In the Sinosphere section of yesterday's NYT, there's a thought-provoking article by Didi Kirsten Tatlow titled "Speak Uighur? Have Good Vision? China’s Security Services Want You" (2/19/16).
She describes how an advertisement on a career website at a Chinese university offers a glimpse into what skills the state security system finds valuable for employees.
There's one paragraph in the article that troubles me:
Students who belong to the Uighur, Tibetan, Kazakh or Mongolian ethnic groups or who can speak those languages, or those who know Chinese dialects such as Fujianese, Hakka, Cantonese or Wu should apply, the ad said. Those are dialects spoken by people in Shanghai or in the nearby southeastern seaboard or in the south of the country.
I hope that in future the NYT and other major publications will start to refer to Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Shanghainese, etc. as "languages" or "topolects" instead of as "dialects". It is terribly misleading to refer to them as "dialects". When I hear that a certain language is a "dialect", it always makes me ask, "dialect of what?" In the case of Cantonese, for example, we cannot say that it is a dialect of Mandarin or any other actual language to which we can point. This is a problem that we have addressed countless times on Language Log, e.g.:
"Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (8/29/13)
As for the word "topolect", it is in the American Heritage Dictionary and in other respected dictionaries as well, so I don't think that the NYT needs to shy away from using it.
Didi Kirsten Tatlow was born in Hong Kong and grew up there till the age of 18, when she went to Beijing to learn Mandarin (she first lived in Europe when she was aged 19). I like the way she describes (in a personal note to me from Beijing this morning) her current ability in Cantonese:
My spoken Cantonese is worse than my German (which is fluent). However it picks up when I live in Hong Kong and I enjoy speaking it tremendously. At this point I don't worry about being perfect and just speak "Mantonese" — a kind of hybrid with Putonghua expressions and structures put into Cantonese (there are some rules that vaguely govern the changes I think) — which draws startled gazes but is effective in communicating. Pepper it with English words and it's a great post-1997 language.
So Tatlow knows very well what Cantonese is all about. I suspect that the paragraph from her article quoted above which refers to Cantonese as one of the "Chinese dialects" was governed by NYT editorial policies rather than her own understanding of linguistic reality.
Incidentally, language issues have been very much in the news in Hong Kong in recent days. The threat to Cantonese language from Mandarin was given great prominence in the remarkable film "Ten Years", which caused quite a sensation when it was released a couple of months ago.
And now the conflict between simplified and traditional characters is flaring up again:
"Chinese v Chinese in campus language war" (SCMP, 2/19/16, p. A2 of the paper edition)
I think that a version of this article may also have been published a day earlier with the title "Language wars: Mainland and Hong Kong students spar over what constitutes Chinese".
Since this article may not be readily available to Language Log readers online, I will type it out here. It is worth the effort, inasmuch as the author, Alex Lo, captures well the visceral animosity that usage of Cantonese vs. Mandarin and traditional characters vs. simplified characters evokes among various sectors of the shifting population of Hong Kong (Mandarin speakers who use simplified characters are flooding into the region and radically changing its demographic makeup):
There is a deep undercurrent of resentment and hostility between mainland and local students on our campuses. One of the most common sources of conflict has been the use of Putonghua and Cantonese in the classroom. When the former is spoken, the locals complain. When the latter is used, mainlanders cry foul.
The latest flare up is at Baptist University, where a student from the mainland posted a note – written in simplified Chinese – on a campus noticeboard complaining he could not understand emails sent by the school’s student union, as they were in traditional Chinese. Therefore, he is withdrawing his membership and wants his fee back.
In our current political climate, you would not be surprised that his post triggered an avalanche of online criticism and attacks from local students and others.
I agree the poor kid should get his money back. But I don’t see why he should post his complaint in full view of the public. This action alone implies he believed the union’s official communication – and perhaps the school’s as well – should all be done in simplified characters.
That’s a bit much. Hong Kong has always used traditional characters. If mainland students want to study in Hong Kong, they should make a[n] effort to learn traditional characters, which after all, is not that difficult once you have a solid grounding in the Chinese language, as most mainland university students do. But what I nevertheless find interesting is that people rarely react strongly when foreigners – mostly Westerners – complain they can’t read official communications – say, minutes from district council meetings – because it’s all in Chinese.
Their common refrain is that English is an official language of Hong Kong, too. If a Westerner may complain about official notices being unavailable in English, why can’t a mainlander demand the same of simplified characters?
This may have to do with the ambiguity of Article 9 of the Basic Law about what counts as Chinese: “In addition to the Chinese language, English may also be used as an official language by the executive authorities, legislature and judiciary of the Hong Kong [SAR].”
English is English. But Chinese can be spoken in Putonghua or Cantonese and written in simplified or traditional scripts. Are they all official? It’s hard to say.
Alex Lo and other influential intellectuals could help clarify matters greatly if they would stop thinking that there's something out there called "Chinese" that can be spoken as Putonghua (Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]) or as Cantonese. That is false. Show me what this thing called "Chinese" is that — when spoken — can subsume "Mandarin" and "Cantonese". There is Mandarin (in many varieties, some of which are next to mutually unintelligible among themselves) and there is Cantonese, which is mutually unintelligible with Mandarin. Phonologically, morphologically, lexically, grammatically, syntactically, and in every other respect, MSM and Cantonese should be treated as separate languages.
"Debate over Chinese characters is sensitive issue for Hongkongers" (SCMP, 2/6/16)
This is an old issue that goes back decades in the region:
"Corrections & clarifications" (SCMP, 3/3/08)
"Question of characters" (SCMP, 5/20/06)
"Teach simplified characters" (SCMP, 8/31/94)
[N.B.: The South China Morning Post (SCMP) is behind a paywall, so you may have difficulty directly accessing some of these articles.]
If Cantonese speakers wish to gain some respect for their language, they themselves should stop referring to it as a "dialect" (or "only a dialect") in English, for that is a mistranslation of the Chinese term fāngyán 方言, which should more precisely be rendered as "topolect".
Google on "victor mair language log intelligibility" and "victor mair language log dialect".
As to how to render the English word "dialect" in Chinese, I would propose the neologism "tōngyán 通言".
As for the physical attributes required of candidates for China's security services, they definitely ring true to personal experiences I have had in China. What those experiences reveal is government fixation with the way people look that would be considered discriminatory in the United States. For example, I once (about 20-25 years ago) attended a large banquet (around 500 people in a huge room) hosted by the Sichuan Foreign Affairs Office and was struck by how all of the people working for the office seemed to be tall, slim, handsome / beautiful, speak good English, etc. I asked somebody who worked for the office how this could be so, and he told me flat out that those attributes were all written into the job description. You had to be at least 5'6" and good looking or you would not be hired by the Foreign Affairs Office of Sichuan Province.
[Thanks to Robert S. Bauer]