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CHINA: Language diversity

From Moscow, Cameron Sawyer described the Russian language as uniform throughout its vast territory. From China, Paul Simon laments "Ah, Cameron, I WISH Chinese had become standardized. MY life would be a LOT easier. First, over 300 million Chinese citizens don't speak Mandarin or only speak a little. They may speak Yueyu (Cantonese), MinnanYu (S Fujianese) or another Sinic Language, or may speak something unrelated ranging from major tongues like Korean, Mongolian, Tibetan or Uighur (a Turkish tounge) down to Miao, Yi, Dai, Naxi, Orochen, Hezhen, or hundreds of others right down to Manchu (16 native speakers left). There are hundreds of languages and even more dialects; in some places the language changes from hilltop to valley.

As for Mandarin itself, among the "mere" 800 million native speakers, there are huge variances. Putonghua, the Mainland's official Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect (ironically, so is Guoyu, the Taiwan stanmdard Mandarin). It is quite different from the Mandarin spoken in southern China, and radically different from what the folks here in Sichuan speak (called 'chuanpu', it is a dialect of Mandarin full of sound transpositions, different words, and different tones, as well as changes to the reflexive). To hear 'pure Mandarin" (i.e., the textbook version) one must travel to Changchun or Harbin in the Northeast. Before I lived in Shenyang, I was told as a matter of faith by language teachers who had never been there that its people spoke this pure Mandarin there. Nope. Shenyang was in a belt of four cities where the Japanese occupation/influence had corrupted the retroflexive. Shenyang also had buzz saw 'r' sounds that put Beijing to shame.

Has unified education under communism evened things out? Not yet (especially as more and more rural children are missing any formal education). People under 30 speak better mandarin and in more areas than before, however. Give it another 5-6 centuries and Mandarin will be like Russian, ha-ha!!!!!"

RH: I am unable to comment on this, but I would think that TV, the radio and the movies would be making the language more uniform.

Ronald Hilton - 10/18/02