From Transcription to Translation: The Replacement of Phonetic Loanwords within the Chinese Community in the Dutch East Indies

Dr Hung-yi Chien1

1Institute of Taiwan History, Academia Sinica, Taiwan

Translators in nineteenth century China usually believed the Chinese language possessed a natural tendency that favoured semantic translation over phonetic transcription in linguistic borrowing. Their belief was not universally held. The Chinese archives in Batavia (today’s Jakarta) demonstrate a different disposition in linguistic borrowing. The minutes of Chinese council meetings there contain loanwords from Dutch, Malay, and even Portuguese. They are mostly phonetic loans transcribed with Chinese characters according to their Southern Min pronunciations. However, the practice of phonetic borrowing seems to have ceased in the early twentieth century. In a glossary of legal terms published in 1931, semantic compounds dominate the list; many of them appear to be graphically borrowed from Japanese. To explain this discontinuity, this study proposes three hypotheses: 1) people speaking multiple languages may use phonetic borrowings as long as their audience shares the same linguistic capacity; 2) translations and graphic loanwords may prevail in cross-linguistic situations for purposes of mutual understanding; and 3) the modernisation of Chinese and Japanese created new translations that contributed to the replacement of phonetic loanwords in Southeast Asian Chinese communities. To prove the above hypotheses, this study will compare language contact situations involving Chinese writing and languages across East Asia.


Hung-yi Chien obtained her doctoral degree from the Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages and Literature, National Taiwan Normal University (2017). She is both a historian and linguist. As a linguist, she is particularly interested in language contacts and historical etymologies. As a historian, she is exploring the genealogy of Taiwan-related knowledge in Dutch books.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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