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Chinese Language vs. Dialects

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Journeyer
Triglot
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 Message 1 of 37
07 February 2007 at 6:00am | IP Logged 
To the speakers of Chinese, I have a question. For those who've learned two or more dialects of Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese being the two major examples that jump to mind) do you think it is justifiable to say you've learned two or more languages?

Technically, it is still Chinese, but the dialects themselves are said to be so mutually unintelligible that one could say they *are* different languages, is this not so? I've noticed that some people count them as different languages on language lists that they speak. When a person speaks, English, Mandarin, Cantonese and Spanish, does s/he speak four languages or three?
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lady_skywalker
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 Message 2 of 37
07 February 2007 at 7:22am | IP Logged 
I personally would say that Mandarin and Cantonese are different languages. Spoken Cantonese is virtually unintelligible to me despite years of Mandarin study. The odd common word crops up occasionally but I could say the same for, say, Spanish and French and they are undoubtedly classed as separate languages.

I don't know how native speakers of Mandarin/Cantonese feel but I have a lot less trouble understanding Italian from my knowledge of Spanish and French than I have making sense of spoken Cantonese from Mandarin.
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Chung
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 Message 3 of 37
07 February 2007 at 7:29am | IP Logged 
Even though I'm not a speaker of any form of Chinese, I would say that some of the "dialects" are really "languages". I have a very slight passive understanding of Cantonese, and when I hear anything other than Cantonese, I can never make heads or tails of it. Nevertheless, there is something to be said about the "Communist" script that is used by everyone in China and that literate citizens there can at least communicate to each other by writing messages, if nothing more.

From what I can tell, it's for political reasons that they're called "dialects" (think of Peking's interest in maintaining political unity and playing down the differences in the speech of its citizens.)
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Journeyer
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 Message 4 of 37
07 February 2007 at 8:32am | IP Logged 
Chung wrote:
From what I can tell, it's for political reasons that they're called "dialects" (think of Peking's interest in maintaining political unity and playing down the differences in the speech of its citizens.)


Along the lines of politics, but sort of on the other side of the coin, I've heard that the Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish) are all essentially the same language, and it's for political reasons they are called different 'languages'. For some reason, I find this a bit disheartening. I speak a little Norwegian, and like the idea of thinking of them as seperate languages (partially so when I learn the other two, I can say I speak three seperate languages).

In the same way, I speak no Chinese, although I plan on learning at least Mandarin and Cantonese sometime in the future, but I wasn't sure what I should call them: 'I speak Chinese' vs 'I speak (a specific dialect)'. Part of it, I admit, is because to me there is a charm in obtaining knowledge in a number of languages.

Maybe the term itself, language, is in some cases too ambigious, due to how it is used by politics, as has been mentioned.
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Chung
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 Message 5 of 37
07 February 2007 at 10:02am | IP Logged 
Part of the Chinese problem comes from the translation.

According to this article, the Chinese describe their speech/variant/dialect/language as "X speech" and don't usually distinguish between "language" and "dialect" as outsiders do. For some reason, the character for "speech" became translated as "dialect" in English and this use has stuck ever since. To boot, the Chinese government hasn't had any objection to the use of the word "dialect", "dialècte", "Dialekt" or something similar to describe the speech of its citizens, mutual unintelligibility notwithstanding.

One thing to consider is that people can choose not to understand each other if they so desire (in spite of the apparent absurdity of the idea.). Taking your Scandanavian angle, Norwegians, Swedes and Danes can indeed communicate to each other in their respective native tongues with very few or no changes in their methods. It also helps that relations between these countries are fairly good and that citizens of these countries know that it's not constructive to put up barriers and isolate themselves from each other.

On the other hand, if the situation were not so favourable and relations were more tense, then it's possible for any one of these people to put up barriers. In this case, someone could feign ignorance on hearing something other than his/her "native tongue" and insist that this is so because the languages are separate and, then that implicitly trumps the fact that the languages are mutually intelligible.

I often find it more amenable to use the linguistic criterium of mutual intelligibility in cases where the supposed languages are very close to each other. If I wouldn't follow this criterium, then I as a native speaker of English would be justified in claiming that my region's variant of English is a separate language and that Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, Canadians, Indians speak different languages (i.e. unintelligible variants) called "Australian English", "New Zealanders' English", "American English", "Canadian English" and "Indian English" respectively. In other words, I'd be trying to play up the differences rather than trying to look for common ground.

Then again, I am aware of fuzzy cases such as Czech and Slovak or Hindi and Urdu, but those are digressions from this Chinese problem.

Edited by Chung on 07 February 2007 at 10:04am

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onebir
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 Message 6 of 37
07 February 2007 at 10:49am | IP Logged 
Chung wrote:
According to this article, the Chinese describe their speech/variant /dialect/language as "X speech" and don't usually distinguish between "language" and "dialect" as outsiders do. For some reason, the character for "speech" became translated as "dialect" in English and this use has stuck ever since.


I think this is a bit misleading. Regional dialects are usual called place+hua, eg beijinghua (北京话), shanghaihua. 'Hua' loosely means speech or language, so the description above is correct in a sense. In Chinese there are separate words for language (yuyan - 语言) and dialect (fangyan - 方言). And if you ask someone which yuyan (language) they speak, they'll talk about Chinese, English etc. If you ask about fangyan (dialect), they'll reply Mandarin, Cantonese etc

So although the words for specific regional dialects/languages don't explicitly spell out which they're considered to be, in practice Chinese people make much the same distinctions between them as Europeans (etc). I think this is partly because the goverment encourages this way of thinking. But I have a vague recollection of a 4 character saying that might suggest this viewpoint's a lot older. (The English is 'every 50 li (=km) the dialect changes' - but of course it's the Chinese wording that counts, & I've forgotten it...)
   
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Raincrowlee
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 Message 7 of 37
07 February 2007 at 6:37pm | IP Logged 
Journeyer wrote:
To the speakers of Chinese, I have a question. For those who've learned two or more dialects of Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese being the two major examples that jump to mind) do you think it is justifiable to say you've learned two or more languages?


They are absolutely different languages, and the dialects are also different from each other. I've encountered Mandarin, Hakka, Cantonese, Taiwanese and Teochew (Chaozhou), and they're all quite different.

Some show similarities. I've mentioned before that a native speaker of Chaozhou told me that she understands about 50% of Taiwanese without studying, but then again those two dialects belong to the same Minnan language group. Anything further removed is mutually unintelligible.

My teacher said she had a student once from Jinmen (iirc), one of the Taiwan Straits islands that Taiwan controls, where they speak a Minbei language. The student said that Taiwanese was completely alien to him, even though Minbei is a language group closely-related to (but still separate from) Taiwan's Minnan group.
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japkorengchi
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 Message 8 of 37
07 February 2007 at 9:57pm | IP Logged 
There are many judging yardsticks to define a dialect or a language. The judging yardstick used by us is the cultural factor. Although all Chinese dialects are quite different from one another, they are all belonging to the Chinese/Han cultural sphere, so we consider them as one single written language with different regional spoken variants. The same goes for German. Germans still consider the language they speak is German even though it doesn’t sound exactly the same. Thanks to the use of TV and radio, it’s so hard to find Chinese who doesn’t understand Mandarin at all in the Chinese cultural sphere. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad Mandarin speakers around me in HK.


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