I've noticed that in modern Chinese there's a lot of loanwords that are translated in multiple ways:

激光 vs 雷射

互联网 vs 因特网

Generally one version will sound similar to the English pronunciation and one uses native words to mean the same thing as the original word. In my experience, the native word is usually preferred/more prestigious. This is very unusual in comparison to Japanese, which heavily prefers using the English/foreign loanword instead of the native equivalent.

Is there any reason for this? Or maybe this is just my imagination?

  • can you explain how you're determining which version is more "prestigious"? higher rates of occurrence in in/formal discourse, or...? Jul 28, 2015 at 21:36
  • Yea, higher rates of occurrences in formal discourse. Considered less colloquial.
    – Ringil
    Jul 28, 2015 at 21:43

6 Answers 6


互联网 and 因特网 may be different things - "internet" vs "Internet".

Coming up with loanwords isn't a standardised practice; in the beginning you'll have separate groups coming up with different words, but over time the need to communicate will encourage people to start using the same one. Take LASER for example; since it was invented in the US, there were many Chinese loanwords - some out of use ones include 光的受激辐射放大器, 光量子放大器, 莱塞. In this case, Qian Xuesen came up with the 激光 word, and since he was so well respected in PRC, everyone there used that. Due to the political situation at the time, Taiwan continued to use 雷射.

These days it's more likely that loanwords will converge quickly, since science and commerce are so open and interconnected. But earlier in history, this process could take a long time. One notable example is the Qing-dynasty loanwords for the US president. The concept was very foreign, of a supreme leader that is elected by peers for a limited term; historian Jonathan Spence counted up to 100 different versions, with words like 伯理玺天地.

  • Huh, thanks for the link on 互联网 vs 因特网. I never thought about the fact there were Internet competitors. I liked the other examples you gave as well. However, you didn't quite say too much as to why there's a difference in prestige.
    – Ringil
    Jul 29, 2015 at 21:44
  • @Ringil it's not prestige, it's regional. Jul 29, 2015 at 23:47
  • 互联网 is the same with 因特网, as assumed in the question.
    – bfrgzju
    Jul 30, 2015 at 14:55
  • I don't even think there's a word in Chinese that means "internet" (not capitalized). I even doubt if this word is still in practical use in English.
    – bfrgzju
    Jul 30, 2015 at 14:56
  • @bfrgzju I'm pretty sure it's nearly always the same meaning unless one is extremely technical.
    – Ringil
    Jul 30, 2015 at 21:04

I will try to put my two cents in, from a more psychological perspective.

Chinese is largely a semantics-based writing system. Phonetically transcribed loan words are relatively easy to coin, but difficult to comprehend, unless the reader also understands the language from which the words come. When a new concept is introduced into the language, it's easiest to just do a phonetic translation. Two words, from a century ago, come to mind readily: 德謨克拉西 (phonetic) vs. 民主 for democracy and 塞恩斯 (phonetic) vs. 科學 for science. When the two concepts are understood and accepted into the culture, then 民主 and 科學 are definitely much easier to comprehend by the average Chinese reader.

The best kind of translation is, of course, a term that captures the sound as well as the meaning. An example is 黑客 for hacker. Not only is the sound very similar to the original English word, the Chinese characters also evoke an image of some outsider lurking in the dark. Other notable examples of phonetic translation making their way into the language also involve clever choice of characters that evoke certain emotions or atmospheres. I am thinking of words like 浪漫 and 幽默. I am sure there are a lot of others, too.

I am no expert on the Japanese language, but I understand that loan words are written in katakana, a different set of symbols. In other words, the presence of the katakana already signifies to the reader that it is a loan word. So from a psychological point of view, it's easier for the reader, and perhaps this is one of the reasons for the relative ease of retaining phonetically transcribed loan words in Japanese.

  • Nice example with 黑客. It makes sense that the native Chinese word would be easier to understand. Do you have any idea why it would be more formal though?
    – Ringil
    Jul 29, 2015 at 22:01
  • I am not sure if one is necessarily more formal than the other. I was trying to make the point that in the long run, the semantic-based term will likely be preferred because it's easier for the reader - your question in the original post.
    – monalisa
    Jul 30, 2015 at 4:02

There are three ways to translate a loanword: by its meaning, by its pronunciation or by both.

Taking your example 互联网 vs 因特网, 互联网 is by its meaning (inter/inter-connected=互/互联, net=网); 因特网 is by both of its pronunciation and meaning (in=因, ter=特, net (by meaning)=网

My feeling is that when in the early stage of introduction of a loanword, it's more likely to be translated by its pronunciation(or by both of the meaning and pronunciation), because not a lot of people in China knows about it. And it will be translated by its meaning when the loanword gets popular. Still using the 互联网 and 因特网 as an example, I remember when I heard of the internet (around mid-1990s; I was born 1980s...) , it's all translated into 因特网. And now 互联网 is everywhere.

I do feel translating by meaning is more formal. As you will probably see loanword translated by its meaning e.g.互联网 more in the newspaper than other places.

One more reason of the translation difference that I could think of is depended on where you are, Taiwan, Hong Kong or mainland China. I've never been in HongKong, but I somehow have an impression that People/Press tends to use loanword than native translation (because most people in HongKong speaks English/better English than mainland Chinese?).


One reason is that Chinese is more diversified than Japanese in terms of topolects and dialects. 碧池, 沙发, 雷达 and so on may not be pronounced the intended way in other tongues than Mandarin, and so the terms become meaningless.

Another reason would be linguistic pride. Iceland is another country that takes great care to form their own words rather than using foreign-sounding loanwords.

  • A reasonable explanation. Do you have any reason to believe in the linguistic pride other than personal experience?
    – Ringil
    Jul 29, 2015 at 21:46
  • Absolutely. China has had a very focused language-oriented agenda for a long time, and it goes hand in hand with the ambition to offer national solutions (Baidu, UnionPay, Weibo) rather than foreign (Google, Visa, Twitter) rather than foreign. On the other hand, China recognizes that English is the current lingua franca, and encourages students to master English – but not to contaminate the native tongue. See also lel.ed.ac.uk/~lhlew/Undergraduate%20Thesis.pdf for a general discussion about why Chinese is rather protected from English loanwords (but not Japanese).
    – user4452
    Jul 29, 2015 at 22:10
  • Thanks for the link. It didn't posit any reasons why, but it does indicate that it is indeed something that happens.
    – Ringil
    Jul 30, 2015 at 8:12

At first, people don't fully understand the meaning of a concept, or the theory behind it. But they need a word to represent it. So that's why loanwords usually come out by pronunciation. Once people fully understand the meaning, they may come up with a version of their own expression. But whether that version can prevail depends on the social status of the nation, and the nature of the race.

Historically, Japan had sought knowledge and fortune from the China Tang dynasty. So it is not strange that many things were borrowed from China, even the Japanese language Kanji is borrowed from Chinese in both writing form and pronunciation. Then by the end of 19th century, Japanese turn to west civilization. And they even wanted to mentally leave Asia.

Because of the admiration for the west civilization, loanwords were considered kind of superior to the native ones in Japanese. That's why most loanwords are kept by pronunciation in Japanese. But Chinese tends to absorb foreign culture and adapt it into their own culture. That's why loanwords are treated differently between two cultures.

(BTW, I have to say, though the whole Japanese culture is kind of a loan-culture, sometimes they DO make their own versions of some well known facts. Such as the Potsdam Proclamation, the war crimes they committed during WWII, etc.)

  • Uh you realize that the Japanese during the Meiji restoration was extremely prolific in creating foreign loanwords using Chinese characters. Many common Chinese words comes from that period: 经济, 主义, 自由 etc.
    – Ringil
    Jul 29, 2015 at 21:58
  • @Ringil Thanks for pointing that out. Yes, indeed. Many Chinese modern words come from Japanese version of English counterparts. And these words have been well accepted by native Chinese speaker. I think there're several reasons behind that. First they are in Chinese characters. Second and the most important one, most of them are translated by meaning, at least attempted to. Due to the different ways how culture originates, Chinese and Japanese treat loanwords differently. Jul 30, 2015 at 1:14

My 2 cents: Loanwords translation could simply depend on whether you are in PRC or in Taiwan. In Taiwan, phonetic translation seems a fashion. I'm not sure if it is another coincidence that Taiwanese culture is closer to Japanese culture. In old PRC, translation by meaning is easier to remember. Nowadays, with more people knowing or interested in English, translations that capture both meaning and sound will likely win. Other than 黑客, 奔驰 (mercedes-benz) and 优山美地 (Yosemite) are a couple of other examples.

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