Archive for Dialects

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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The enigmatic language of the new Windows 8 ads

Everybody has been puzzling over the language of the series of online ads for Windows 8 that it recently released in Asia.

Native speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean declare that it is not any of those languages.  The first time I listened to them, the ads sounded as though they contained elements of some Wu topolect, a bit like mangled Shanghainese, but I could also definitely hear bits of Mandarin, albeit with unusual tonal contours and slurring.  What was most perplexing of all to me was that, although I was certain that the ads contained Chinese phrases and sentences, every Chinese person to whom I showed them emphatically maintained that they could not understand a single word!  In contrast, several non-native speakers of Mandarin said they could pick out a word of Chinese here and there.

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Language change in progress – us and our Red Sox buddies

Just now I was washing breakfast dishes and mentally composing a Facebook post, which started out “Last night was not a good night for Orioles – Red Sox – anti-Yankees fans! The three way tie for first place got broken in the worst direction! Us and our Red Sox buddies …” and I forget how that sentence was going to end, because I was caught up short noticing how it began. I’ve known about the ongoing spread of the ‘accusative’ pronouns forever – Sapir wrote about it (as a case of “language drift”), and Ed Klima, one of my favorite grad school professors, had worked on it and talked with us about it (we tried to figure out what kinds of rules would make ‘us’ and ‘me’ not get nominative in conjoined subjects while "I" and "we" as simple subjects are obligatorily marked nominative, and discussed similarities with French ‘disjunctive’ pronoun ‘moi’ vs. clitic subject 'je'). And it was the source of my oft-repeated anecdote about my son Morriss in 4th grade asking me to proofread a composition he had just written – it started out ‘Seth and I went to the mall’ and he pointed to ‘Seth and I’, and said to me “That’s how you spell “me and Seth”, right?”.

But none of that had prepared me for having it emerge in my own dialect. But there it was. And when I think about putting “We and our Red Sox buddies” instead, it sounds over-formal, doesn’t fit in the context of baseball buddies. So it looks like “us and …” has made the move from passive recognition to becoming an active part of my (most?) colloquial register, at least the baseball buddies register.

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"Chinese" well beyond Mandarin

A topic which I have raised here and elsewhere a number of times is that of Sinitic topolects and languages (, and I have also called attention to the increasing domination of Mandarin in education and the media.  Even native speakers within China sometimes don't appreciate quite how varied the Sinitic group of languages can be.  People often say that someone can move from one valley to the next, or one village to the next, and just not be able to make themselves understood.  But until you've been in that situation yourself, it doesn't really hit home.  Before long, I'll post on Shanghainese and will provide audio recordings that will demonstrate clearly just how different it is from Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM).  There are countless other varieties of "Chinese" that are just as different from each other as Shanghainese (or Cantonese or Taiwanese, for that matter) are from MSM.

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A reprieve for DARE

A month ago, I posted an "SOS for DARE," detailing the impending financial threat faced by the Dictionary of American Regional English, a national treasure of lexicography. At the time it appeared that the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, where DARE is based, would be unable to provide support to offset the loss of federal and private grant money. But now there's finally some good news out of Madison, in the form of new funds from the University and external gifts.

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Dungan: a Sinitic language written with the Cyrillic alphabet

The Dungan people are a group of Sinitic speakers whose Muslim ancestors fled to Central Asia (mainly in parts of what are now Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) over a century ago when the Qing (Manchu) government suppressed their revolt (1862-1877), one of many Muslim uprisings in the course of Chinese history since Islam arrived in East Asia during the Middle Ages.

When they came to Central Asia, the Dungans were mostly illiterate peasants from northwest China who spoke a series of topolects from Shaanxi, Gansu, and other areas.  From 1927 to 1928, they wrote their language with the Arabic alphabet, and from 1928-1932 they used the Latin alphabet.  In 1952-53, the Soviet government created for the Dungans a writing system based on the Cyrillic alphabet, which they continue to use till today.

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Many Language Log readers are no doubt familiar with the Dictionary of American Regional English, which I hailed in a Boston Globe column last year as "a great project on how Americans speak — make that the great project on how Americans speak." At the time, I was previewing DARE's fifth volume, which completed the alphabetical run all the way to zydeco.  Since then, a sixth volume of supplemental materials has also been published, and plans are underway to launch the digital version of DARE, which would serve as an online home for future expansions and revisions. But now DARE editor Joan Hall passes along some troubling news about the dictionary's financial fate.

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