Towards a systemic functional model for characterizing Chinese loanwords in English: The case of kowtow

Wenge Chen, Derek Irwin, Junjun Xing

Research output: Journal PublicationArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Previous studies on loanwords have tended to be langue-based, focusing on lexicographical documentation and on establishing formal criteria for integration of loanwords into the recipient language in terms of experiential meaning. The recent pragmatic turn in loanword studies signals a parole-oriented approach which shifts attention to the use and functions of loanwords in the recipient language beyond denotative meanings alone. However, there has not been a consistent systematic linguistic framework that could characterize loanwords in the recipient language and that could explore the interaction of langue and parole concerning loanwords. This paper intends to fill this gap by proposing a corpus-informed systemic functional linguistic (SFL) model to account for the characterology of loanwords. Based on the proposed multi-stratal model, kowtow, a Chinese loanword into the English language, is examined for its behaviours at the strata of phonology, lexicogrammar, and discourse semantics as well as how it is embedded in context. Attention at these various levels shows that kowtow demonstrates rich lexicogrammatical productivity in the recipient language and displays strikingly different lexicogrammatical patterns from its Chinese counterpart, indicating that its meaning potentials are activated and extended in the cross-cultural contexts. In fact, by crossing cultures, it actually inverts its connotative meaning.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102977
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


  • Characterology
  • Corpus
  • Loanwords
  • Meaning potential
  • Systemic functional linguistics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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