Why ‘Mandarin’ Doesn’t Come From Chinese


Since the mandarin duck appeared in Central Park last fall, his unexpected presence has stirred up many questions: Where did he come from? Why is he so hot? Can such beauty survive in our garbage world? And, for the linguistics nerds out there, where do mandarin ducks get their name?

Yes, true, mandarin ducks are native to China, where Mandarin is the official language. But the word “mandarin” has a more roundabout origin. It does not come from Mandarin Chinese, which refers to itself as putonghua (or “common speech”) and China, the country, as zhongguo (or “Middle Kingdom”). It doesn’t come from any other variant of Chinese, either. Its origins are Portuguese.

This one word encapsulates an entire colonial history. In the 16th century, Portuguese explorers were the first Europeans to reach China. Traders and missionaries followed, settling into Macau on land leased from China’s Ming dynasty rulers. The Portuguese called the Ming officials they met mandarim, which comes from menteri in Malay and, before that, mantrī in Sanskrit, both of which mean “minister” or “counselor.” It makes sense that Portuguese would borrow from Malay; they were simultaneously colonizing Malacca on the Malay peninsula.

For centuries, Europeans’ impressions of China filtered largely through the Portuguese. The 16th century Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, for instance, was Italian, but he arrived in China through Portuguese Macau. Following the twisty logic of colonialism, when he attempted to transpose Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet, he made use of both Italian and Portuguese, comparing the sounds of individual characters to the sounds of Portuguese and Italian words. Even today, “linguists go to town and try to figure what Chinese would have sounded like at the time,” says David Moser, author of A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language. “They could use as a clue the way Matteo Ricci wrote the Portuguese.”

Over time, the Portuguese coinage of “mandarin” took on other meanings. The Ming dynasty officials wore yellow robes, which may be why “mandarin” came to mean a type of citrus. “Mandarin” also lent its names to colorful animals native to Asia but new to Europeans, like wasps and snakes and, of course, ducks. And the language the Chinese officials spoke became “Mandarin,” which is how the English name for the language of billions of people in China still comes from Portuguese.

But words have a way of collecting just-so …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Science

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