Dialects or Other Languages

My friend from GW’s poli sci department, Enze, is spending the summer in Kunming, China. He is doing exploratory research to figure out his dissertation topic there. He has some interesting stories on his blog here. (He has another blog at wordpress here, but interestingly wordpress is blocked in China.) He visited some remote villages of ethnic minorities and I am looking forward to hearing more stories from him.

China is huge. I love China’s linguistic diversity. Enze himself speaks a fascinating dialect from Hangzhou, but he was also confronted with a difficult dialect of Yunnan in minority villages. Here in Korea, most of my classmates in the Korean language school are Chinese. They have finally accepted the fact that I understand Chinese, and are now in the stage of trying their local dialects to figure out how much variation in Chinese I can understand. Actually, they do the same to each other; they speak in local dialects to each other, and apparently find it fun when others do not understand your dialect. (Of course they communicate in the standardized Mandarin usually.)

I find it interesting and funny, too, but I am not quite sure how far the common saying that “but our written language is all the same” can hold. I know little about other dialects, but Taiwanese, which is considered as a dialect called “Minnanhua” in Mainland China, needed many new characters and slightly different grammatical rules when it was standardized in Taiwan. Is Cantonese a dialect but Vietnamese not?

Since the distinction between ‘dialects’ and ‘languages’ is political and arbitrary, it is fine that they want to call many different languages in China dialects. But I wonder if the notion that “our written language is the same” itself is an invented tradition and a national myth in China?

Category(s): (Anti) Nationalism, China, Languages

5 Responses to Dialects or Other Languages

  1. Interesting topic. Let me try and make a case that “our written language is the same” is not a myth and the distinction between dialects and languages isn’t political and arbitrary. Smilie: :)

    For example, would you consider Kansai-ben and Hyo-jyun-go different languages or dialects? I think your answer would be: they are different dialects and not different languages. If my assumption is true, would you consider your response to be based on political considerations or arbitrary? I would think that you would say: neither. My point is the definition of dialects and languages aren’t necessarily political and arbitrary. Linguistically speaking, there are specific definitions of what constitutes a language and a dialect.

    Now retuning back to the Chinese language. Since languages evolve over time, let’s consider this topic from a pre-modern time perspective, a time before Bai-hua-wen became mainstream. In the past, people who spoke Cantonese and Fukienese wrote Chinese literature and poems in classical Chinese. In this sense, they didn’t write what they spoke (dialect), but instead conformed to the linguistic rules of Classical Chinese (language). This Classical Chinese was referred to in Japan as Kanbun. Surely, kanbun wasn’t consider a dialect by the Japanese. The fact that it was referred to as *kan*bun suggests that it was *Chinese* and different language from Japanese. You may point to the fact that for centuries Japan and Korea also wrote in Kanbun — while this is true, Kanbun did not conform to the linguistic and grammatical structures of the Korean and Japanese languages.

    Let us also consider the fact that ancient Cantonese and Fukiense scholars would not write down what they spoke — simply because there was no known way to do so. China had one written language — and adhering to the linguistic rules of this written language was necessary if he/she wanted his/her work be to understood beyond where he/she resided, and to pass the civil examination system. Needless to say, if a Cantonese scholar wrote in sorobun, he/she would flunk the examination. Writing in Cantonese colloquial form is a recent phenomena of modern times — but before then, the written language was uniform across China.

    Even assuming that an ancient Cantonese scholar knew how to write in the Cantonese dialect, he/she wouldn’t do so. Instead, he/she would write in classical Chinese and when he/she pronounced each sentence in Cantonese, it would make perfect grammatical sense even in Cantonese. Let’s take an example, if you take a Tang-dynasty poem and have it read by a Cantonese or Fukienese speaker, the reader would not find the poem to be a foreign language. However, even though every kanji or hanja has its own corresponding Japanese and Korean pronunciation, a Japanese and Korean scholar would consider the same poem to be of a foreign language (even if he/she understood it completely well). Up until the Meiji period, most educated Japanese knew how to read Kanbun and write Kanshi (Chinese poems), but their native writing system would be something like soro-bun or haiku. Similarly, in Korea, this is also why the Hunmin-Jong-Um from the 15th century also points out that the Chinese *language* is one that is foreign to Korean.

    Let’s now consider modern day newspapers. Asahi-shimbun can be read by a Kansai-ben speaking person and a hyo-jyn-go speaking person. Could a newspaper be written in pure kansai-ben? Of course it is possible. One could even consider being more specific and write in 100% Kyoto-ben — but it is hardly conceivable. This suggests that there is one “written” language, even though there are many “spoken” dialects. The same is true for Chinese newspapers. Of course someone could publish a newspaper in pure Cantonese or pure Fukienese, but it would be challenging to write and even the Cantonese or Fukiense person would find it quite hard to read.

    So there you go… those are my thoughts on the matter. Perhaps i didn’t convince you but that isn’t really my goal. It’s simply the opportunity to discuss this topic with someone who is equally interested as i am that makes this exciting to me. Smilie: :)

  2. BTW, I should clarify that when Chinese people say that “there is one written language”, they are typically referring to “there is one written Hanyu”.

    This means that they also recognize that there are many other non-Hanyu languages in China spoken by other ethnic groups. So there can be many written languages in China (e.g., Mongolian, Tibetian), but for the most part, there is one(official) written language for Hanyu.

  3. Hi KGS, thanks for your comments.

    You made interesting points, but I have to say, your argument rather supports my argument that the distinction between dialects and languages are political and often arbitrary.

    To make it consice, let me list my counter-arguments.
    1. Is Kansai ben a dialect or a language?– It is now naturally considered as a dialect, but it is exactly what I would like to point out, that what makes it a dialect is Japan’s political situation. If history had unfolded itself in a different way than it did and Kansai area had declared itself as an independent nation, Kansai ben would totally make a different ‘language.’ (and I suspect it would be a tone-language!) My point is clearer if you imagine how and how not Kagoshima people could have possibly communicated with Fukushima people (let alone Okinawan) in premodern age. They could have totally made different languages depending on political situations.Some of Meiji reformers who gathered in Tokyo could not understand each other in Japanese so they had to use English to communicate at the beginning. Another example is Okinawan and Korean. There wasn’t much difference in timing when Okinawan became a dialect of Japanese, and when Korean was considered as another (by the Japanese). Anyway my point is, whether the discussion occurs to decide between a language or a dialect itself is very political since the language is the key institution for the modern nation-state.

    2. Linguistic standards? Surely enough, you can say English is not a dialect of, but a different language from Japanese. But what makes Spanish and Italian different languages, or more so Norwegian, Dennish and Swedish different languages which are mutually recognizable, while lots and lots of dialects are mutually inrecognizable at all, just like those in China? The issue is a matter of degree, a matter of scale in difference, and it is politically drawn lines that make dialects into languages and languages into dialects.

    3. Classical Chinese is an interesting institution. It was certainly a lingua franca in East Asia for a long time. But it does not really make any difference in our guess about whether Fukenese people and Manchurian people thought they spoke dialects of the same language at all. If they did, it was also a consequence of political situation that Chinese dynasties made. From a linguistic point of view, why would the Cantonese recognize the Manchurian language closer to their language than Vietnamese? Is it not possible that classical Chinese was as foreign (or familiar) to Fukenese intellectuals as to Korean intellecuals?

    3. I think your “written language” in your argument on newspapaer is exactly what I call a politically standardized language by the nation-state. Surely, many “dialects” are not standardized because it requires massive political effort and mobilization, and that is mostly why many languages are considered as “dialects.” That doesn’t mean, however, that the current “languages” had more universal quality from the very beginning. It is political power that makes dialects into languages or the other way around.

  4. The linguist Max Weinreich defined, “the difference between a language and a dialect is that the former has an army and a navy behind it.” This definitely supports your assertion that the difference is political, Sayaka.

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