Archive for Dialects

Uyghur as a "dialect" — NOT

The latest issue of The Atlantic has an article entitled "The Uighurs, China's Embattled Muslim Minority, Are Still Seeking an Identity".

The comments on language usage and policy in Xinjiang will be of particular interest to many Language Log readers, since they reverberate with a number of recent discussions that we've been engaged in.

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Signifying the Local

I just found out about this new book on local languages in China.  Judging from the abstract and table of contents, it looks very interesting and promising: Signifying the Local: Media Productions Rendered in Local Languages in Mainland China in the New Millennium. The publisher's blurb:

In Signifying the Local, Jin Liu examines contemporary cultural productions rendered in local languages and dialects (fangyan) in the fields of television, cinema, music, and literature in Mainland China. This ground-breaking interdisciplinary research provides an account of the ways in which local-language media have become a platform for the articulation of multivocal, complex, and marginal identities in post-socialist China. Viewed from the uniquely revealing perspective of local languages, the mediascape of China is no longer reducible to a unified, homogeneous, and coherent national culture, and thus renders any monolithic account of the Chinese language, Chineseness, and China impossible.

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Zazaki: a West Iranian language

In the midst of our ongoing debates about whether Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and so forth are Sinitic languages or dialects, I continually find evidence that the custom of referring to them only as "dialects" is exceptional when compared with linguistic usage elsewhere (e.g., India, Europe, Africa).

Today I came across an Iranian language that I'd never heard of before, Zazaki, although — without knowing it — I probably met some of its speakers in Sweden, where there are many  Zazak refugees.  Also called Zaza, Kirmanjki, Kirdki, Dimli, and Dimili, Zazaki is found primarily in eastern Anatolia.  It belongs to the northwestern branch of the Iranian group of the Indo-European family.

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Big ear holes

Poster from the Singapore Crime Prevention Council:

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Rot and Rot (a really, really rude sex joke)

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English and Mandarin juxtaposed

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English is a Dialect of Germanic; or, The Traitors to Our Common Heritage

[This is a guest post by Stephan Stiller.]

This post complements Robert Bauer and Victor Mair's previous LL post titled "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" and addresses, among other things, J. Marshall Unger's comment in the corresponding thread. Please have a look.

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Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese

[This is a guest post by Robert S. Bauer, with some comments on "dialect" vs. "language" by me (VHM) at the bottom.]

1. After 1949 over the last few decades of British colonial rule, Cantonese was regarded as one more desirable/useful barrier separating HK from China.

As a consequence, the British treated Cantonese with benign neglect which allowed it to develop naturally and without interference, and this is why it has been doing as well as it has.

A couple of years ago the fact that only a handful of people showed up at a demonstration in support of Cantonese in HK shows that most HK speakers do not see it as being under imminent threat.

In Guangzhou people are told that "civilized people speak Mandarin" wénmíng rén shuō Pǔtōnghuà 文明人説普通話, which to me implies that uncivilized people speak "dialects" (topolects) such as Cantonese.

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Mr. and Ms. in Chinese

Didi Kirsten Tatlow is trying to trace the roots of the word xiānsheng 先生 (lit., "one who was born earlier / first / before" –> "sir; mister / Mr.; teacher; gentleman; doctor / Dr. [dated]").  She writes:

Today of course it's applied to all men, women being nǚshì 女士 ("Ms.; lady; madam"); once upon a time I believe it meant a teacher. Yet a woman considered especially smart may be given the honorific xiānsheng 先生 (!).

Am wondering about its origins and when/how it came to be applied to all men, and whether perhaps it came from the Japanese, like many other terms in modern times (i.e., post 1911 or even earlier?).  Does anyone have any light to shed, with references?

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Cantonese novels

In my estimation, there is far too little genuine topolectal literature in China.  Throughout history, nearly everything has been written either in one or another style of Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) or in the national koine / lingua franca vernacular (currently known as Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 [in Mainland China] / Guóyǔ 国语 [in Taiwan] / Huáyǔ 华语 [in Southeast Asian countries]), i.e., Mandarin.

I wish that there were vibrant, vital written forms for Hokkien, Shanghainese, Hakka, and many other varieties of Chinese, just as there are for Bengali, Gujarati, Oriya / Odiya, and so forth in India.  Considering the plethora of spoken languages in China, I believe that the development of corresponding written languages for at least the major varieties would lead to mutual enrichment and invigoration, including of the national language.  While there have been some sporadic efforts to write Taiwanese / Amoyese, a full-blown literary tradition has never developed for that language (see Sino-Platonic Papers #89, #92, and #172, as well as the works of Henning Klöter).  There have also been occasional efforts to incorporate a few words of the local language in so-called Shanghainese literature, but it usually amounts only to a sprinkling of Wu lexical items in what is basically a Mandarin matrix.  The situation for the other topolects is even less, with next to none or no written form at all.

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Mandarin is weirder than Cantonese

So says idibon.

Beijing Cream took the hint and ran with it: "Cantonese, Which Sounds Like A Jackhammer Mating With A Chainsaw, Is Apparently Less 'Weird' Than Mandarin".

When I first read these sensationalistic claims, I stood back, took a deep breath, and said to myself, "Wait a minute! There are lots of people (mostly Mandarin speakers!) who swear that Mandarin is the most pleasant sounding of all the Sinitic languages." Just what is it that has led idibon to declare Cantonese to be less weird than Mandarin?

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The Base, Al Qaeda, and gays in China

Through a curious concatenation of sociolinguistic forces, the word jīdì 基地 ("base") has brought such disparate entities as militant Islamic fundamentalism, homosexuality, and Sinology together.

Brendan O'Kane sent in the following photograph from Beijing, "snapped on the smaller, slightly more raucous bar street that runs parallel to the main Sanlitun drag. (I've always called it 'Skid Row,' but I assume it has a proper name.)"

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About those dialect maps making the rounds…

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably already seen Business Insider's "22 Maps That Show How Americans Speak English Totally Differently From Each Other." (Or, as it was originally titled, "22 Maps That Show the Deepest Linguistic Conflicts in America.") The piece has truly gone viral, garnering more than 21 million views, according to Business Insider. But there's been some confusion about the origins of the dialect survey data.

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Tabudish and the origins of Mandarin

In the comments to "Shanghainese", a lively discussion on the relationship between the Wu branch of Sinitic languages and early Mandarin has ensued.  Quoting South Coblin,

This reminds me … of something Jerry Norman was wont to say, i.e., that there were three good criteria for identifying Mandarin and deciding how old the family is. These are the concurrent presence of the third person pronoun tā, the negative bù, and the subordinative particle de/di. Jerry called languages of this type “Tabudish”, and he sometimes used this name for them in correspondence with me.

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Just yesterday, in "The enigmatic language of the new Windows 8 ads", we saw how delicate and uncertain is the comprehension of forms of Chinese that one is not intimately familiar with. A significant part of the problem is the result of a psychological barrier to understanding that comes from unfamiliarity with the context and content of what is being said. Thus, even though there was a considerable amount of Mandarin spoken in the videos of my post about the Windows 8 ads, of the scores of native speakers whom I consulted, no one could pick it out from the stream of sounds they were hearing.

The most important obstacle to intelligibility, of course, is the sheer difference (in grammar, syntax, phonology, vocabulary, etc.) among the topolectal varieties of Chinese. In this post, to show how dissimilar Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) is from one of the most important Sinitic topolects, we shall look closely at a text composed in rather colloquial Shanghainese.

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