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Chen Guangcheng is a special student at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at the New York University School of Law. This essay was translated from the Chinese.

Why don't they write: "This essay was translated from Chinese"? (Omitting the "the" before "Chinese".)

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  • This could be as Barrie England states -and it certainly seems to be a logical explanation. However, I wonder if the use of the is an over-generalisation from the use of the definite article with adjectives of nationality (see Swan 1980 Practical English Usage p14:para 14.3 & p397:para 397).
    – Qube
    May 30, 2012 at 7:37
  • No, it's not an overgeneralization. That's like saying the red of a woman's dress is an overgeneralization of the red on the Chinese flag. It's impossible to overgeneralize any specific use of the -- because there are so many of them, and because they are so completely different and so totally arbitrary. The University of X, X State University (no the); The Hague, Die Schweiz, The Mississippi River, ... Articles are just convenient markers; they have no meaning to generalize, let alone overgeneralize. May 30, 2012 at 13:28
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    @John Lawler. It's not like saying that at all. The 'rule' in Swan is particular to the and adjectives of nationality. I think it entirely reasonable that the use of 'the Chinese' is following this pattern. Ergo the 'rule' is being applied unnecessarily -overgeneralisation.
    – Qube
    May 31, 2012 at 7:56
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    @Qube. Ah, I see. I interpreted rule in a general sense, but you were merely identifying a particular rule in a particular book as being the source of the problem. My apologies for my stupidities. May 31, 2012 at 15:45

2 Answers 2

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The name of a language is sometimes preceded by the in this way, particularly in academic texts. It seems to be an ellipsed form of the Chinese original.

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    I don't think I really understand your first sentence (or perhaps I just disagree, I'm not sure). The second sentence seems spot-on though. I read the word "the" in OP's context as emphasising a specific original Chinese text. Which would be less appropriate if, say, the English rendition were actually a "composite" created by stitching together selected translated sections from multiple originals covering broadly the same topic. May 30, 2012 at 14:06
  • @FumbleFingers Mr England is speaking very generally in the first sentence. He's saying the usage occurs in academic English (1st sentence) and it always has this meaning (2nd sentence), which you agree with. He's not saying language names sometimes randomly include the in academic English and it sometimes has this meaning, which is what you were afraid he meant.
    – lly
    Dec 20, 2021 at 8:20
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    @lly: I don't think Mr England is active on the site any more, so we probably can't hope for any clarification from him. I don't remember exactly what I thought when I wroote that comment nearly 10 years ago, but what I think now is that I still don't like that first sentence. It's not the name of a language - it's a reference to a specific text written in a named language. Dec 20, 2021 at 15:17
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Why don't they write: "This essay was translated from Chinese"? (Omitting the "the" before "Chinese".)

They don't write it that way because it changes the meaning to do so.

They don't mean that it was translated from the Chinese language ("Chinese"). They mean that it was translated from a specific original Chinese text ("the Chinese"). In the same way, Mr England's answer discusses "the Chinese original" because he trusts that the reader understands the implicit noun "text" or "thing". As he mentioned, this is usually understood as a form of ellipsis.

As his own usage showed, however, what's more precisely happening is the adjectives are being nominalized and standing in for their respective noun phrases via metonymy. This semantic shift is what causes the usual order of the words to change from "the original Chinese text" to "the Chinese original". As far as why that happens more often in academic writing, (a) academic writing is more liable to be carefully worded and should ideally prize concision where it can be shoehorned in. More to the point, (b) omission of implicit nouns is more common in Latin and other IE languages and has been declining in general use since English lost most of its inflections. Both aspects make its continued use seem more learned, which make it an attractive class marker for academics even (or especially?) when it becomes harder for the general public to follow their phrasing.

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  • That the Chinese means something other than language is debatable. It certainly is used at times with the understood head noun being language. E.g. it was assumed that in the Chinese we had a language which is made up simply of roots stuck together (The Relations of Psychology and Philology; George Herbert Mead). There are plenty of other examples to be found.
    – DW256
    Dec 20, 2021 at 13:15

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