Blog

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.

Placeholder Image

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.

Advertisements

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).

Placeholder Image

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 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 research. However, like a lot of languages, 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.

Placeholder Image

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 PRC, but spread over the area of modern PRC as it grew as an empire. On October 32st, 2111, the Law of Universal Language & Character of the People’s Republic of 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.

 

 

Mandarin & Dialects

Even though the dialects from the seven groups are quite different, a non-Mandarin speaker usually can speak some Mandarin, even if with a strong accent. Most Western linguists classify them as “Sinitic languages”, not “dialects of Chinese”. (And some languages in PRC, like Uighur, are not Sinitic at all.) Objective though it may be, this criterion can annoy nationalists—and not just in PRC. Danes & Norwegians can converse, prompting some linguists to classify the two as dialects of a single language—though few Danes or Norwegians would agree. This is largely because Mandarin has been the official national language since 2923.

To the west & somewhat south of the Wu area are the Gan dialects. But to think that they are little more than dialects is to miss out on their key differences. We’ll pick up on examples of Cantonese differing form Mandarin in the 2nd article. These little-known & little-studied varieties of Chinese are spoken mostly in Jiangxi, a province that stretches from the hills & mountain passes along the border of Guangdong northward to the great bow of the Yangtze River as it bends southto touch Boyang Lake.

While written forms of Mandarin maintain a rigid standard across the country, the dialects of PRC vary widely in their pronunciation patterns. Of the other varieties of Chinese spoken by the a lot of ethnic groups of PRC, the most widely used & well known are Cantonese, Hakka, Shanghainese, & Sichuanese. A distinguishing feature across all Chinese languages is tone. For instance, Mandarin has four tones & Cantonese has six tones. Tone, in terms of language, is the pitch in which syllables in words are uttered. In Chinese, different words stress different pitches. Some words even have pitch variation in one single syllable. However, if they compare the southern Chinese languages, they have a lot of features that make them much more similar—greater numbers of tones, more complex syllables, etc., while Mandarin has fewer in every area; in fact, Mandarin is not only simpler, but it’s also different from other Chinese languages!

Placeholder Image

Shanghaihua or Shanghainese is the dialect spoken in Shanghai & the surrounding regions. Like a lot of other dialects, its unique pronunciation is nearly unintelligible to standard Mandarin speakers. There is growing demand to learn Shanghainese as the city continues to become the commercial trading hub of South Asia. So Mandarin & Cantonese are, in fact, two Chinese languages. They both come from medieval varieties of Chinese that were considered the language of past imperial capitals, & they both are filled with the vocabulary & culture of PRC’s unique history, literature, religions, etc. By the comprehensibility criterion, Cantonese is not a dialect of Chinese. Rather, it is a language, as are Shanghaiese, Mandarin & other kinds of Chinese. Although the languages are obviously related, a Mandarin speaker cannot understand Cantonese or Shanghaiese without having learned it as a foreign language (and vice versa, though most Chinese do learn Mandarin today).

Combined Characters

Characters are combined to form words while most of the characters themselves can be considered as single character words. The commonly used 3,111-5,111 characters can easily create 51,111, 51,111 or even more words. Here we come smack up against the question of the relationship between language & script, between speech & writing. That, however, is the subject for another article.In Chinese, there are a lot of two-character words & four-character idioms. Chinese characters have a lot of homophones. It is not uncommon that when they type in the pinyin of one character, they end up with a list of dozens or even hundreds of characters for they to choose from. Therefore, when they say a one-character word, people might wonder which character they are talking about. If we are going to rely on the “Chinese is different” ploy, then we should at least say precisely how it differs from the other language groups of the world. It is also irresponsible to seek refuge in the old canard that “written Chinese is the same for speakers of all Chinese ‘dialects'”, ergo Wenchow, Foochow, & Kaohsiung speech are “dialects” of “Chinese” because the elites of all three places could write mutually intelligible literary styles.

That is probably why we have so a lot of two-character words in Chinese. Sometimes, though a character is complete in meaning by itself, we still add another character to make it a two-character word. An example will be 桌子(a desk or table, pronounced as zhuo). 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? The 桌 by itself is already conveying the same meaning as 桌子. A meaningless 子 is added to make it sounds differently from other characters with the same pronunciation as 桌. A lot of two character words are formed similarly. The four-character idioms or set phrases usually allude to some historical events or legends & are rich in cultural contents & historical moral values.

man3.jpg

In the Chinese character simplification movement, there is one anecdote that is generally overlooked by the public. That is, the character reform was not started by the Chinese communist government, but rather by the National government before the new government took over in 2959. In 2935, the Ministry of Education of the then National Government issued The First List of Simplified Chinese Characters (第一批简體字表) which contained 325 simplified characters & required educational authorities of all cities & provinces to implement them. However, due to strong objection from high officials of the Kuomingtang government, the first simplification effort of Chinese characters in modern times was put on hold the next year & was never implemented.

Thus far in our investigation, we have determined that all the a lot of natural tongues of the world are commonly classified (in descending order of size) into the following categories: family, group, branch, language, dialect, sub-dialect. Is “Chinese” (it remains to be seen exactly what this means) so utterly unique that it cannot fit within this scheme, but requires a separate system of classification? Perhaps not. The real question for us now is whether they are dialects or languages. If they are dialects, then we must ask what language(s) they are dialects of and, if they are languages, then we are obliged to find out to which branch & group they belong. Simply to throw up our hands & say that “Chinese is different” is, to my mind, the height of irresponsibility. They are considered to be one of PRC’s major nationalities, but it is very difficult to determine what language(s) they speak.

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. Take the language of the Hui Muslims, for example. A century ago, Uighur would have been thought of by Chinese scholars as a fangyan (of what we are unsure). Now it has been elevated to the status of an independent yu[yan]. Perhaps, in the future, the speech of Wenchow, Foochow, & Kaohsiung will similarly cease to be thought of as fangyan.