Computers no longer exist

This is somewhat of a bizarre one, so please bear with me.

The other day, someone posted a really weird message in a Mandarin learning Facebook group.  It started,

“Mandarin passé since 1911, period.”  Don’t bother with Mandarin.

It was later edited and expanded to talk about “hiring Mandarins, but when speaking Mandarin, English comes out” (sic)… “The solution? Don’t bother with Mandarin.”

It really was the most bizarre, unintelligible message, so I pressed the question to ask what he was talking about.  He followed up with this:

The Portuguese in 14th century met Ming Dynasty Chinese officials, mandarins, and arbitrarily referred to their language as Mandarin. It’s a bright idea: manderins speak Mandarin.
Westerners kept this reference into the Qing Dynasty ruled by Manchurians until the 1911 Chinese Revolution that toppled Qing Dynasty and mandarins; no more Mandarin.
Now China constitutionally decreed Putonghua with Hanzi the national language.

It seems from this that the objection is to the use of the word “Mandarin” to refer to the Chinese language.  It was really a bit of a weird message, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard someone say something like this.

It seems, that because the word “Mandarin” was the name used for the government officials of China, which no longer exist, we should no longer use the word to describe the main Chinese language.  Instead, for some reason that we should adopt the Chinese word for the language into English.

There are at least a couple of major problems with this argument.

Firstly the history is not quite as simple as implied.

The word “Mandarin”, in this sense, came to English via Portuguese or Dutch, from Malay, Hindi and Sanskrit, with the most influence from Portuguese.  It came to be used for the language spoken by government officials in China, who were referred to as “Mandarins”.

It was 1912 that the Qing Emperor formally abdicated.  The official rule of the Qing dynasty was from 1644 (founded in 1636) until 1912.  But things don’t change in an instant, and government officials were still called Mandarins until at least WWII (at least until 1938).  Not only that, but Vietnam had Mandarins from 1949 to 1955!  (I’m not sure when officials stopped being called Mandarins in Korea).  So they didn’t all just “disappear” in 1911.

The language also didn’t change.

Yes, mainland Chinese writing has been simplified, and no doubt some patterns of speech have changed over the years, as they do in all languages, but the basic language is the same.  Mandarin is still “the official language of China, and an official language of Singapore”.

And this is the second point: languages do not change in the way the writer implied.

The fact is, “Mandarin” is the English word for the most common (and official) language of China, in Chinese commonly called 普通话 pǔ tōng huà or 汉语 Hàn yǔ (though I believe there are in fact other dialects of Mandarin which might be called differently in Chinese).

Counting first languages spoken, it is the most spoken language in the world – the native language of something like one sixth of the world’s population.

Just because the origin of a word may not be in use any more, it does not negate the use of the word in other contexts.  We are not going to suddenly start using a Chinese word (普通话 pǔ tōng huà) in English simply because the origin of the word “Mandarin” is no longer used!

In any case, this would be difficult in itself, because even if we did choose one of the words used for “Mandarin” in Mandarin (namely “Putonghua” or “Hanyu”, or more generally “Zhongwen”) many English speakers might not have a clue how to pronounce these unless they studied some basic pinyin!

As an example, in English one might say, “I am learning Spanish” or, “I can speak German“.  We don’t say, “I am learning español” or, “I can speak deutsch“.  (Unless maybe as a sort of joke).  If I told my English friends, “I am learning Putonghua“, they wouldn’t have a clue what I meant!  But most people know what “Mandarin” means.  If someone asks. “Do you speak Mandarin or Cantonese?” everyone knows exactly what they mean!

And so, to get to the title of this post:   I am writing this on a computer.

The word “computer” dates from at least the 1640s.  It meant “one who calculates, a reckoner, one whose occupation is to make arithmetical calculations“.  In other words, it referred to a person who had a career in doing calculations.

As far as I am aware, these “computers” no longer exist.  Should we abandon the word “computer”, meaning something like “an electronic device for storing and processing data“, because the person who had a job as a “computer”, from where we get the word, no longer exists?

Of course not!  This is precisely how language comes into being and changes over time.

So, likewise with the word “Mandarin”.  Government officials called Mandarins may no longer exist, but it does not mean we have to start using a different word for what has come to mean one of the main languages of China.

Oh, and the picture?  That’s a “Mandarin duck”.


I apologise if this post has come across as a bit of a rant.  It’s not supposed to be.  Hopefully it’s been an interesting way to explain why words come about through various means, and why the loss of one meaning of a word does not negate its use in its other meanings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.