it loud: -ish and proud!"

[Update: Aaron "Dr. Whom" Dinkin asks whether Spaniard uses the same morpheme as words like bastard, canard, mallard, coward, buzzard, drunkard, laggard, sluggard etc.. It does, I believe. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 26, 2006 06:51 AM