One difference between Mandarin Chinese and Japanese is that the former likes to translate foreign terms, while Japanese prefers to transcribe them to Japanese.

E.g. Basketball: Mandarin Chinese: 篮球 (lanqiu); Japanese: バスケ (basuke [from "basket"])

Such tendencies can be made across languages:

  • Hong Kong Chinese does much more transcribing than Mandarin.
  • France likes to translate as well
  • German almost always transcribes, or even uses the foreign pronunciation

It seems to me there is some spectrum here, with adopting words unchanged on one hand, and retranslating them on the other. I wanted to ask whether there were terms to describe such tendencies of languages?


Language purism is the tendency to avoid "foreign" words and innovations in general. It is the exception. Accepting new words from different sources is the natural flow of human communication and doesn't need a label. You can learn all the descriptive terms from this chart, though: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loanword#Linguistic_classification

Check this out too: Gairaigo.

  • Doesn't "purism" usually refer to a deliberate effort to minimize change? One could say a language is conservative with respect to borrowing words, which I think may be closer to what the OP is looking for. – Nardog Nov 11 '18 at 23:24

Borrowing is common because

  • most people in the world are bi- or multi-lingual and so they may already be using the word in another language
  • many of the words being borrowed have no parallel. How do you translate "kangaroo" into a language with no similar animals?
  • language academies often lag behind natural borrowings, and face an uphill battle against de facto usage which often becomes established before the academy can tell people what the "proper" word is.
  • one of the alternatives to borrowing is to form a calque where you translate each individual morpheme/word in a compound, but this can produce some weird results because words don't map perfectly between languages, and words which go naturally together in the source language may feel (subjectively) really weird next to each other in the new language.
  • many of the words being borrowed have no parallel. But many can be translated. Japanese uses the English word 'carpool', whereas French uses 'covoiturage' (co- from cum, and voiture which means 'car'). So words with such an internal logic which could be used to create an equivalent word in another language should logically be more often translated than, say, 'kangaroo'. (I don't know whether this is in fact the case.) – Mathieu Bouville Apr 6 at 8:18

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