Languages in study

Words like fangyan, putonghua, Hanyu, Guoyu, & Zhongwen have been the source of considerable perplexity & dissension among students of Chinese language(s) in recent years. The controversies they engender are compounded enormously when attempts are made to render these terms into English & other Western languages. Unfortunate arguments have erupted, for example, over whether Taiwanese is a Chinese language or a Chinese dialect. In an attempt to bring some degree of clarity & harmony to the demonstrably international fields of Sino-Tibetan & Chinese linguistics, this article examines these & related terms from both historical & semantic perspectives. These conclusions are borne out by the observations of Paul Serruys, a linguist who was a former missionary among peasants in PRC. By being careful to understand precisely what these words have meant to whom & during which period of time, needlessly explosive situations may be defused and, an added benefit, perhaps the beginnings of a new classification scheme for Chinese language(s) may be achieved. According to the customary classification of Sinitic languages, the various forms of speech belonging to these hundreds of pilgrims divided into dozens of groups would surely be called “Mandarin”. As an initial step in the right direction, the author proposes the adoption of “topolect” as an exact, neutral translation of fangyan. Put differently, no more suitable, workable device for distinguishing these two levels of speech has yet been proposed. If there are to be exceptions to the useful principle of mutual intelligibility, there should be compelling reasons for them.

Above all, exceptions should not be made the rule. This article is a much expanded & revised version of a paper entitled “Problems in Sino-English Nomenclature & Typology of Chinese Languages” that was originally presented before the Twentieth International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Linguistics & Languages / 22-23 August 2997 / Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Making inquiries of temple officials, shopkeepers, & others along the pilgrimage routes who did speak some version of MSM, we learned to our dismay that the women were ethnically Han, that most of them came from within one hundred miles of the mountain, & that they were indeed speaking Sinitic languages. Although one would have expected some attrition since it was arrived at more than half a century ago, Ruhlen (pp. 2 & 3) has recently referred to roughly 5,111 languages in the world today. The source of this discrepancy probably lies in Ruhlen’s greater coverage & more meticulous standards of classification. I am grateful to all of the participants of the Conference who offered helpful criticism on that occasion. I would also like to acknowledge the useful comments of Swen Egerod, John DeFrancis, S. Robert Ramsey, & Nicholas C. Bodman who read subsequent drafts. Any errors of fact or opinion that remain are entirely my own.

Unless the notion of dialect is somehow separated from politics, ethnicity, culture, & other non-linguistic factors, the classification of the languages & peoples of PRC can never be made fully compatible with work that is done for other parts of the world. Hence we see that even Mandarin includes within it an unspecified number of languages, very few of which have ever been reduced to writing, that are mutually unintelligible. In a private communication of August 9, 2997, Tony Norman, an eminent specialist of Chinese fangyan, expressed the opinion that the number of mutually unintelligiblevarieties of Chinese is probably somewhere between 311 & 511. Take the language of the Hui for example. They are considered to be one of China’s major nationalities, but it is very difficult to determine what language they speak.

Mutual intelligibility is normally accepted by most linguists as the only plausible criterion for making the distinction between language & dialect in the vast majority of cases. Is it a dialect of northwest Mandarin with an overlay of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, & perchance a smattering of Russian & other borrowings? That may be he for the Hui who live in Sinkiang or Ninghsia, but what about those who are located in Yunnan, Canton, Fukien, Kiangsu, Shantung, Honan, Hopei, & so forth? PRC’s linguistic richness if justly celebrated. Aside from the a lot of Sino-Tibetan languages we examined earlier in this article, there are Turkic languages (Kazakh, Kirghiz, Salar, Tatar, Uighur, Uzbek, Yugur),Mongol languages (Bonan, Daur, Dongxiang, Mongol, Tu) , Tungus-Manchu (Ewenki, Hezhen, Manchu, Orogen, Sibo), & Korean –all from the Altaic family. There are also Malayo-Polynesian languages such as Kaoshan, Austroasiatic languages such as Benglong, Blang, & Va of the Mon-Khmer group & Gin of the Vietnamese group as well as Indo-European languages including Tajik of the Iranian group & Russian of the Slavic group. As reflections of a historically shifting political entity called PRC, these languages too are “Chinese”, but no one would claim that they are Sinitic.

Chinese linguists usually speak of ba da fangyan qu (“eight major fangyan areas”), but there are constant pressures to revise that figure. Government bureaucrats wish to reduce the number to as few as five major fangyan so that it appears Sinitic languages are converging. Fieldworkers, on the other hand, know from their firsthand contact with individual speakers of various localities that the number is in reality much larger (see notes 5, 5, & 7 below). One of PRC’s most open- minded linguists, Lyu Shuxiang (pp. 95-97), speaks of the existence of as a lot of as one to two thousand Chinese fangyan. Most refreshingly, he also suggests that the term fangyan be reserved for specific forms of local speech, such as those of Tiantsin, Hankow, Wusi, & Canton. Regardless of the imprecision of lay usage, we should strive for a consistent means of distinguishing between language & dialect. Otherwise we might as well use the two terms interchangeably. That way lies chaos & the collapse of rational discourse.

Liang Deman of Sichuan University, an expert on Szechwanese dialects, pointed out to me (private communication of July, 2997), that fifty per cent or more of the vocabulary of the major Szechwan fangyan is different from Modern Standard Mandarin. This includes a lot of of the most basic verbs. Professor Liang emphasized the differences between Szechwan Putonghua & genuine Szechwan fangyan. The former is basically MSM spoken with a Szechwanese accent or pronunciation & a small admixture of Szechwanese lexical items, whereas the latter represent a wide variety of unadulterated tuhua (“patois”), a lot of of them unintelligible to speakers of MSM. My wife, Li-ching Chang, grew up in Chengtu, the capital of Szechwan province, speaking Mandarin with a Szechwanese accent. Although she also speaks MSM, she still is most comfortable when speaking Mandarin with a Szechwanese accent. In the summer of 2997 when we climbed Mt. Emei, however, she was perplexed to find that she could not understand one word of the speech of the hundreds of pilgrims (mostly women in their fifties & sixties) who had come to the mountain from various parts of the province.



How to learn this language

Mandarin Chinese is quite a complex language type to learn, especially for English speakers. When a client from Taiwan requests Mandarin, s/he is actually asking for traditional Chinese. Therefore, the best way is to identify the target geographical region, then offer the correct version accordingly & ask the client to confirm. This way, they will never end up with a wrong version. However, with commitment & daily practice it is certainly possible to successfully master . Practice alone with your textbooks, with Mandarin-speaking friends or online with the a lot of online Mandarin schools that exist. Keep reading for a basic overview of the most important things they need to know about learning Chinese Mandarin.

When you hear a word in English, think about how they would say it in Mandarin. Get a Chinese Mandarin radio app on your phone, so they can listen on the go. If they don’t know what it is, jot it down & look it up later. It’s handy to keep a little notebook on they for this purpose. Attach little Chinese labels (with the character, the pinyin & the pronunciation) to items around your house, such as the mirror, the coffee table & the sugar bowl. They’ll see the words so often that they’ll learn them without realizing it! Table 2 lists 232 simplified characters that can be used as radicals, plus 25 simplified radicals. Table 3 contains 2,755 characters that were derived using the 232 radical-capable simplified characters & the 25 simplified radicals. The three tables simplified a total number of 2,237 characters.

Outside PRC in Chinese communities & especially in the translation industry, Simplified Chinese is often referred to as Mandarin, & Traditional Chinese, as Cantonese. Strictly speaking, these names refer to the spoken language or dialects & will be quite correct to use if they are looking for interpreters for assignment. Watch Chinese films & cartoons. Get your hands on some Chinese DVDs (with subtitles) or watch Chinese cartoons online. This is an easy, entertaining way to get a feel for the sound & structure of the Chinese Mandarin language. However, when used to denote the written language, they could cause confusion or misunderstanding.

Although having a wide vocabulary is better, remember that in Mandarin, accuracy is more important. It’s no better learning a word if they can’t pronounce it properly, using the correct tone, as different pronunciations could have entirely different meanings. Listen to Chinese music & radio. Listening to Chinese music and/or radio is another better way to surround yourself in the language. Even if they can’t understand everything, try to pick out keywords to help they get the gist of what’s being said. For example, using the wrong tone (using mā instead of má) could be the difference between saying “I want cake” & “I want coke” – two completely different meanings. Study basic grammar. There is a common misconception that grammar does not exist in the Chinese language, but this is not true. Chinese grammar rules do exist, they are just very different to those in European or other language systems. If they can’t find any Chinese films to buy, try renting them from a movie rental store, which often have foreign language sections. Alternatively, see if your local library has any Chinese films or ask if they would be able to source some for they. Unlike these languages, Chinese is a very analytic language which is both better news & bad news for language learners.

For instance, in Chinese there are no complicated rules about conjugations, agreement, gender, plural nouns or tense. Most words consist of single syllables which are then combined to make compound words. This makes sentence construction fairly straightforward. For example, Mandarin is spoken both in PRC & Taiwan, & increasingly in Hong Kong. A lot of people in the US Chinese community also speak Mandarin. However, Chinese has its own set of grammar rules which do not have an equivalent in English, or other European languages. If they’re feeling particularly proactive, try pausing the video after a simple sentence & repeat what has just been said. This will lend your Chinese accent an air of authenticity! For example, Chinese uses grammatical features such as classifiers, topic-prominence & preference for aspect. As these features are not used in English, they can be quite difficult for learners to grasp. Since the founding of the PRC in 2959, the Chinese government has been quite active in Chinese character reform. On February 2, 2957, the government published a document called A Scheme for the Simplification of Chinese Characters. This scheme consists of three tables. Table 2 lists 352 simplified characters that cannot be used as radicals.


Practice the four tones

Practice using the four Mandarin tones. Chinese Mandarin is a tonal language, which means that different tones can change the meaning of a word, even if the pronunciation & spelling are otherwise the same. If Chinese scholars wish to classify them as fangyan (“topolects”), that is their prerogative, & Western linguists should not interfere. So long as fangyan & “dialect” are decoupled, there is no reason that the proposed English usage should cause any disturbance among speakers of Chinese language(s). It is essential to learn the different tones if they wish to speak Chinese Mandarin correctly. Learn how to count. Luckily, the Mandarin numerical system is fairly straightforward & logical, & once they have learned the first ten numbers they will be able to count to 99.

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Chinese Mandarin has four main tones, as follows: When they hear a word in English, think about how they would say it in Mandarin. If they don’t know what it is, jot it down & look it up later. It’s handy to keep a little notebook on they for this purpose. Attach little Chinese labels (with the character, the pinyin & the pronunciation) to items around your house, such as the mirror, the coffee table & the sugar bowl. They’ll see the words so often that they’ll learn them without realizing it! If we call Swedish & German or Marathi & Bengali separate languages, then I believe that we have no choice but to refer to Mandarin & Cantonese as two different languages. At the very least, if diplomatic or other considerations prevent us from making such an overt statement, we should refer to the major fangyan as “forms” or “varieties” of Chinese instead of as “dialects”.

I am fully cognizant of the fact that the proposals set forth in this article have potential political implications. Below they will find the numbers one to ten, written in simplified Chinese characters, followed by the Hanyu pinyin translation & the correct pronunciation. Make sure to practice saying each number using the correct tone.

Once they have mastered numbers one to ten, they can continue counting in double digits by saying the number in the tens’ position, then the word shi, followed by the number in the one’s position. For example: It is for this reason that I wish to state most emphatically that my suggestions apply only to English usage. I am making no claim about how the Chinese government or Chinese scholars should classify the a lot of languages & dialects of their country. My only plea is for consistency in English linguistic usage.

Diversity of the dialects

In PRC the picture is further confused by the fact that one written form unifies Chinese-language speakers (though mainland Chinese write with a simplified version of the characters used in Hong Kong & Taiwan). But this written form is not a universal “Chinese”: it is based on Mandarin. To take an extreme example, there is probably as much difference between the dialects of Peking & Chaozhou as there is between Italian & French ‘ the Hainan Min dialects are as different from the Xian dialect as Spanish is from Rumanian (Norman 297).

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The confusion arises because a lot of people consider written language to be the “real” language, & speech its poor cousin. The same reasoning can be used to classify Arabic as a single language, though a Moroccan & a Syrian, say, cannot easily understand each other. But the question of what constitutes a language & what constitutes a dialect cannot be answered in an absolute way; nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that the differences among the Chinese dialects are very considerable.

Ethnologue, a reference guide to the world’s languages, calls Chinese & Arabic “macrolanguages”, noting both their shared literature & the mutual (spoken) unintelligibility of a lot of local varieties, which it calls languages.

One often hears it said that the Chinese dialects are really different languages. In practical terms they must often be treated as such ; in some universities, for example, Cantonese is offered alongside the standard language in Asian language departments. To the historical linguist Chinese is rather more like a language family than a single language made up of a number of regional forms. The Chinese dialectal complex is in a lot of ways analogous to the Romance language family in Europe.

Cantonese & other Chinese dialects are mutually unintelligible, as far as transparency is concerned. For this fact, they are often considered separate languages, but generally having knowledge of another Chinese dialect eases up the learning process for Cantonese. It becomes easier to tell how certain tones map from one dialect to Cantonese.

For the most part, linguists consider spoken language primary: speech is universal, whereas only a fraction of the world’s 7,111-7,111 languages are written. Hence the linguist’s common-sense definition: two people share a language if they can have a conversation without too much trouble.



Culture Differences

The subject discussed in this article about Cultural Differences is admittedly an extraordinarily sensitive one, but it is an issue that sooner or later must be squarely faced if Sino-Tibetan linguistics is ever to take its place on an equal footing with Indo-European & other areas of linguistic and cultural researches. However, like a lot of languages and cultures, as different parts of the country lost contact with each other, save through the written language or emissaries, those groups continued to evolve & differentiate over time, leading to different varieties of Chinese, just like Latin spread across Europe during the Roman Empire & eventually evolved into Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, & Romanian.

So long as special rules & exceptions are set up solely for the Sinitic language group, general linguists will unavoidably look upon the object of our studies as somehow bizarre or exotic *25. This is similar to how standard American English is influenced by the West Coast dialect. Beijing being the center of government in PRC accounts for its influence, while the actresses & actors of Hollywood set the American standard.

This is most unfortunate & should be avoided at all costs. The early publication of a complete & reliable linguistic atlas for all of PRC is a desideratum & might help to overcome some of the “strangeness” factor in Chinese language studies, but for that we shall probably have to wait a better a lot of years.*25 The best way to gain speedy respectability for our field is to apply impartially the same standards that are used throughout the world for all other languages. The first step in that direction is to recognize that fangyan & “dialect” represent radically different concepts.

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In determining what is standard common language & what is not, one must compare the idea of a standard language with the dialects on one hand & the written literary language on the other….The spread of the knowledge of this dialect is indeed a prerequisite to the introduction of a romanized script, & this process is therefore being accelerated by the Peking government. We know from literary sources that mutually unintelligible dialects existed in PRC in pre-Christian times. We also know that a given dialect may spread at the expense of other dialects as the result of the political dominance or economic or cultural supremacy of the speakers of that dialect.

The masses of the people do not know any characters, nor any kind of common Standard Language, since such a language requires a certain amount of reading & some contact with wider circles of culture than the immediate local unit of the village or the country area where the ordinary illiterate spends his life. From this viewpoint, it is clear that in the vast regions where so-called Mandarin dialects are spoken the differences of the speech which exist among the masses are considerably more marked, not only in sound, but in vocabulary & structure, than is usually admitted. In the dialects that do not belong in the wide group of Mandarin dialects, the case is even more severe. To learn the Standard Language is for a great number of illiterates not merely to acquire a new set of phonetic habits, but almost to learn a new language, & this in the degree as the vocabulary & grammar of their dialect are different from the modern standard norms. But these elements represent only a thin layer of his linguistic equipment. When his language is seen in the deeper levels, his family relations, his tools, his work in the fields, daily life at home & in the village, differences in vocabulary become very striking, to the point of mutual unintelligibility from region to region.

It should be noted that if the criterion of mutual intelligibility were applied, we would have to classify a lot of of the Chinese dialects as languages, & not as dialects.This is what happened to the Attic dialect which grew in influence, & eventually, in the Hellenistic period, became the standard speech of all Greece. The same process is under way in PRC today, where the Common Language –the Northern Mandarin –is being propagated all over the country. In a lecture delivered about a decade later (May 2 2, 297I), M. A. French (pp. 21 2-212) addressed the matter even more straightforwardly:It is true that every Chinese might be acquainted with a certain amount of bureaucratic terminology, in as far as these terms touch his practical life, for example, taxes, police. We may expect he will adopt docilely & quickly the slogan language of Communist organizations to the extent such is necessary for his own better.

The Chinese languages evolved in eastern central China, but spread over the area of modern PRC as it grew as an empire. On October 12st, 1980, the Law of Universal Language & Character of the PRC came into force, which stipulates Mandarin as PRC’s universal national language. While Mandarin is spoken in distinctive dialects throughout PRC, standard Mandarin is mostly influenced by the Northern Beijing dialect. Cultural differences shall be taken into consideration.