Sunday, 26 May 2013

language or dialect?


'Did you know China is very big and has many dialects', My Chinese teacher told me pointing to a map of China. 'It's hard to understand people here and here, and as for over here...' she said, pointing at Tibet, 'their Chinese is impossible to understand.'

Hmmm, I thought, that might be because it's a completely different language. Now while it's true that Tibetan and the other Chinese languages all belong to the same language family, it's also true that English and Iranian belong to their same family and we wouldn't consider the one to be a regional variation of the other, so what's going on with Chinese?
 
One of the sources of the confusion is the written system which is shared, in the same way that the roman alphabet is shared among many European languages. As the characters represent words and not letters there is very little connection with the symbol and the sound, thus the phrase 'I love you' in four Chinese dialects look like this:

‘Dialect’  
Written
Mandarin
爱你
Cantonese
愛你
Taiwanese
我愛
Shanghaiese  
我爱


Ah! Pretty similar you might say.  And you'd be right but here's how you say them:


‘Dialect’  
Spoken
Mandarin
Wo ai ni
Cantonese
ngóh oi néih
Taiwanese
Gua ai li
Shanghaiese  
nguh eh non

Well, you may say, no doubt they are mutually intelligible, after all, they look kind of similar, right?  well what about these four, they look roughly as similar as the above example:

‘Dialect’ ?
Spoken
Italian
Ti amo
Romanian
Te lubesc
Spanish
Te amo
French
Je t’aime

Would you be happy to call these dialects? Well, you might but you'd be on your own. So why are the Chinese languages called 'dialects?'
 
Before delving into dialects that are really languages it's interesting to look at some languages which are really dialects. You may know that Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and Hindi is the majority language of India. However these two languages are virtually identical. Until 1947 India and Pakistan were one country and hence one language. In the same way American English and British English speakers have few communication problems, Urdu and Hindi speakers, except for some vocab, have no problems understanding each other. Another example of dialects becoming languages are Norwegian and Danish which are basically the same language with different flags and football teams. So political reasons, rather than a clear difference can be enough to grant a dialect language status.
 
Chinese languages are interesting because they follow the opposite kind of logic. China as a political entity is, shall we say, more interested in highlighting similarities than differences. The Chinese government is working hard to shape a national sense of unity, and so it follows that if the Chinese are all one people, under heaven, then it makes sense for them to speak one language. The Chinese word Fangyan  方言, meaning 'regional language' is close to the English word dialect, but not exactly the same. In the same way no longer being able to reproduce together is usually the boundary of a new species, mutual unintelligibility is arguably the boundary of a different language. But as we have seen with other languages, the differences might not be so clear cut.



8 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. When I was doing my Master's I came across a truism that has stuck with me: "A language is a dialect with an army."
    Mutual intelligibility might seem like the logical distinguishing factor, but the lines get very blurry, especially as you get closer to land borders. Ultimately, the difference is more about politics than linguistic differences.
    While living in the Czech Republic in 1996, I went to Slovakia with some Czech friends. One of these friends tried speaking to a local in Czech, and the Slovak responded in English, claiming she couldn't understand Czech. Just a couple of years previously the two countries had been united and linguistic differences were never really much of an issue - they could all understand each other then.
    Unsurprisingly, the Scottish National Party is currently trying to promote the Scots "language", knowing full well that a national language can have a massive impact on national identity. The linguistic differences between Scottish dialects and English ones are irrelevant; it's all about politics.

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    1. Yes that's a great quote! There's even a wiki article on it http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_language_is_a_dialect_with_an_army_and_navy

      I like the idea of 'specisation' as it seems quite clear, but actually even that is not as clear. For example a horse and a donkey can produce a mule, but they can't reporoduce, -so are they different species?

      Thanks for the reply.
      And how about tigers and lions? They look like different species but can reproduce (not that they would in the wild) so who knows?

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  4. Great post and I love Steve's quote about a language being a dialect with an army too. The word boundaries between dialect and language are very fuzzy and I didn't know about the Chinese perpective before and found it really interesting. Just as Wittgenstein illustated there were no games that had all game qualities, and Eleanor Rosch illustrated that some birds seem birdier than others, so some languages seem more dialecty than others and some dialects seem more languagey than others. The peculiar thing about fuzzy word boundaries perhaps is that people aren't always aware how fuzzy they can be
    .

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  5. Great post and I love Steve's quote about a language being a dialect with an army too. The word boundaries between dialect and language are very fuzzy and I didn't know about the Chinese perpective before and found it really interesting. Just as Wittgenstein illustated there were no games that had all game qualities, and Eleanor Rosch illustrated that some birds seem birdier than others, so some languages seem more dialecty than others and some dialects seem more languagey than others. The peculiar thing about fuzzy word boundaries perhaps is that people aren't always aware how fuzzy they can be.

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    1. 'dialecty' now that's an interesting word!

      Thanks for all your lovely comments.

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  6. The place to go for all your Sinitic language needs is languagelog.com.

    The terms langauge and dialect are not taxonomically valid. Historically the dialect continuum was the rule, with the distance between related languages growing with geographical distance.

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