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CHINA: Dialects

From China, Paul Simon writes: "Dialect versus language is a fascinating topic and politically charged. The State Department faces some tough choices when training us diplomats. Are Serbian and Croatian the same language? Should we teach folks going to Minsk Russian or Byelorussian?

For me in China, I face the challenge every day. I was trained in standard Mandarin (Putonghua), which is really north China standard, though our teachers tried to expose us also to the common southern versions of Mandarin as well. However, there are huge areas of China where folks don't speak Mandarin at all, but another Sinic language such as Cantonese. (plus many minority areas where no Sinic language at all is spoken). My personal definition of language versus dialect is simple: if my standard Mandarin lets me communicate moderately, the local variant is a dialect. If I and the local are mutually unintelligible, it is another language. For instance: Cantonese (yueyu) has consonant sounds not in Mandarin at all, seven tones versus four, and a different grammar. I cannot communicate with Guangdong folks unless they also speak Mandarin. On the other hand, I find the language here in Sichuan to be a dialect, albeit one pretty well removed from the standard. Sichuan dialect (chuanpu) is manageable even for a foreign devil like myself, once one learns the odd retroflexives, the h-f transposition, and some curious local turns of phrase.

I don't claim that my personal definition works for everyone or everywhere! Indeed, Chinese languages are special in that the alphabet lets one communicate pretty well in written form, even if one can't make the right sounds or tones. In my book, that's handy if I go to Hong Kong, but it still doesn't make up for having to learn and daily practice a 5,000 character alphabet instead of a phonetic one!"

Ronald Hilton - 6/24/02