Blog of Justin Cheuk, home to writing on London, Hong Kong, Studying Abroad, Trains and Travels.

Introduction to the Chinese ‘Dialects’ (2): Language or Not?

(Sorry, it’s been a while for this next update; finalist year is taking its toll.) Allow us to return to the topic of Chinese ‘Dialects’! In the previous article, we’ve discussed a little about the differences between the different Chinese dialects, especially the preponderance of Cantonese in a world of Mandarin.

Today, we’ll tackle the more contentious (and sensitive) issue: the classification of different Chinese dialects. Namely, are Cantonese and Mandarin (along with many others) dialects of Chinese; languages under the Chinese language umbrella; or even completely separate (albeit related) languages?

The principle problem here is that the linguistic scholars don’t actually agree: there is no consensus on the definition a language as opposed to a dialect, thus the distinction between them is not clear at all. But usually a ‘dialect’ will be classified as such if:

1. it is ‘mutually intelligible’ with other dialects within a language.

Groups of Slavic languages: those within the same bubble are mutually intelligible e.g. Czech and Slovak

If the speakers of two different languages can understand each other while only knowing one of the languages, the two languages are mutually intelligible and thus deemed closely related enough to be considered dialects of each other.

2. it is socially subordinate to a more standardised and ‘prestigious’ version of the same language.

Most countries will have a national standard form of its languages that is used in national broadcasts and newspapers. In the UK, this is the Queen’s English as it is (literally) the most prestigious. The various form of regional speech might be in daily use in some parts of the country, but will be considered a ‘dialect’.

How do the Chinese languages stack up on these criteria? Well it’s a mixed bag:

The principle branches of the Chinese languages are not mutually intelligible: that is to say, if you can only speak Mandarin, you won’t understand what a person who can only speak Cantonese (or Taiwanese, or Hakka) is saying. In spoken form, the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin is wider than that of some European languages, say Danish and Norwegian.

Notice how there are differences WITHIN Mandarin too

Within mainland China, Mandarin has clearly been elevated as the dominant language in official discourse: the Beijing dialect of Mandarin is specifically adopted for TV and ins schools. As such other forms of the Chinese language are now mainly confined in the private sphere and increasingly on the periphery.

But politics is at works again: since Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan (still, for now) exist as separate polities, Cantonese (and to a lesser extent Taiwanese) has also enjoyed official status, enforced by its own popular culture scene and media. Combine this with the use of a different script (Traditional v. simplified we’ll get onto that later), there is an argument that both should be considered a language in its own right.

If the Chinese languages have a case to be considered as distinct, why do we commonly referred to them as dialects within a single language? Guess what, politics, especially nationalism.

An often-ignored fact is a China is actually a multiethnic country. For centuries, successive Chinese Government have had to confront the tasks of holding all the different ethnicity within its borders together. Since the Han comprises of over 90% of the population and naturally enjoys a paramount position, the tactic of the Communist government now is to claim that the ‘Chinese’ is a multiethnic nation, of at least 56 different ethnicities (NOT nationalities).

The term ‘Chinese nation’ here is intentionally ambiguous; used to reinforce Chinese nationalism that is increasingly the cornerstone that sustains the regime. The last thing the government wants now is for regional identities to emerge that could destabilise the country: it does not oppress Tibet without reason.

Nations (especially in Europe) have traditionally been distinguished along linguistic lines: if you speak a different language, it’s implied that you’re foreign, which is a BIG no-no for the Chinese government. It’s important for them to claim that all languages in China are branches for Chinese; in fact they also aim to promote Mandarin as the sole national language.

Besides, they have a good argument as to support their claim too. The Chinese languages share a common literature and until very recently the exact some writing scripts too. In addition, languages are often defined by national policies anyway: Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian are mutually intelligible, but referred to as different languages for precisely political reasons (really, I wouldn’t recommend you to tell a Croat that he essentially speaks Serbian)

Tl;Dr Cantonese and Mandarin, along with all other spoken forms of Chinese under the umbrella term, can be classified as languages or dialects depending on definition. The mainland Chinese government prefers them as dialects for the sake of national unity, but a good argument can be made that some dialects, especially Cantonese, should be seen as a separate language in its own right.

For the first part of this click here!

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