The False Etymology of “Mandarin” = 滿大人

mandaren

In a discussion on the nature of race and ethnicity in late imperial China, the role of the “Manchu” ethnicity came up. The highly heterogenous nature of Hong Taiji’s creation of ethnicity has been exhaustively enumerated elsewhere, and wasn’t the source of my confusion. In our discussion, a fellow student brought up the idea that the Manchus occupied such a unique role in the late imperial history of China that even the very language of the region was named after them. Not the Manchu language, mind you – but the variety of Sinitic we call “Mandarin” today.

What?

My esteemed classmate proceeded to narrate the etymology she (and several others in the class from the Greater China region) had heard: When Europeans first made contact with Chinese people, they mistook the phrase “Master Man[chu]” (滿大人 Mǎn dàrén) to be the language Chinese spoke, hence the English term “Mandarin” to refer to the language most northern Chinese speak. It seems to be a pretty common folk etymology.

In short:

Mandarin mǎn dàrén → English mandarin

This seemed off to me. Firstly, the first Europeans in Ming China were not English. Secondly, I had always thought Mandarin was simply a translation of 官話 Guānhuà, “officials’ speech”. Was I right?

As it turns out, it was an erroneous folk etymology. The OED charts the evolution/borrowing of the word mandarin as:

Sanskrit mantrī → Malay menteri → Portuguese mandarim → English mandarin

Furthermore, the term Mandarin was used to refer to the speech of the officials very early on: Dominican Francisco Varo’s text Arte de la lengua Mandarina “The Arts of the Mandarin Language” was published in 1703. As for the term’s usage as “official”, even today, officials are called mentri in Malaysia. “Prime minister” is perdana menteri while the heads of the states’ executive branches are called menteri besar (“first minister”) or menteri ketua (“chief minister”).

Posted on: February 24, 2016, by : Q.Z.

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