Archive for Topolects

Cantonese sentence-final particles

Even if you don't know any Cantonese but listen carefully to people speaking it, you probably can tell that it has an abundance of particles.  For speakers of Mandarin who do not understand Cantonese, the proliferation of particles, especially in utterance final position, is conspicuous.  Non-speakers of Cantonese, confronted by all these aa3, ge3, gaa3, laa1, lo1, mei6, sin1, tim1, and so on naturally wonder why there are so many particles in this language, what are their various functions, why they are often drawn out (elongated), and how they arose.

Cantonese speakers, on the other hand, just take them in stride as a natural part of their expressive equipment and don't think that there is anything unusual about them.

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Topolectal traffic sign

This has apparently been around for awhile, but I'm seeing it now for the first time:

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Cantonese tones

If you ask Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM — Guóyǔ 國語 / Pǔtōnghuà 普通话) speakers how many tones there are in their language, most of them will tell you without much hesitation that there are four tones (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th) plus a neutral tone.

Chances are, however, if you ask a Cantonese speaker how many tones there are in their language, they will not give you a clear answer, or if they do, it will differ from what other Cantonese speakers claim.  That has always been my experience over the years, but I just did a little survey to reconfirm my earlier impressions.  The results are rather more amazing than I expected them to be:

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Wenzhounese in Italy

Commonly referred to as "Devil's language" (èmó zhī yǔ 恶魔之语), because it is considered by outsiders to be extraordinarily difficult, Wenzhounese (Wēnzhōu huà 温州话), the language of the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province 230 air miles south of the Yangtze estuary, has been a topic of discussion on Language Log before:

"Devilishly difficult 'dialect" (8/20/15)

"Mutual unintelligibility among Sinitic lects" (10/5/14)

"Devil-language" (5/25/14)

"The enigmatic language of the new Windows 8 ads" (5/14/13)

"Mutual intelligibility" (5/28/14)

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A trilingual, biscriptal note (with emoji)

Message in a store window @ 826 Valencia, San Francisco:

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Why learn Cantonese and one way to do it

Anne Henochowicz, who for years was a mainstay at China Digital Times, and whom I have often cited on Language Log, has decided to branch out from Mandarin and tackle another important Sinitic language, Cantonese.

Check out her new blog:  "I'm Learning Cantonese:  Teaching Myself a Second Chinese Language".

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Why electronic machine translation services sometimes seem to fail

The inability of Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, Baidu Fanyi, and other translation services to correctly render jī nián dàjí 鸡年大吉 ("may the / your year of the chicken be greatly auspicious!") in various languages points up a vital distinction that I have long wanted to make, and now is as good a time as ever.  Namely, just as you could not expect these translation services to handle Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, etc. (unless specifically and separately programmed to do so), we should not expect them to deal with Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS / CC).

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The perils of pronunciation

Distinguishing between "four" and "ten" in rapid, slurred Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) is not always easy:  sì 四 vs. shí 十.  Try saying sìshísì 四十四 ("forty-four") quickly and it starts to feel like the beginning of a tongue twister.  Now, when speakers from the various topolects, even within the so-called Mandarin group, come together and tones, vowels, and consonants start flying off in all directions, things can become still hairier and sometimes even costly.

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Cantonese teachers influenced by Mandarin

[This is a guest post by Silas S. Brown]

It seems a few native Cantonese speakers employed in the production of Cantonese language courses are quite happy to read out Mandarin vocabulary with Cantonese pronunciation, rather than the actual native Cantonese versions of the words, and I can't help wondering why.

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Ken Liu reinvents Chinese characters

In "Inside the world of Chinese science fiction, with 'Three Body Problem' translator Ken Liu" (Quartz, 12/2/16), Nikhil Sonnad conducts an interview with the sci-fi author and translator of the Sān tǐ 三体 (Three-Body [Problem]) series by Liú Cíxīn 刘慈欣.

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Dialect death

Reports of the death of languages and the extinction of languages are alarmingly routine, but before a language dies out entirely, when it is endangered, its dialects die off one by one.

"Last native speaker of Scots dialect dies" (10/6/12)

Dialect Death:  The case of Brule Spanish (1997)

The list of publications documenting the dead and dying dialects could go on for many pages:  I lament each and every one of them.

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Language vs. script

Many of the debates over Chinese language issues that keep coming up on Language Log and elsewhere may be attributed to a small number of basic misunderstandings and disagreements concerning the relationship between speech and writing.

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Hokkien-Tagalog-English-Spanish phrasebook

Page of a phrasebook published in 1941 (click to embiggen):

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