Word of the Week: wài lái cí
If you are not of East Asian appearance and spend any time in China it won’t be long before you hear the word wài guó rén (literally outside country person). It is quite common for a Chinese person, without any provocation, to exclaim “wài guó rén!” at the very site of a westerner. This is seen by some as an indication of how many Chinese people are not good at accommodating things they consider “foreign”.
This is particularly true for the Chinese language, which has notoriously few loanwords (wài lái cí). In fact, one aspect that makes Chinese difficult for English speakers at the beginning is the lack of everyday vocabulary that comes from English. By sharp contrast Japanese has an entire alphabet dedicated to writing loanwords.
wài means “outside” (the same as wài guó rén), lái means “come” and cí means “word” so in Chinese a loanword (wài lái cí) is an “outside come word”. That is, a word that’s come from outside.
Although very few there are some notable examples of loanwords in Chinese, such as shā fā for “sofa”. Most Chinese people are also unaware or even unwilling to acknowledge how many wài lái cí come from Japanese.
Such semi-loanwords often consist of a Japanese word that is written in Chinese characters but then pronounced according to the Chinese pronunciation of those characters. These types of loanwords are interesting because they do not borrow the phonemes (units of sound), but instead borrow the morphemes (units of meaning). This can also be seen in the Chinese word for railroad, tiě lù, which is a loanword from the French chemin de fer, both of which translate into English as “iron path”.
In some cases the Chinese language adopted a wài lái cí that was based on pronunciation but later created a new word that was completely Chinese. If you washed your hair in China twenty years ago you might have used xiāng bó (a phonetic rendering of “shampoo”) but that word has since been dropped and now you would use xǐ fā shǔi, which would be “washing hair water” in English.
The good news is that although the lack of wài lái cí can make Chinese difficult to start, it does mean that Chinese becomes very easy later on due to the fact that it is a very internal system. A Chinese person might have a difficult time leaning advanced English vocabulary that has its roots in French, Latin or Greek. The English speaker learning Chinese has no such problems.