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Chinese Languages

WAIS stresses the importance of language in international affairs. In 1492 the great Spanish linguist Antonio de Nebrija said language (i.e. Spanish!) was the instrument of empire. In Marxism and Linguistics, Stalin defined a nation by a common language. In the United States, people of all ethnic backgrounds who speak English are now known as anglos, Spanish-speakers as hispanics.

In my student days, French was THE language, so I wasted much time studying French dialects when I should have been studying Arabic and Chinese. As for China's languages, I simply knew that the government was trying to impose Mandarin in the southern Cantonese-speaking areas. I was therefore shocked to read in The Economist (30/1/99) an important article subtitled "No other country on earth has the linguistic diversity of China." Written by a an expert, it quotes from Robert Ramsey, The Languages of China and John DeFrancis, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. It describes the eight principal languages of China and the efforts of Beijing to impose a synthetic Chinese called Putonghua as the national language. A prediction made to me by an Asian expert that China might break up still does not convince me, but I am now willing to listen. An accompanying article describes the work of best-selling novelist Louis Cha, whose 100m copies sold is a world record. I knew nothing about him. Clearly I have a lot to learn about China. It's a little late.

Ronald Hilton - 02/13/99

More on Chinese Languages

Bill Ratliff, who was a Chinese expert before moving into Latin America, sends this comment on the memo about the languages of China. However, he seems to be much more optimistic about the linguistic unification of China, and thus about the national unity, than does the original article from The Economist:

"You are not alone at being surprised by China's linguistic diversity. I am not a student of the language like DeFrancis, but I have studied, used and heard a lot of some of it in many places over the past 40 years. I will make a few cursory comments on the spoken, written and romanized language.

`"The ear reels as one travels around the country registering all combinations of strange and familiar sounds, in some minor cases languages altogether distinct from Chinese. Putonghua is the official language - literally "putong" meaning "common" and "hua" meaning "language." It is essentially what the West has long called Mandarin, and Taiwan and some other non-mainland places still call the National Language (Guoyu). It derives closely from the Beijing spoken language but without some of the eccentricities of Beijingers, most obviously their love of a sort of "r" sound. One of the great services of Mao's government was imposing the common spoken language as a required second language across the country. It means that foreigners who speak only that version of Chinese, which is for obvious reasons the main one taught to foreigners, can find people they understand almost everywhere, at least among the middle-aged and younger Chinese. (Local dialects still often color pronunciation of putonghua enough to make understanding a challenge.)

Of course the common language wasn't imposed so that foreigners - least of all at that time Americans - could communicate in different regions but so that Chinese could do so. Without the National Language - or people who spoke several dialects - Chinese from Beijing would be lost trying to speak to people in Guangzhou or Hong Kong, for example, where the common language is "Cantonese." Whether in their spoken language, cuisine or business prowess the Cantonese are a proud lot, sort of the Argentines of China, but their dialect generally is not admired in other parts of the country. I have known putonghua speakers and those whose native language is a different dialect who don't even want to hear a popular song if it is sung in Cantonese.

Dialect-influenced pronunciation of putonghua can tell the trained ear quickly where a national leader or personality comes from - Deng Xiaoping from Sichuan and Jiang Zemin from Shanghai. Today some Chinese in some degree consider putonghua a form of imperialism. The clearest recent case is in Hong Kong since the handover in 1997 when, for example, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa speaks in putonghua instead of the native Cantonese. A version of Cantonese is the original dominant Chinese language in the United States and one of the reasons Americans have often described Chinese as "sing-song." Cantonese has more tones than putonghua and often does have FAR more of a "sing-song" quality than putonghua.

The written language, however, has always been a sort of "putonghua" beause it is essentially the same all over the country and has been for thousands of years, though classical Chinese had its own peculiarities such that reading the Chinese of today by no means guarantees your being able to read and understand the original versions of Confucius or other classics of Chinese tradition. (Also, of course, most Chinese never learned to read.)

Thus Mao's government also simplified several thousand of commonly used characters, in part so that written communication would be accessible to far more people, but also because by restricting the written vocabulary he could in some degree control learning and thought. In any event, many young Chinese do not know the old forms of many characters. But technology and reform have tricked Mao in a variety of ways. For example, Karaoke is popular in many parts of China and most of the films are made in Hong Kong or at least outside the mainland. The ones I have seen in many parts of China are always sung in putonghua but the words at the bottom of the screen are the old forms of the characters. So here, for once, kids who spend their time relaxing or goofing off are in spite of themselves recovering part of their ancient tradition.

The romanization of Chinese has gone through many overlapping stages. For a long time the most common form was the 19th century Wade Giles system, still used in Taiwan and some other places, which gave a pretty good idea how to say a word if you knew and followed its rules, which most non-specialists did not. I think the system developed at theYale University Institute of Far Eastern Languages is by far the best for most speakers of Western languages who just want to look at a romanization and be able to approximate the word without studying esoteric rules.

The Chinese mainland's pinyin (literally, more or less, "combination of sounds"), which parallels Yale much of the time, has been adopted by most of the media and scholarship. But if a romanization is to help the ordinary non-specialist pronounce words, there are some parts of pinyin, particularly some initial sounds, that are so far from what non-specialists understand they seem to be Mao's most omnipresent nose-thumbing at the West."

Ronald Hilton - 02/13/99